Turning a Seagull Into a Woman on a Bike

Gunnhild Øyehaug

On Changing Genre

What I’m going to tell you has a very simple plot line. It’s like this: someone decides to write a letter. Someone writes the letter. Someone does not send the letter. Someone writes a novel instead, where someone writes a letter they do not send. The writer of the unsent letter was me, of course. Just as Sigrid in Wait, Blink writes a letter to someone she admires immensely, in her case Sofia Coppola, I wrote a letter to someone I admire immensely, Charlie Kaufman. I had seen Being John Malkovich, and I was sitting in my room, the room I rented for several years while I studied literature at the University of Bergen, (the house was from 1702—every summer we’d have tourists at our door, trying to read our strange, Norwegian names on the door-sign (“Gunnhild, ist daβ ein Norwegischer name?”), taking pictures of this extremely picturesque little street next to the Church of St. Mary’s where I sat in a room with very old, wooden floors, feeling like a young woman in an attic), trying to express the exact impression Being John Malkovich had had on me. After several drafts I realized it was impossible to express it exactly. It was too essential! It was impossible to express exactly how strange it was that my “This Is My Letter to the World that Never Wrote to Me”-essence suddenly had received a letter in the shape of a movie.

The first book I wrote was a book of poetry, called Slave of the Blueberry. I was twenty-three, and it was about the problem of originality. I’d been obsessed by the theme, the question, the feeling, of being trapped in echoes, (I had, amongst other things, decided to write a short story where there would be a car driving through a group of people, and the narrator would go in and out of the different people watching the car, and it seemed like such a great and new idea until I read Mrs. Dalloway, and this happens in the very first chapter) and felt even more trapped when I found out that echoes had been dealt with before, that it was a common theme in debut collections. Why, for instance, was Tom Waits’s first album entitled Closing Time, not Beginnings? Why was my favourite Norwegian poet Olav H. Hauge’s first poem in his debut collection called “Glows in Ashes”? I opened the collection with a quote from the echo-master himself, Samuel Beckett: “Here I am again,” and I thought this was enough to make the theme obvious. But nobody noticed. Does it matter? Was it a good book? Should I have chosen a different quote? Should I just have shouted, “WE’RE ALL JUST A HUGE ECHO! HELLO!! DON’T YOU SEE? WAKE UP!” That’s not my subject, thankfully. But as you can see, I had a history with echoing as fundamental theme both as a girl, and as a writer. So when I saw John Malkovich enter the portal to his own brain, and inside himself found hundreds of bald John Malkoviches at a restaurant, all with their individual clothes, genders, and beings, but all with Malkovich’s head and voice, and their only language was one word: “Malkovich,” I suppose you’ll all understand that I felt that this was the world, finally writing, to me.

I saw Anomalisa recently and was reminded of what I love about Kaufman’s work: that his films show the anxiety of the individual, the ambiguity in longing for authenticity and originality on the one hand and the longing for belonging to someone, for real reciprocity (which in the end, if it really exists, would kill the notion of being absolutely original) on the other hand. It’s the individual longing for some kind of collective. The individual fearing that its individuality is nothing but an echo, a repetition, of other individuals (their parents, their family, their genes); the individual’s strong fear of being a product of its own time and culture; the individual’s true anxiety that the human condition is to be part of a blind, gurgling mass of skin and hair and bones—on earth for a set period of time—and then forever leave it; the individual’s inner, silent scream as she walks down the street and looks at other individuals and only sees skin, hair, gurgling; the individual struggling so much trying to figure out how to deal with the collective that the only answer seems to be to write a letter to them.

It’s the individual longing for some kind of collective. The individual fearing that its individuality is nothing but an echo, a repetition, of other individuals.

The question of language, voice, and repetition is even more present in Anomalisa. In Being John Malkovich the protagonist is a puppeteer; in this movie, there are no hands unmasking the illusion, it’s the doll’s own game. But the dolls’ faces are all constructed the same way: they all have the same line cut across the upper part of their head, across the nose, into the eyes, out of the corner of their eyes and behind their ears, as if that’s where the two parts of the doll have been put together, and you do, of course, anticipate that the head will at some point crack, and it does, see for yourselves. And all the different characters outside the main character, who’s a man in his late forties, speak with the same voice. A dark, male voice, no matter who they are. Until he meets her, the one who speaks with a different, light, female voice. At the end of the movie, when they’ve undergone the dramaturgy of a love affair, and the man’s back to his old, disappointed self, the woman speaks with the same male voice as everybody else. It’s the grief of the collective, the grief of the repetition, the grief of every day split for one second by a wonderful anomaly, just like Kaufman’s movie.

And I suppose that’s how I view both short stories and novels, in a way. They are anomalies. They just differ in length. What do I mean by saying that both short stories and novels are anomalies? I mean that that’s where I can hear the human voice speak in a different tone than what I hear every day. But how does the difference in length create different textual spaces, different trigger-points of narration, different developments of pattern, different rhythms, and different (and haunting) viewpoints on The Human Condition? I’ve tried to answer this question unobserved while writing this digression on Charlie Kaufman, and tried to figure out a way of not ending up here, in this corner of the essay, where the essayist suddenly finds herself looking at these huge questions that have pushed her into the definition corner, where you’ll only escape by shouting out definitions, “The short story is like THIS, and the novel is like THIS,” to make the questions go away and let you breathe again. But I’m here now, in that corner. So, dear Huge Question on Genres: I think perhaps it’s a question of elements. That in a short story it’s enough to have only one or two. But that in a novel you have the possibility of linking a bunch of them. This makes short stories exuberantly joyous to write, and novels exuberantly agonizing to write, because the linking is often more difficult and challenging than one would prefer to believe, setting out to lift a whole, gigantic iron ship with one finger. That’s how two of my novels were written, they started out as situations, scenes, that were supposed to become short stories, but that turned out to be in need of more scenes—or elements—to be a complete voice, a complete picture of a human condition, an iron ship instead of an explosion, if you like. In the case of Wait, Blink I was trying to write a scene that would comment on a scene in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, or—more precisely—that would comment on a film I thoroughly loved and an eye for aesthetics that I could only admire, never understand, and never mimic in any way. I had, at the same time, started noticing the cliché of women in oversized men’s shirts in movies, that they appeared at the same point in the movie (after a sex scene), and that this shirt seemed to give the director something, a way of showing a certain female attractiveness, or whatever. I wrote a scene where the girl in my text, who looked just as Scarlett Johansson did, in the scene in Lost in Translation where she’s at a temple in Kyoto, jumping from rock to rock in a small pond, jumped from rock to rock in a pond in Kyoto. With a narrator operating like a commenting voice-over. But it wasn’t enough, the short story wouldn’t explode. And that’s because of this question, slowly rising from the depth of the pond: The girl, who is she? The same thing happened when I wrote my second novel. I had a scene, or a situation, where a thirty-eight-year-old woman was dancing reluctantly with a colleague of hers at a Christmas party, trying to bend out of his firm grip, but instead she was turned around so her ass suddenly knocked over a small lamp on a table, and she just managed to get hold of the lamp with one hand, an orange, seventies-styled lamp with glazed ceramics and a certain pebbled surface that disgusted her immediately. I rewrote the scene thirty times (I’m not exaggerating), but it was stranded again and again, and why is that? It’s because the question, “Who is she?” emerged out of the pebbled glaze of the lamp, and I refused for quite some time to accept that I’d embarked on another novel.

It’s not only a case of one or multiple situations, though. What interests me profoundly with every project I start, is how—hold on, I just realized I hadn’t flipped my day-to-day calendar over, it’s the 10th of April today, not the 8th, as it stated, I was given this calendar by a friend, it’s 365 Instagram photos taken by amateurs, today’s picture is of a slightly pregnant woman dancing (it seems) on a balcony, the light from outside is flooding the photo, making her almost disappear in a yellow halo. Who is she? I have no idea. But what interests me profoundly is not just who people are, but how texts are written. I’d rather write texts I have not written before. Between Knots and Wait, Blink, I wrote—or more edited—a collection of essays and short stories entitled Chair and Ecstasy. These were essays on Rimbaud, on irony as poetic mode, on Virginia Woolf, on Christophe Tarkos, on writing the minority language of Norway’s two official languages, on excrement as literary theme, on Radiohead, on writing the minority language of Norway’s two official languages as a woman. Being a hybrid, fusing both essays on literature and short stories on literature, I guess Chair and Ecstasy tried to say something about genres and rules and how to, possibly, widen, stretch, and open them. The freedom of the essay, the essayistic credo of “j’essai,” I try, instead of, for instance, I’ll show you all I know and all there is to know on this subject, the open-mindedness, the possibility of taking leaps, the possibility of thinking conducted through poetry as well as arguments, are just a few of the characteristics that made the essay such a great transition into writing a novel.

What interests me profoundly is not just who people are, but how texts are written. I’d rather write texts I have not written before.

And the girl of Wait, Blink turned out to be a girl who’d sit in an attic in an old house writing a letter to Sofia Coppola, as part of her research for her essay on women in oversized men’s shirts in movies. While writing this I was startled by a sudden movement on my desk, and for a brief moment I thought a huge spider had come out from underneath the wire connected to my keyboard to the hard-disc, moving rapidly towards the screen, but it turned out to be just one of my neon pink earplugs rolling across my desk. One time I was out walking in my hometown, alone, and I could see from the corner of my eye a huge seagull coming in for landing, but it was moving so strangely—as if it were an airplane crashing in a steady and very smooth line—that I turned my head to get a closer look, and the seagull turned out to be a woman on a bike, with grey hair and a white jacket, cycling downhill on a road that obviously was parallel to mine, hidden by a hill covered with tall grass.

I set out to say something on the subject “changing genre from short story to the novel.” Would it be anything like this? The transformation of a spider into an earplug, a seagull into a woman on a bike? The transformation of a letter into a novel? The transformation of a letter into a novel, via essays combined with fiction? I could conclude by saying that the short story is a form that is more free, and perhaps, just by resenting the long, sustained attention of the novel, by being so short, that it’s a place for questions, satire, critique, wonder, play, but so is, really, the novel. I could conclude by saying that the novel, poking at its writer with its deep existential questions (Who is she? Who is she? Who is she?), is in some way related to something the filmmaker Tarkovsky has said, that if you think about every person you’ve ever met, you’re struck by their individuality, and wouldn’t it be a lovely conclusion to say that the novel, if it’s a good one, comes close to the inherent anomaly of every human being, of every individual? “But couldn’t that also be true of the short story?” my earplug says, with a sharp, pink voice. Or what about the essay, says the woman on my calendar, turning her head towards me through the yellow halo surrounding her so suitably, being a fictional character, aren’t they just all—she’s broken off by a voice calling her from inside the room, which we can’t see, and she looks at us and disappears behind us, and now we’ll never know what she was about to say, we’ll just have to guess. Merde, shouts Rimbaud.

Gunnhild Øyehaug is an award-winning Norwegian poet, essayist, and fiction writer. Her story collection Knots was published by FSG in 2017, and Wait, Blink has been made into the acclaimed film Women in Oversized Men’s Shirts.She has also worked as a coeditor of the literary journals Vagant and Kraftsentrum. Øyehaug lives in Bergen, where she teaches creative writing.

Illustration by Na Kim.