This Has Been Written in Front of Us: On Helle Helle’s First Novel to be Released in the US
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In an age of what some have called High Interiority in literature a la Knausgaard, Ferrante, and the oodles of revelatory memoirs flooding the market, Helle Helle’s intimate novel This Should Be Written in the Present Tense shouldn’t seem out of place. It closely follows Dorte, a university age girl who has just moved out of her parents’ house, and seems poised to embark on a tale of coming into her own. Straightaway she talks about her writing, so we ought to be in for a book that plumbs her contemplative psyche as she makes her way as a burgeoning adult in the world. Instead, it turns out we’re in for something quite different.
The book is written in first person yet we are rarely offered the narrator’s thoughts or emotions. We are more apt to be told how Dorte shoos away her “intrusive thoughts” by saying to them, “Right you are.” There are moments when Dorte shares a thought or two, and she does eventually shed tears (though it seems at such an odd moment), but we aren’t privy to specifically why she’s crying even if we aren’t surprised that at last it has happened. No, Dorte is more apt to tell us what she eats or what she throws in the waste bins than why she does or doesn’t do anything.
I’m oddly reminded of Bartleby, whose “I’d prefer not to” mantra reverberates (as if through a funhouse) in Dorte’s “It didn’t matter.” This isn’t to say that she isn’t affected by her surroundings. In fact, she’s keenly attentive. Noticing her breathing, the red she sees behind closed eyes, or even the lack of visual stimulus in a room–all are cause for comment. This kind of acute focus sets the stage for chewing a gob of gum to be heard as a racket. The hoover falling over is a clattering explosion. Helle dilates our attention through her protagonist so adroitly that the minutest sensations can become plot points.
This is Helle’s first work to be translated into English. In Denmark she is an award winner, bestseller, and often called the country’s most popular novelist. Many writers refer to her work as minimalist, and this certainly has merit. It also seems to me as if it is resplendently indulgent. What luxury to linger in nothing so much as sitting around contemplating words (“I sat at the drop-leaf table thinking about the word bleary.”) or to wander into a store because a girl is noticed crying out front. There are many moments when we might feel, as Dorte does, that we “ought to be doing something” but don’t. Or aren’t.
Dorte is funny, and a liar. She’s aimless and stumbles, literally. If Kerouac was impelled to hit the road, Helle’s Dorte is compelled to rummage through stores for clothes, fabric, and snacks she can’t afford. She drops details so casually into the story that if we were in conversation with her we might say, Wait. Aren’t you running out of money? Won’t this be a problem if you get the expensive pastry? Or the new shoes? Which Dorte does, then she blisters up walking blocks and turning corners. Her other shoes, which could have been perfectly useful, are left behind in the trash. Just what the hell is this girl up to we might wonder?
Any random encounter could merit Dorte’s (Helle’s) attention. If she is angsty about her situation–from the larger savings-draining adrift in young-adult position she’s in to any particular episode with strangers who’ve missed a train–she also seems willing to see it through to whatever end. To take a ride on a moped from a stranger or to run down the road leaving the door to her flat open to blow shut and lock herself out. She gets on trains when she’s not going anywhere. Dorte lives via one default after another.
It’s a small book, in a way. There’s a circularity and referencing back in the narrative. The reading process feels more like having colored gels added on to the filters. Or perhaps it’s like having redacted material revealed. That’s not right either. In fact, as a reader, I felt a bit disoriented at first. I wasn’t entirely sure how many times she’d moved. Are there really two Dorte’s? Also, where did her parents go? That said, Helle is a skilled enough writer to hook her readers at the outset. She had me at the opening sentence: “I wrote too much about that step.” This serves as a salvo to the reader to find out more. Something has already happened, and telling us about it as a confession makes it too curious to pass up.
I was charmed by Dorte’s delightfully droll delivery and this too kept me reading . It’s also wonderfully misleading as her near reportorial tone belies the dramatic undercurrent of the story. Often what isn’t said exerts a sneaky influence on the reader as much as what’s there. The pivots in the book seem to occur infinitesimally or in deep background. An abortion, a nervous breakdown. An affair. There is plenty of pathos to chew on even as Dorte ambles on as if not much is happening. Through a scene with in which Dorte meets with other writers, Helle clues us in that This Should Be Written in the Present Tense is ultimately “talking about fiction.” As a result, we think about every cameo appearance, each abandoned suitcase in light of this revelation. Upon reaching the end, we discover it sheds light on the beginning.
So I re-read the opening, then the end once more. I looked at the cover. I turned it over to contemplate what’s already been said about it. I set the book down on the bench next to me and smiled. Then I began the review in the present tense.