Rock, Paper, Scissors by Naja Marie Aidt (tr. K.E. Semmel). Open Letter. 450pp $16.95.
Although Naja Marie Aidt made her English-language debut just last year with a short story collection entitled Baboon (Two Lines Press), in Denmark she has been required reading in most middle school and high school classes since the 1990s. A poet and author with nearly 20 works in various genres, Aidt has received numerous honors, including the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize for Baboon in 2008.
Aidt debuted in Denmark in 1991 with the poetry collection Så længe jeg er ung, and since then she has mainly been known for her poems and short stories. Her first novel, Sten, saks, papir, came out in Denmark in 2012, some 21 years after her first poetry collection. Now that novel has been published by Open Letter Books as Rock, Paper, Scissors, in K.E. Semmel’s translation.
In Rock, Paper, Scissors, we follow Thomas O’Mally Lindström—the owner of a small, successful stationery business—whose abusive and criminal father, Jacques, just passed away in prison. Along with his neurotic and temperamental sister, Jenny, Thomas reluctantly goes through their father’s old apartment, where he finds a broken toaster containing a large sum of money. Thomas decides to keep the money in his basement, even though he knows Jacques probably acquired it illegally. From this point, a thriller-like plot begins to unfold. Thomas becomes increasingly anxious, especially when a charming man by the name of Luke shows up at his father’s funeral. Luke—a nephew of one of Jacques’s old associates—seemingly had a close relationship with Thomas’s father. When Luke begins to befriend Thomas’s niece, Alice, and later his girlfriend Patricia, Thomas’s paranoia takes off. Increasingly, it seems that someone is out to get Thomas; his business is vandalized, Patricia is attacked, and mysterious symbols are carved into his door and desk. Thomas’s life starts to descend in multiple ways.
Although Rock, Paper, Scissors is an exciting novel that borrows its plot and suspense from crime fiction, the most intriguing parts display the relationships between the characters, usually with a humorous playfulness within the misery. Take for instance this scene, where Thomas has finally managed to lure his impossible sister Jenny out of their father’s apartment building.
At last Jenny totters down the stairs, the toaster under her arm. Mrs. Krantz waves her bony gray hand, and Jenny waves back. Thomas is already outside in the sunlight, his cigarette lit. His pulse gallops. A thin layer of cold sweat covers his back and belly. Instantly he’s drained. The sun hammers down through a blue sky, blinding them; they sit side by side on the stoop, overwhelmed by discouragement and exhaustion. Jenny steals the cigarette from Thomas and takes a deep drag. “You don’t smoke,” he says, grabbing it back.
The situation is classic Aidt. A subtle humor almost certainly exists in the darkness (for Aidt, if the light cannot be found in the plot, it can be detected on a sentence-by-sentence level). The back-and-forth between Jenny and Thomas is absurdly amusing at times, in an odd way where you feel guilty for smiling.
However, the most successful character dynamic in Rock, Paper, Scissors is between Thomas and his girlfriend, Patricia. When we’re first introduced to Patricia, it is painfully clear that Thomas does not find her particularly attractive anymore, while she, on the other hand, would like to have a baby.
She has a late meeting, so they arrange to make dinner at eight. He slurps the last of his coffee, then kisses her neck and cheek; she pulls his mouth to hers and pushes her tongue into it. He’s brushed his teeth, she hasn’t.
Shortly after follows an excruciating scene where Patricia—desperate to have sex, or to just receive some kind of physical acknowledgement in their marriage—forces an erection, then ejaculation, from a drunk and depressed Thomas.
This power dynamic is by no means predictable throughout the novel. It is, in fact, a setup for later events: a violent climax that changes everything.
She reeks of booze. Maybe she didn’t even sleep last night. Her makeup is cracked, her eye shadow smeared. He boiled eggs, she took only one bite. Now she’s got egg yolk on her chin. The morning is warm and humid. She hasn’t said anything about where she was, he hasn’t asked. A ceasefire, Thomas thinks optimistically, letting his eyes wander across the light-blue sky. But what kind of war is this?
There are recognizable overlaps between Baboon and Rock, Paper, Scissors, particularly the theme of power dynamics as portrayed through sex. These are common quantities for Aidt; for instance, the exquisite—but not yet translated—short story collection Vandmærket from 1993 contains explicit depictions of master-slave abuse, snuff, and pedophilia. In another collection from 1995, Tilgang, Aidt reveals distorted relationships through more subtle power play, in a universe where deceit is a matter of routine. In Rock, Paper, Scissors, Aidt masterfully combines the more subtle psychological abuse in her characters with physical violations, and the result is shocking and haunting.
This is enhanced by several elements. First of all, we never leave Thomas’s consciousness, which forces us to feel his increasing anxiety and paranoia. The reader is never allowed to break out of this tunnel vision, making Rock, Paper, Scissors a heartbreaking study on perspective. Secondly, the novel takes place in some kind of contemporary universe, but is deliberately vague as to particulars, giving it a slight allegorical feel. The names of the characters seem to have been picked from various places in Europe and America, with the exception of one police officer named Kagoshima. The novel unfolds in a non-place that is only hinted at in Aidt’s dreamlike prose: it could be any larger Western city. This might also suggest that Thomas is an everyman—that his story of descent, of plunging into an inevitable original sin, is a modern myth about men, fathers, sons, not to mention heritage and family.
With Rock, Paper, Scissors, Aidt documents the destructiveness and vitality, but also the vulnerability, of human existence. K.E. Semmel’s translation is exact, capturing the poetry and precision of Aidt’s sentences. This novel should do much to push Aidt further into the English-language literary scene. Perhaps one day her work will no longer be required reading in only Denmark.
Katrine Øgaard Jensen is a writer and translator from the Danish. In 2015 she received a fellowship to teach fiction in the Undergraduate Creative Writing Program at Columbia University. She previously worked as the editor-in-chief of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art and as a judge for the Best Translated Book Award. A two-time Thanks to Scandinavia scholar, she currently works as blog editor for Asymptote while translating a poetry collection by Ursula Andkjær Olsen for Broken Dimanche Press.
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