Books

Jenny Hval
Girls Against God

The narrator of Girls Against God is a goth from southern Norway’s “white Scandinavian paradise”: she wears velour in “provincial black” sourced from the local shopping centre, and cherishes the aesthetics of black metal, corpse paint and all, a subculture she’s barred from participating in due to her gender – it’s the early ’90s. Girls in jazz ballet can shake their heads around in a sensual way, but they can’t headbang and get really mad, and this double standard makes the narrator sick with frustration.

During the yearly class photo, she yells out “fucking hell”, and her fellow students make the sign of the cross. From this transgression the novel finds its shape, the first several chapters unfolding like black metal reveries, furious and wicked, or a kind of witch’s brew: in goes a treatise on Nicolas Roeg; later, a throwback to Linda Lovelace. If your predilection is for largely plotless novels where reprobate ideas thicken and combust, read on!

What’s a ’90s goth girl gonna do but start a band? Jenny Hval herself has done just this: she is best known as a musician working at the edges of performance art. It follows that the band in the book explode the limits of the form. In one scene, they concoct a foul odour and release it into the streets of Oslo, generating the smell from “internet waste”, “email after email of generic asylum application rejections … press release after press release from government spin doctors”. This idea feels exciting at first but falls apart with closer scrutiny, alas, like much of the book. In the second part the band return – this time, though, they’re characters in a film script. Here, Hval attempts to mobilise ideas shaken free in the earlier chapters, and the bandmates embark on a journey – part queer body horror, part forest quest – that ends pretty badly for the likes of old Knut Hamsun and Edvard Munch, figures whose cultural primacy is critiqued throughout.

You feel more like an audience than a reader, parsing the imaginings of our young goth hero, which collage early internet aesthetics and digital culture flashpoints. There’s even a section of bonus material. In this respect, Girls Against God makes a good pairing with Legacy Russell’s recent primer Glitch Feminism, another book that examines what the internet made possible, gender-wise, for those who came of age at a time when no one had to identify as themselves.

Emily Stewart

Verso, 240pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 6, 2021 as "Jenny Hval, Girls Against God".

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Reviewer: Emily Stewart