By Lina Wolff
Translated by Frank Perry
357 pages. other press. $17.99.
“Ah, a lovely old-fashioned novel,” the reader thinks as they slide through the opening pages of “Carnality.” The author, Lina Wolff, begins in a conventional close-up third-person perspective and quickly fires off with the W-questions. Who is the main character? A 45-year-old Swedish writer. What is she doing? Traveling on a writer’s grant. When? Nowadays more or less. Where? Madrid. Why? To turn the boredom of her life upside down.
After setting the stage, we’re securely strapped in for the ride, which rumbles along a scenic track for about five minutes before a mad carnival rider takes control and we’re launched at warp speed through loops, inversions, and twists. The third-person narrative turns into a minor character’s monologue, which turns into a memoir form in the form of letters from a third character. When an author tries and fails to pull off this level of formal magic, it feels like gasping in the playground. (Frightening. Unfair.) When an author succeeds, as Wolff does, he repeats the optimal intoxication: suddenly anything can happen! And you want it that way!
After landing in Madrid, the woman – who goes by the unusual name Bennedith – goes to a bar and meets a man named Mercuro Cano. Mercuro displays flags worth a parade, all red. He’s sweaty and shaky, with a darting look. He buttons a buttonhole for Bennedith and tells her a story about the time when an evil nun with a mutilated hand wronged him. He asks Bennedith to hide him “for a few days”. When she tries to walk twice, he grabs her arm and begs.
Many people would end it there and write Mercuro off as paranoid and creepy, but Bennedith texts him the next day and invites him to stay at her apartment. As it turns out, Bennedith is a woman who follows the improv comedy “Yes and…” rule. Like the novel she appears in, her experiences have predictable beginnings, confusing middles, and amazing endings. Why make small talk with a random guy when you can welcome the random guy into your house, download his entire horrifying life story, go on vacation with him, fall in love and commit a crime? While you’re at it, why not dare another tourist to eat a live octopus? Or walk naked on a public beach? Or steal a boat?
Perhaps Bennedith’s attraction to Mercuro is rooted in a shared existential illness. They are all in a state of mummification, longing for some transformative event—miracle or catastrophe, either works—to get the lifeblood flowing again. One such event takes place right in the middle of the novel.
Until then, Bennedith shows extremes of passivity and action. Often she is taken in jellyfish mode. Sometimes she strikes without warning. The concept of “borders” is as foreign to her as an iPad would have been to Francisco Goya or General Franco, the only two historical Spaniards whose names appear in the book. It’s impossible to read Carnality without fantasizing about the turns your own life might take if you adopted her method.
The book’s title comes from a game show of the same name in which volunteers broadcast live humiliating secrets only seen on the dark web. This is where the evil nun comes into play. Lucia, 93 years old, is the creator of the show. She takes breaks from monastic life to curate mediated displays of masochistic self-disclosure ranging from adultery to phone addiction. Mercuro was among the candidates.
Wolff is Swedish and has published two novels and a book of short stories, all of which have been acclaimed. She has translated works by César Aira, Roberto Bolaño, Gabriel García Márquez and others into Swedish. Carnality was originally released in 2019 and translated into English by Frank Perry. I don’t read Swedish, so I’m not sure how to give credit to beautiful phrases, but they abound: snide comments are “tiny whiffs of swamp gas”. Misery feels like the inside is “a big wet ball of wool that refuses to dry out even in the sun”.
Wolff has long been interested in male aggression and female sexuality and the loss of power that occurs when a man loses his capacity for violence or a woman ages beyond her ability to seduce. Her fiction is full of references to other texts. A character in The Polyglot Lovers finds a stack of Michel Houellebecq novels hidden behind a man’s bookshelf. In her debut novel, a dog in a brothel is named Bret Easton Ellis. In “Carnality” Nietzsche is rampant.
But this novel is primarily concerned with the social category of the stranger. It won’t ruin the plot to say that Bennedith and Mercuro are as deeply intertwined as two people can be: sexually, spiritually, criminally, and all without engaging in the initial cyberstalking that is now a condition of human interaction. By scorning this routine digital probing, they weaken their security and intensify their exhilaration in roughly equal measure.
In a clever way, they are also alien to the reader. We learn almost nothing about her childhood. Wolff contains few signifiers of class or taste. No brand names. No discussion about jobs, education or real estate. We know little about what Bennedith consumes, be it food, literature, entertainment or clothing.
Withholding these clues—denying the modern reader’s lazy appetite for shorthand—is a moral intervention: Wolff wants us to know these people by their actions, not by their diplomas or haircuts. It’s also a clever way of forcing us to have an imagination.