Ian Mond Reviews Present Tense Machine by Gunnhild Øyehaug

Present Tense Machine, Gunnhild Øyehaug (Farrar, Straus, Giroux 978-0-37423-717-2, $25.00, 176pp, hc) January 2022.

Parallel universes seem to be everywhere I look these days. I know it’s an effect inflated by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but as I write this, my social media feeds are abuzz with the trailer of Everything, Everywhere All At Once – a multiverse adventure starring Michelle Yeoh. Of course, parallel realities have been a decades long-staple of speculative fiction; it’s rarer, though, to see the multiverse appear in works by non-genre authors (as distinct from time-travel and apocalyptic dystopias, which the literary establishment has embraced). Along comes Norwegian poet and writer Gunnhild Øyehaug. Originally published in Norway in 2018, Øyehaug’s second novel Present Tense Machine, translated into English by Kari Dickson, presents us with one of the more unique treatments of a parallel universe.

Present Tense Machine tells the tale of Anna and her daughter Laura. Now in her forties, Anna is a popular author who writes under a pseudonym and is working on a novel about the nature of language. Her daughter Laura is an English teacher who lives with her partner and musician Karl Peter in a small apartment in Møhlenpris and is pregnant with their first child. So far, so straightforward. That is, until we discover that neither Anna nor Laura are aware of the other’s existence. You see, when Laura was two-and-a-half, trundling around on her tricycle, her mother, unknowingly, cleaved reality in two. As the narrator explains, Anna was reading a book when her eyes caught on the word “trädgårdar” (gardens) and mistook it for the nonsense word “tärdgård.”

[No-one knew] that by misreading the word in precisely this way, as though some mysterious higher being had grafted this potential onto the word, a parallel universe would open – just as the words trädgård and tärdgård look identical if you just glance at them quickly – and if one happened to be in a garden when this misreading occurred, for the first time on earth one would disappear into it. But: That is precisely what happened.

Anna is the one most immediately affected by this sudden excision of Laura. She knows she lost someone or something but doesn’t know who or what, and as such, is convinced she’s suffering a stroke. For Laura, it’s only as she grows older, as she begins to experience moments of déjà vu – especially when Laura returns to the place where she lived as a child in another reality – that she begins to wonder why no one, including her father Bård, knows who Laura’s mother is.

Genre fiction is replete with examples of where a specific word or catch-phrase has a marked effect on reality, though I doubt any of these are as accidental and random as the one Øyehaug describes. However, the sudden and abrupt birth of Anna and Laura’s parallel worlds is only one example of Øyehaug’s playful approach to her subject matter. The book is peppered with these fascinating digressions on subjects as broad as the origins of language (á la the Tower of Babel and Noam Chomsky), Jonathan Nolan’s “Interstellar”, the music of French composer Erik Satie (his experimental piece “Vexations” acts as the novel’s soundtrack), and a deliciously biting bit about how Elena Ferrante ruined the pseudonym. Then there’s the story’s narrator, who is neither Anna nor Laura. They not only insert themselves into the story, rather cruelly knocking on Anna’s door knowing that Anna can’t see them (“because it was me, the narrator, and I’m invisible”) they also regularly remind us of the chapter we’re reading (“This is the twenty-third chapter. There’s practically no one here, only a few horses standing sleeping”) and provide updates on their socks (wet or dry) and their dog Kipp. When it’s handled poorly, this sort of meta-narrative can be on the nose, but that’s not the case here. In a book that’s partly about the complex, even transcendent quality of language, it makes sense to have a narrator who peels away the artifice of story-telling.

While Present Tense Machine scores in terms of its execution and delivery, as a book about a mother and daughter trying to come to terms with a loss they can’t verbalise, it’s less successful. Mostly it’s because the crises both women face are so anodyne – Anna has doubts about her work, Laura has doubts about her marriage – that it’s not clear why reality needed to rupture to bring these mundane issues to bear. In fact, the character most profoundly affected by the split in the multiverse is Bård, Anna’s ex-husband and Laura’s father, who exists in both worlds and has moments where he loses focus, zones out, trying to retrieve a memory that no longer exists. In those moments, we see the effect I believe Øyehaug was striving for.

And yet, despite these reservations, there’s a cheekiness and charm to Present Tense Machine that makes it difficult not to enjoy, even love, this book.

Ian Mond loves to talk about books. For eight years he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently he has revived his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and is again posting mostly vulgar reviews on an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at mondyboy74@gmail.com.

This review and more like it in the February 2022 issue of Locus.

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