Ian Mond Reviews Evil Flowers: Stories by Gunnhild Øyehaug

Evil Flowers: Stories, Gunnhild Øyehaug (Farrar, Straus, Giroux 978-0-37460-474-5, $25.00, 128pp, hc) February 2023.

Early last year, I read and reviewed the strange but playful Present Tense Machine by the Nor­wegian writer Gunnhild Øyehaug. Not only does Øyehaug proffer a unique treatment of the mul­tiverse, but her unwillingness to stick to a linear narrative – she inserts herself into the story and goes on a series of tangents about everything from the origins of language to the music of French composer Erik Satie – made this one of my favou­rite books of 2022. My expectation, then, when I picked up Øyehaug’s sliver of a collection Evil Flowers: Stories (translated by Kari Dickson), was that it would feature experimental stories with a skewed perspective on the world. And it certainly does. But it’s also far more outlandish than anything I might have imagined.

Technically, the collection comprises 21 stories. I say technically because several of the pieces, like those Monty Python sketches where a letter-writer, in ‘‘real time’’, complains about the scene we just witnessed, gripe about the story we’ve just read. (They are literally titled ‘‘Protest.’’) Then there’s the chapter ‘‘A Bit Like This’’, which isn’t so much a story as it is a picture of a bored-looking Charles Baudelaire taken by the photographer Étienne Carjat. The portrait is in support of the narrator of the title piece ‘‘Evil Flowers’’, who ends their story by wondering what –

Baudelaire would have said if he discov­ered that his title had been used in a short story about the problems of sesamoid bones and sneakers going out of produc­tion, and obnoxious people in gyms and made-up bus drivers and passengers.

In other words, quantifying and pinning down the stories in Evil Flowers is a mug’s game that I have no intention of playing.

Despite a jolting first sentence – ‘‘As I sat on the toilet menstruating, a fairly large part of my brain fell down into the toilet bowl’’ – the opening story, ‘‘Birds’’, is as conventional as the collection gets.

After losing her grey matter to Norway’s sewer system, our protagonist realises she no longer recognises birds: not just taxonomically, but their very existence. This is a bit of a problem as she is an ornithologist three weeks away from defending her doctoral thesis on snipes. ‘‘Birds’’, with its de­finable beginning, middle and end, is a very funny (‘‘What was I going to say? That I’d had my period and everything I knew about birds had been sucked out along with my eggs’’) but unsettling tale about a sudden loss of identity. Like ‘‘Birds’’, ‘‘Threads’’ is a story about identity, but where the basic rules of narrative have been ordered to stay at home. Broken into four episodes, it begins with an older woman who may or may not be in a care home and who may or may not be the narrator of her own story. The woman’s rumination is inter­rupted by a group of omnipresent readers who wish ‘‘to submit a written complaint against the previous text.’’ We’re also made privy to a letter, slipped into the elderly lady’s room, written by Queen Gunnhild (from the Icelandic sagas) and commentary from a Lion whose tail is tugged by ‘‘a wrinkled old hand… as though it were the end of a thread.’’ Does the story make sense? Not really. Is it still a delight to read, brimming with flights of fancy and a cheeky sense of humour? Most definitely.

Evil Flowers is a degustation of absurdity. Small meals, mostly vignettes, that deconstruct, even undermine, the barrier between reader and author. We’re given a tasting plate of cell phones with built-in guns; a dead narrator planning to climb the White Cliffs of Dover; sentient leeches (yep); and three survivors of a plane crash who discover they’re in a storybook by the German children’s author Janosch. Threaded through this menu of absurdity are frequent references to figures from literature and pop culture, such as Virginia Woolf, Inger Christensen, and David Lynch, that don’t so much as ground the stories as complement Øyehaug’s brand of surrealism.

I acknowledge (reluctantly) that absurdism is not for everyone. But I love it because when it’s written with the enthusiasm and flair for comedy that Øyehaug displays in Evil Flowers: Stories, it allows us, however briefly, to ignore the stress and anxiety of everyday life and recognise that our very existence – that we should be born at this moment, at this time – is utterly ludicrous, but also glorious.

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 March 2023 issue of Locus.

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