It’s December and it’s cold and the world is ending. Delta, Omicron, inflation, Joe Manchin, climate change. I’m riding my bike along the Allegheny River, my nose running, my angst riding beside and behind and ahead of me, both giving chase and leading the way to another uncertain year. I stop at a brewery and debate popping in for a beer. The place is full: bodies, breaths, invisible threats. And I realize, leaning back on my seat, feeling the cold bite into my fingers and heavily conscious of my solitude, starker now before this bustling brewery, that I’m a character in a Dorthe Nors story. I could easily be one of the alienated souls she so skillfully depicts and dissects in her stories.
I consider the character in the story “Manitoba” from her latest collection Wild Swims. A sixty-year-old misanthrope who lives alone watches teenagers camp in the field across from his house—his version of this crowded brewery—resenting them, their noise, their energy. The very fact of them. The man has successfully isolated himself, gotten rid of his wife, thwarted any attempts by his neighbors to draw him out.
And yet he fantasizes about withdrawing farther, further, to a remote hunting cabin, keeps coming back to it as he observes youths in the field like a hunter in a deer stand or a wolf prowling in the dark. The cabin has a piece of driftwood on the gable with the word “Manitoba” written across it. Though he thinks he looks normal enough, “he no longer has any wish to regulate his abnormalities, only to withdraw.”
He sees a girl in his yard:
he’s turned everything off in the living room, and she probably can’t see him. Her face takes on an odd luminosity from her phone. He can see her chewing her lip in concentration. Now she raises her eyes…. She peers at the window, eyes wide. Quickly he shoves his face against the pane, pressing, opening his mouth. His teeth touch glass and her throat muscles tense, then she bolts like an animal down the bank, across the road, in her nightshirt.
Is there a twisted need in the man’s bared teeth? What can we do, now? Withdraw, reject, and isolate? Envy from afar? Are these our only options?
A couple comes out of the brewery, laughing, evidently a bit buzzed. I envy them their ease. Or is it just indifference? Willful ignorance? Where’s my Manitoba? What does Fauci say?
I remove my gloves, blow on the tips of my fingers and think of the story “Between Offices,” which starts with another one of these alienated characters: a business man, recalling the first time the bird visited him. He’s lying in a hotel room during a work trip to Boston and has a vision or dream and is transported to a country idyll. When a bird appears, he notes: “it started to peck the flesh from my breastbone. It was a quiet act of devotion, and the sky above me was no longer local but some vast firmament, and I disappeared into it.” But this deindividuation, this mystic dissolution and escape from the body soon disappears, returning him to his body on a hotel bed. Later, while on the way to the airport and the next office, the narrator observes “the fat tourists, the suits, and the neck pillows. The private realm can’t be maintained for any length of time but spreads bacterially, from security through the lines for coffee to the loose bowels in the restrooms.”
The narrator is still wounded by his mother’s death, or, as he puts it, her decision to “yield to her infections.” He is repulsed by that intensely corporeal moment when one exits the plane after a long flight and the bathroom is full of strangers performing their creaturely acts: urinating, defecating, clearing their sinuses in sinks, brushing their teeth, changing their baby’s diapers. Repulsed, perhaps, by all bodies, his own most of all. I think of that couple, their laughter. Aerosols and viral loads. I think of my father, too, yielding to COVID and our decision to take him off a ventilator, a victim of that first wave.
Maybe I should just have a quick pint standing at the bar? Five minutes, a few brief unmasked moments to gulp down a fancy saison, and then I’ll be back on my bike, in the open air, on my own. I remember the main character of “Pershing Square,” a middle-aged woman floundering in an existential crisis at a conference in LA. The woman is staying in a hotel overlooking Pershing Square. Is this brewery in the Strip District in Pittsburgh my Pershing Square? She ventures out, suffering in the heat and wandering the streets among people she perceives as indifferent, addicted or insane. It isn’t just the heat that is overwhelming her, “…now it’s combined with a new condition in her body. It’s her heart, it’s got a flutter, or something in there is pressing….”
She struggles with the heat, with this new pressure in her chest, and meets up with some dull colleagues which only deepens her sense of isolation and disquiet. She wanders around downtown LA recalling two young Canadian hockey players who her family had hosted in their home in Denmark when she was a kid. Canada is a mythic place to her—and other characters throughout the collection: see “Manitoba”—idealized, cold, safe, home to vast landscapes and strict gun laws. She meets friends for dinner but “…had a hard time looking down at her plate. A black cavity opened up beneath her when she tried. Like a hole in the ice, she thought, and looked up at the ceiling but that didn’t help.” Where can we look, then, for help? Where?
I’m at the door now, peering through the glass at the people within and remember the pre-pandemic person I was. A bit antisocial, yes, but unafraid. In retrospect, comparatively brave. Then I think of the woman narrating “Wild Swims,” the titular and final story in Nors’s collection. She is middle-aged, alone, and sweating in her apartment to the soundtrack of ambulance sirens screaming across Copenhagen—or is she blowing on her fingers outside a brewery in Pittsburgh? The next day she goes outside only to be overwhelmed by the impermanence of the scenery: “The sky arched overhead, the geese grazed, and it wasn’t that the idyll was getting to be too much; it was more that it was there yet had vanished anyway, and then I was on the cusp of tears.” Here we stand, not on the cusp of another wave but in the throes of one. Mourning the ongoing losses—of loved ones and ways of life—and wondering where to go from here.
I’ve read Wild Swims three times since the start of the pandemic, entering each story more intensely as the world muddles on. Though the stories were written before the pandemic, Nors brings these characters into such vivid, desperate life in the span of a few pages that they feel very much a part of our anxious times. They struggle with their own angst and mortality, choke on their solitude, and rage against an absurd world. And I feel less alone as I struggle and choke and rage along with them.
Hallucinatory birds, holes in the ice, wild swims and I’m alone again – or am I? – pedaling home in the cold.
Kent Kosack is a writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh, where he teaches composition and creative writing. He also serves as the Director of the Educational Arm at Asymptote, a journal of world literature in translation. His work has been published in Tin House (Flash Fidelity), the Cincinnati Review, the Normal School, Hobart, and elsewhere. See more at www.kentkosack.com.