The first time I heard the Norwegian musician and author Jenny Hval’s voice, I was standing in a Brooklyn record shop, listening though oversized communal headphones. I heard a magnetic, gently commanding voice speaking over muted noise, telling me to Think big, girl. Like king. Think king-size.
This was Hval’s 2015 album Apocalypse, Girl, my entry point into her fiercely exploratory body of work—the dreamy lovelorn pop of The Practice of Love (2019), the amniotic goth-metal of Blood Bitch (2016), the stark, raw folk of her first album, Viscera (2012), and her first novel Paradise Rot (2018), a story of a sexual awakening set against a background of fungi, ferment, and mold.
With the US release of her second novel, Girls Against God, Hval challenges the form and conventions of the novel once again: a vivid, seething voice narrates a series of apocalyptic events cut together with food fights, black metal shows, black magic, and surreal, witchy rituals.
I spoke with Hval over Zoom from her home in Oslo, where she sat next to a shelf of books she had been reading during lockdown—George Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, and a classic Scandinavian trilogy by Cora Sandel about a young female artist who rejects and then accepts her identity as an artist. Hval had read the book when she was younger, but it only reached her on this reading, in the unusual stillness of the pandemic.
Alexandra Kleeman: The way you describe the trilogy by Cora Sandel—an artist rejecting the given definition of art, in favor of art as an unknown—reminds me of your new novel. In Girls Against God, you begin with these definitions of witchcraft or black metal and re-mold them until they come to mean something very different from what we bring to the term. Was it your goal to alter those concepts and make them new again?
Jenny Hval: I think that was part of the reason I was writing. I’m interested in the meeting of things that I might’ve been drawn to—different types of expressions, different ideas of art, different disciplines, different groups. Especially those that have been present around me, but also have inaccessible—inaccessible because I feel uninvited, as someone who is not part of the mainstream male group of black metal kids, or a part of the right scene.
I think that was what frustrated me when I was writing this book: I could not write something like Life: A User’s Manual, something modernist or heavily experimental in form. When I write music and lyrics for music, I manage to cut things down a lot. I can’t do that when I write without the music or in Norwegian, which is what I do when I write books. I was very frustrated, thinking “how can this even be interesting?”
A while back I was watching [Comment ca va? (1982) directed by Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Mieville], a sort of collage film about a newspaper. I remember reading this article comparing it to the photographs that came out after that movement, sort of the first main events.
It’s problematic to present political resistance in the form of a flowing narrative, using all those mainstream elements of the documentary. With this book, I thought the same thing: this personal voice, c’mon, so boring! But at the same time, I got a lot of energy from it, so I decided to go ahead and take it to the limit and make it really angry.
AK: I often think that when we think of experimental art, we think of a very masculine version of experimental. It’s about chopping things up and making the reading difficult, like hacking through a jungle. I wonder if there’s something subversive, then, about how you use flow, how the scenes of your book melt together. Anything that is too present or firm or symbolic in these scenes seems to disintegrate into something else.
JH: I don’t think one is better or more, how should I put it, present? Or more contemporary than the other. I’ve had a lot of inferiority complexes as a writer about this, I’m always trying to write things that look similar to the masculine, experimental, or modernist formal experiments, but I’ve always failed.
It was quite surprising how the writing unfolded with this book. I actually started with a very small script, which was written by my producer. From that I started to write some scenes and then, eventually, I changed pretty much all of it to make room for this angry voice. That film was going to be all about this walk in the forest, and it was going to have more components than what eventually happens in the film script part of this book. I think that short sort of first little idea was much more difficult and experimental in terms of form—much more hidden.
AK: Have you made films? Is there a way in which describing these films, or potential films, allows you more freedom than trying to produce any one of them, in reality?
JH: I did study script writing, many years ago, as part of my creative arts degree. I was not very good, but I did try, and I did find that film scripts have a connection to magic, because it is the spell you then have to perform. Going into film through the written voice, was really interesting because then I could write stuff that couldn’t happen in a film. Or I could write something that I could’ve never made on a budget, whatever I could’ve gathered, which would’ve been pretty much nothing.
The written word is magical because it is yet to be performed, yet it belongs to the body as well. It always has a counterpart in the spoken, and you may wonder what comes from what—the melody or the word or the meaning, etc. In my writing, I don’t want to know what is most important or what comes first. I want it to be fluctuating.
I started writing this in 2016, and I was watching a lot of movies at the time, a lot of horror movies. I was also reconnecting with some black metal recordings because I had never listened to much black metal growing up, and I still haven’t heard that much. I was making that album, Blood Bitch. That album and this book, for me, are quite connected.
AK: How does your writing practice relate to your music practice? Can you work on them at the same time, or do you sequence them one after another?
JH: Sometimes, I can work on music and write something at the same time. I’m not very good at doing several things at once, if I have a deadline. I’m not good at writing extensively if I am working on an album with other people. Being quite an introverted person, someone who needs to gather energy by being alone, I need to keep working on my own to understand it, as well.
I think that writing is often about clarity. It can be about something really wild and finding some sort of clear vision of what something is. I think I’m trying to do that a lot in Girls Against God—like, just trying to figure out what is the connection between this bible belt way of thinking and this racist youth group? All these parallels to different groups, different subcultures. Can I find a relation there that is problematic, but also can say something where they come together?
It’s usually something to do with hierarchy and power, those lovely things. I do think that I search for clarity, more than anything else. Maybe that’s why I’m so obsessed, being 40, and I’m still obsessed with writing very simple melodies. That’s a very childish occupation or search. But I think everyone is always searching for very simple things, in addition to all the other stuff you’re doing.
AK: I think that feeling of arriving at clarity is like magic, too. The work changes shape and it really feels like something new has come out of you, even though technically you’re staring at the same thing as before.
JH: I think it also has to do with something spiritual, too, something religious. I was thinking a lot of growing up in the near-religious communities and that rhetoric. I hope it’s relatable in English; it’s very specific, a lot of the stuff that I quote in the Norwegian version. Hopefully, it’s universal enough for some people.
It is interesting to return to a type of religion or spirituality that seems quite foreign, or it seems foreign as an adult. All types of spirituality have a lot to do with the same things that I have tried to experience through art. Although maybe a lot of religious people would say it’s very very different, but I don’t think so.
AK: Living in the south of Norway, did it feel like the two poles were the white world of religion and the blackness metal?
JH: No, I think there were lots of options. In the book, I think it is a little more black and white. I think that is also necessary for the sake of writing it. The voice needed to be a little more angry than maybe my world was. There were definitely different types of radicals and different types of in-between people—a lot of Christians who were less evangelical, a lot of evangelical people who were all kinds of people, as well.
I did feel like I was surrounded by a bigger range of minds, and how to express emotions and ideas than maybe I would’ve been if I were growing up in Oslo, where I started out.
AK: In reading this novel, I was often very surprised by how the text unfolded—for example in the scene with the high school girls in the cafeteria, where it blooms into this incredible feast. How do you create that surprise and sense of the unknown, the un-inevitable, when you’re writing?
JH: Again, I think certain scenes were from that original draft that my producer wrote. I think they had a note like all good films need a good dinner party. I think maybe I remembered that at some point, and just sort of thought, well it’s not a dinner party, it’s a cafeteria lunch. A subsidized cafeteria lunch! But maybe make it into a magical ritual.
When I started writing this book, I was reading the Promethea comic by Alan Moore. That is very much a superhero story turned into essay on magic. I think there is a scene there where the trick to extinguishing the villains is to eat them. So I thought I would gradually make as much as possible into food. That was very surprising for me.
I’ve always wanted to write science fiction, but I’ve also always thought that science fiction is something that is completely fictional and takes place in a different world. It has nothing to do with that personal, confessional voice—nothing to do with what I write for my music. I’ve got a lot of first pages for science fiction stories on some hard drive somewhere, but it never works out. Putting in scenes of something in between magical rituals and performance art was a way to explore stepping out of narrative.
AK: You’ve mentioned that when writing in English, you’re able to cut things down and boil them down, and then in Norwegian you can’t do that as much. Do you feel like a different person when you’re writing in English versus writing in Norwegian?
JH: Yeah, I think I feel like maybe I’m two different astrological signs. My Norwegian sometimes just feels like a puddle, a sea of words, vomit. You know, all those things you feel like when you’re just writing like crazy, and you don’t know what’s happening. My English is more organized. I think it has to do with music, I think it has to do with experience. The fact that I’ve been writing lyrics for so long, and I’ve been singing.“When you’re food, you’re no longer the same type of “I” as you were when you were a human body.”
I’m not very good at singing in Norwegian because I haven’t done it very much beyond the requirements of school and someone’s birthday, those things. I don’t have the experience with the vowels, the rhythm. It’s still a bit foreign to me to distill Norwegian. When I try, I just hide stuff. But when I distill things in English, I squeeze it, and whatever comes out is what is left. So, you put some cloth into the puddle, and squeeze.
I do feel like I am not two different people, but I am two different brain structures. It’s like two different parts of the brain are working. It isn’t a dumb question, but the question everyone thinks is dumb because it’s so hard to answer is whether the music and the writing for literature is connected or not. But I think that’s the closest I’ve ever got to describing the connection.
AK: One of the things that really touched me about this book was this feeling that I think I’ve had many times in my life: you want to be a part of something, but you would have to transform it before it could be something that you could enter—subcultures, political organizations, things like that.
In this book, you often start with the more familiar version of a thing, like black metal. As we get more into it, it becomes more tender. It becomes more fecund, all of these things. I wonder: can you participate in a subculture or tradition on your own terms? Is that possible, in your own way?
JH: I don’t know, I guess that depends on the definition of what the individual is, as well. I do think that one thing that I am transforming is not just the mainstream version of something. It’s also the place that transforms the narrator. The place that transforms the language of self, what can turn the body or characters to food. When you’re food, you’re no longer the same type of “I” as you were when you were a human body.
It’s somehow really liberating because let’s say you have a lot of body issues. All of a sudden, it’s not stupid metaphors anymore. You actually consist of grapes and apples and melons, and all those things are no longer metaphors… or spaghetti. I’m not sure if you can exist on your own terms. You do need to change yourself a bit. You can’t get it all, and that is very problematic.
The protagonist [in this book] really wants to belong and wants to transform other things, but also transform herself to become one with it. For that, magic is needed. In real non-literary life, you can’t really, unless you believe in magic in that way, it’s more difficult maybe. But it’s quite necessary to experience, or I feel, to belong to something and then realize, to belong to this, I can’t belong to myself in the same way or I have to change.
If that can be a good experience. I always sort of deal with this stuff. I love the idea of a body internet, where your arm is no longer yours, but then a thousand other arms stretch into you. It’s very romantic, but it’s maybe unattainable. I do prioritize longing.
AK: I feel like “I do prioritize longing” is a very beautiful note to end on.
JH: Isn’t it?
Jenny Hval’s novel Girls Against God is available now.