A New Review by Tommy Olsson

Once the last page has been read it is difficult to shake the feeling that Bjarne Melgaard’s novel is actually a piece of quite good late modernist prose.

Drawing: Jakob Boeskov.

I finally got a reason to lie down and read a bit – an activity that has been delegated to the back burner for me in recent years because all my writing makes me a little more allergic to letters every day. It is also a question of maintaining mental hygiene: a writer who sits down to read just after he finished writing is in many ways at greater risk than a bartender who immediately knocks back a few beers after shooing out the last stragglers in the early hours of the morning. Perhaps it might not seem obvious why this should be so, but trust me on this one: it really is.  

Seven years have passed since I met Bjarne Melgaard at the opening of his exhibition at Haugar Vestfold Kunstmuseum in Tønsberg, where he told me that «I dabble with a bit of writing myself ». Not very surprising. He continued by saying «I’ve spent ten years working on a … short story». Now that may be a little more surprising. He could have said novel. He could have said cycle of poems. He could bloody well have said that he had been writing a play, and it too would have seemed more natural, but as it was he did indeed say «short story», and he also said «ten years». Anyone who knows anything about his art will quite naturally be puzzled by this small scale and long gestation – for usually everything in Melgaard’s universe happens at hysterically breakneck speeds and is larger than life in every sense of the term. The notion that he would be picking away at something as condensed as a short story for ten years seemed like a joke, and for all I know it might have been. Unless the language barrier collapsed somewhere between the Norwegian “novella” (meaning “short story”) and the English “novel” – but I do not think that the book I just read is what he was talking about at the time.

Whatever the case may be, it was hardly surprising that the man was writing. The hastily scribbled statements that have accompanied his work through two decades have gradually become easy to recognise, and it is hardly front-page news to discover that this novel is very much about unprotected anal sex with HIV positive partners and well-endowed black men. That was sort of on the cards. The sexualised death drive had been emphatically announced in advance, and anyone who has paid any attention to the statements in Melgaard’s pictures will quickly recognise the tone of voice.

A New Novel by Bjarne Melgaard, Aschehoug, 2012.

But not only have I read the book – I have also seen a number of reviews of the book. So I already knew that it points in all directions, that time and place will change frequently and unexpectedly, and I know that the afterword by Ina Blom pops up right in the middle of the book – in the exact middle, actually – and that its design, its random narrative sequence, and the fact that the text is set in different font sizes for each chapter is supposed to give it the right kind of chaotic feel. That is most definitely the case, but things are not as random as they appear – I would rather say that this novel (in spite of everything it is presented as a novel, and underneath all the confusing tactics it is one) is quite carefully composed. For example, it is no coincidence that the much-talked about sequence where a man winds a rusty chain around his forearm before pressing it up another man’s butt is located in the second half of the book along with similar sequences. Strictly speaking the descriptions of the sexual excesses consistently grow in intensity right from the first word, gradually building to a crescendo where trauma, desire, fear, and lust seem to occupy the zenith inside the flesh of an artist who is so fed up with official openings, art wannabes and the entire complex web that is the art scene, that his only chance of experiencing anything as real is inextricably linked to acute physical pain. Either that or a) my dogs b) Mum c) Dad. And this cements the link to his visual art, where his mother, father, and dogs have manifested themselves frequently in recent years. The main character is not just a little like the Bjarne Melgaard we believe we know something about from before. And the autobiographical elements are perhaps accurate, or perhaps somewhat manipulated, or utter lies – or, in all likelihood, all of the above to varying degrees. It is not as if the act of pushing an arranged and enlarged image of yourself in front of you as a pornographic and myth-infected icon is an alien strategy for me – I am actually doing the very same thing myself as I type, even though I may not work it as hard as I could. (But rest assured; she is hogtied in her basket, waiting in trembling anticipation for me to stop writing and do something sensible.) And the gap between real life within a sexual subculture versus the artificial and maddeningly boring existence of an artist working within the confines of the art institution is also something I have noticed as an escalating trend. All of a sudden everything, absolutely everything, becomes unbearably boring. Once that perspective has taken root it becomes difficult to view the world in any other way. It becomes a life on the run; a continual fleeing from one thing to another. Not to one thing or another. And if we then throw mum, dad, and the dogs into the mix along with an escalating cocaine habit the scenario will eventually shift towards a point beyond the utterly absurd, and that is when things are not necessarily funny anymore, even though they may continue to be interesting for a little while yet.

Apart from this I am not sure that this novel is really “about” anything, but you keep reading anyway because it is quite easy to pick up Melgaard-speak – you hear his voice resonate in you right from the first sentence. A feverishly hectic narrative voice that is both blasé and full of fierce desire, carrying a not-very-hidden agenda that leads us down the stairs to the dark dungeons below along with other predators. Violations cause new violations that must always top the ones before. This takes up quite a sizeable chunk, if not the majority, of the novel, and it is dark enough to scare off squeamish readers – we have already seen examples of that. But it is also witty enough to make old perverts like me chuckle. And when the final page has been read it is difficult to shake the feeling of actually having read a quite good piece of late modernist prose. Underneath the chaotic surface lurks an almost conservative narrative structure. This may even be necessary given the at times radical nature of the contents. There are also passages arguing that gay men are not really men, that straight men are the ones who have problems with racial terminologies in relation to black men, whereas such terminology acts as external stimuli between gay black and white men. There are also some thoughts, previously expressed elsewhere, about the necessity of establishing other kinds of gay role models beyond the clichés. Those of us who have followed the artist before will recognise this turmoil of contradictory urges and desires, sober reasoning, affected posings of misogyny, and artistic spleen. A New Novel… confirms that we got the point right the first time around. For beginners it might be a better idea to relate to the pictures first. That’s just a thought; it might not be true. Oh, well, she has waited long enough now – it’s time to end this. It is a fine book – read it yourself.

Translation from the Norwegian by René Lauritsen.