“Jack Nicholson’s mind is possessed. Like my body, my dress.”: Paul Cunningham on Sara Tuss Efrik’s “Night’s Belly”
by Johannes Goransson on Jul.23, 2014
Johannes asked me to talk about my translation of Sara Tuss Efrik’s “The Night’s Belly” (Nattens Mage), a hellish three-part fairy tale of wombs and charred rooms that draws on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, the story of Sleeping Beauty (or Thorn Rose; Little Briar Rose), Little Red Riding Hood, and possibly even Polanksi’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968). “There are plots against people, aren’t there?” This is the question a frantic, phone booth-encased Rosemary desperately asked after being cruelly deceived by her husband. In “The Night’s Belly,” Efrik’s female protagonist similarly carries a child of unknown origin. A swelling devil-red child—sometimes described as having pincers, or flapping wings. A throbbingly painful monstrosity. Possibly the child of her husband’s “red mistress” (who later evolves into more of a Macbeth-style witch-mistress), Efrik’s protagonist continuously obsesses over the unfaithful husband’s activities:
“The nipples smarted, the pubic hair frizzed up. Paranoia melts and is redistributed, transformed into small graftings of screaming creatures. Girl dolls, logs. Everything gets mixed together. The heat pushes moisture out of the skin, surfaces glow teasingly. The husband finds himself on the African continent, in a city of solidified lava. White jeeps cross paths with starving dogs, gospel music flows out of Pentecostal churches, overcrowded hopsitals have locked their gates. The suicidal husband drives around with a sweet slut. They are going to climb Nyiaragongo. I expand the image, a widening circle, it whirls, a treasonous ring dance around that which burns. More and more sluts. A mass of eggs, explosions, a burning sky, a spray of shrapnel across our bodies.”
The first section, “Red Mistresses (Retreat),” poises readers to flow “valve after valve” through a paranoid pipeline of lava-like sewage. A montage of excrement. A language of shit. An age of drug-induced decay. The protagonist’s womb is volcano-like. Logs of “girl dolls” burn up on the fire. Her unborn child appears to be violently attached to her like ropes of pahoehoe.
“The Shining played on a television as we fucked. Because Nyiaragongo burned my husband’s body. From beneath the eggshell roars a burning river. My body is not a knife. Or an alternative. My only choice is exorcism. Anything to avoid melting.”
The notion of the child in “The Night’s Belly” appears to be something more akin to Cronenberg’s “psychoplasmic” children of The Brood (1979) or the supernatural occurences in The Exorcist (1973). Efrik’s body of text gradually begins to resemble the hauntings of Kubrick’s own labyrinthine mise-en-scene. The protagonist’s swollen belly ambushes the reader with appropriations of Kubrick’s occult hotel, which include the trance-like repeat of the Grady twins as well as moments of repetition reminiscent of Jack’s typewriter antics. (“i am no one / it’s not a secret anymore / not a chore anymore / not a secret chore anymore / i do not know who i am anymore”) Author Robert Luckhurst has noted the ways in which Kubrick embedded violent pieces of his own troubled self (i.e. his maddening need for multiple takes, the inclusion of his personal typewriter, his habit of tossing a baseball against a wall) into The Shining. Efrik’s protagonist appears to be wrestling with a similar blurring of identity:
“I am a creature’s surrogate mother. I fertilize it with female twin filled hallways. Fertilization, an infinite hotel. And everything is there. The child’s red mothers. The child’s father. I am also there. There is also a nursery. I hide myself beneath a blanket of solidified lava. I hide there among animal limbs and sawn off pipes of bone. My twin filled stomach valves (a goosefoot valve, a pizzeria valve, a vulgar valve), perfected overnight. Cavities enable my ascent. Mistresses! Come and save me, pull me out of myself!”
The second section, “Twilight (1981) by Odd Nerdrum,” reads as an embodiment of Nerdrum’s Baroque-style kitsch painting of the same name. In numerous interviews, Nerdrum has championed Kitsch over Art saying that Art is about craftsmanship while Kitsch is about the individual. He does not consider himself an Artist. “Art desires acceptance,” but Nerdrum says he does not serve Art. He serves only himself. He notes that the artwork that existed during medieval times was not called Art. And he believes this quality of medievalism will eventually repeat itself. Additionally, the year in which he painted “Twilight” also happened to be the same year Sara Tuss Efrik was born. Efrik complicates the story by writing her birth date into “The Night’s Belly” and much of the action reminded me of scenes from Persona Peep Show. In fact, there is even a scene in the film at 11:00 when she appears to be mimicking the shitting girl as she squats.
“Because the night’s belly is still inflated. Because all exist as reflections. Because repetition creates monsters. Because there’s no reason to apologize for taking the necessary actions. Because she already transformed her body into a blasphemy perpetuated by eternity. Because she is a cask of lively aromas. The Fruits of Nature. She is the shitting girl in Odd Nerdrum’s 1981 painting, Twilight—and she was born the same year. She was born in a clearing, in a pile of her own shit. She voraciously devoured that shit. Licking her lips.”
This recalls the “relentless fascination of the image” that Johannes pointed out in his Gurlesque-ing Bergman post and the “blurring of life and art” that James Pate previously mentioned in his thoughts on Persona Peep Show. These suffocating maze-like conditions construct a womb of hallways filled with reproductions that prompt Efrik’s protagonist—or maybe even Efrik herself—to fantasize about a “culture without writing.” Laura Ellen Joyce recently said Efrik “succeeds in cloning Persona’s separate parts in order to both destroy and recreate the original film in a deliberate act of failed reproduction.” I think Efrik is equally successful with her treatment of The Shining. “The Night’s Belly” is a rewriting of Kubrick’s rewriting of Freud’s Gothic Oedipal struggle as well as Stephen King’s original novel. Efrik eventually demands that the reader avoid seeing The Shining altogether. The spirt of it—the ghost, the copy of it—is what goes on living in a zombie-like manner.
pull up your feet and settle into a little girl’s room
pull up your feet and settle into a gaping grandmother
up with your feet, and settle into the wolf’s jaw
into this skin
Efrik’s lines of poetry are often mutative and complex. At first glance, I translated Efrik’s “sover törnrosa” as “sleeping sleeping beauty.” Then, I translated it again as “sleeping briar rose.” However, after taking the entire stanza into consideration,
och in i huden
I felt that the “rosa” or “rose” was key in linking “törnrosa” (aka “Thorn Rose,” or “Little Briar Rose,” or “Sleeping Beauty”) to undead notions of rising as well as the “rose” flower. I felt “thorn rose” sounded closest to the original Swedish, so I finally translated the stanza as it appears in the above excerpt. I like how each noun suddenly strings itself to the next via line breaks or hyphens, conveying a continuous mutation of language: thorn / rose / zombie / rose / thorn / zombie.
The unnerving fairy tale comes to a close with “The Must-Dos of Disorder;” a final chapter where daytime television feels more like paralysis; where nighttime creeps over one’s belly; where employment is anything but plentiful; where the future resembles roadkill; where a mother’s interior waste is thoroughly explored. The maze expands further and further:
My green dress has the symmetrical pattern of a Rorschachian ultrasound, or maybe a butterfly minus the wings. My husband thinks my dress is laughable. I inherited it from my grandmother. We are at our first ultrasound examination. I’m lying on a bed of crisp paper. One of the red mistresses rub my belly. An object slides over my taut skin. From within the gray sound waves on the screen appears the creature’s undeveloped testes. They look like the pattern on my dress.
Jack Nicholson’s mind is possessed. Like my body, my dress.