The sound of urine hitting a porcelain bowl rings in your ear, bouncing off high ceilings to reverberate throughout the air. As you read Jenny Hval‘s Paradise Rot, it becomes clear that Hval is writing for the senses, conjuring with almost nauseating accuracy sensations both mundane and extraordinary. The motifs swirl across the pages: the uncannily soft texture of a slowly spreading fungus, the saturated stench and taste of overripe apples, the endlessly echoing plinks of streams of urine, the pale yellow-white of elderly skin and hair—a world that is completely saturated, about to burst. By the time you close the book, you practically expect the pages to be damp and stained from the juice of apples.
Paradise Rot is not necessarily a pleasurable read, blurring the lines of the coming-of-age genre with psychological horror and rendered in such lucid, impressionistically descriptive prose that merely reading it makes you feel fairly woozy. The skeleton of Paradise Rot—the ostensible plot—tells the story of Jo, a young Norwegian woman who moves to a small town in the United Kingdom to study biology, and moves in with Carral, a mysterious older girl, who lives in a renovated old brewery.
And that’s where the sensations begin to pile up, both for Jo and for the reader, because their apartment in the brewery barely has any walls, and the walls that have been constructed are thin, shoddy affairs that don’t reach the ceiling. Every sound carries, whether it’s the rustle of hair swinging in a ponytail or, as we experience along with Jo multiple times, Carral using the toilet; every smell carries, like the nearly-rotten apples Carral brings home. There’s simply no privacy; Jo and Carral therefore grow closer in ways both intentional and unintentional, until it’s no longer clear to the reader whether Carral is another character or merely a manifestation of how Jo sees herself in her new life in a foreign country.
If Paradise Rot were to catch on and become popular (or if it took the form of a television miniseries), the inevitable water-cooler discussions would certainly center on whether Carral actually “exists”. There are clever little hints dropped by Hval throughout the short novel (it’s barely 150 pages) that indicate a growing convergence between the eccentric Carral and the rather passive Jo. It’s seen as Jo becomes accustomed to taking tea with milk in the British way (rather than the Norwegian way) soon after moving in with Carral. One of Jo’s classmates notices that she changes around Carral, speaking with a similar accent and acting oddly around her in public. Towards the end of the novel, it’s seen when Carral discusses Jo’s childhood memories as if they were Carral’s own.
Indeed, Just as Jo’s biology lecture about mycology seems to spill over into her life in the brewery as mushrooms appear in the bathtub, parts of Jo’s own life become intertwined with Carral’s. (There’s also what could be a red herring alluded to later in the story, where one of Jo’s classmates mentions that the brewery is supposedly haunted by a dead girl. But I prefer to think of Carral as less of a specter haunting their apartment, more a facet of Jo’s personality.)
If we read the relationship between Jo and Carral as Carral being alter egos, of sorts, then Jo’s later actions begin to make sense; it’s as if Carral is giving her permission to explore her sexuality. Jo only picks up the trashy romantic novel Moon Lips after Carral has left it lying around the apartment. Clearly, Carral enjoyed its purple prose. Jo only hooks up with their neighbor Pym after Carral suggests they find someone for Jo to lose her virginity to.
As Jo bleeds into Carral, Carral bleeds back into Jo: Carral, in turn, has sex with Pym after Jo does, and Carral hijacks Pym’s preposterous prose novel to add a short piece about two women feasting on a man, destroying him, then combining into one being. At this point the lack of privacy in the apartment begins to make sense, in a way: after all, there’s no privacy from yourself, as much as you might try to hide parts of yourself from the other parts.
Of course, there’s the opposite way to interpret this strange relationship: Carral and Jo are both real, and their merging is merely symbolic as they become closer and closer, a sort of quasi-literal rendering of how people’s identities change when they form intimate bonds with one another. The heightened reality of Paradise Rot, then, could be read as highlighting Jo’s unfamiliarity with being in a relationship, and her own fears of losing herself to this mysterious other girl.
As Jo grows more used to life in the former brewery, she and Carral become more intimate, going from what seems to begin with Carral crawling into Jo’s bed to Carral’s eventual… disintegration, as if she has been absorbed into Jo when Jo packs up and leaves the brewery for good. The disintegration of any narrative propulsion in Paradise Rot, as the story goes on, seems to mirror how unreal Carral feels to the reader. Where Paradise Rot starts off with the structure of Jo going to her university classes, it slowly begins to become less linear, as half-remembered dreams and surreal lines of thought blur into one another. Like Jo and Carral in bed together, the two becoming one in multiple ways.