My reading life is one author poorer than it should be but wouldn’t be if only Swedish writer Mirja Unge’s novels were translated into English. The only Unge I have access to is a single, highly-stylized story, “It was just, Yesterday,” which was anthologized by Maria Crossan in Elsewhere: Stories from Small Town Europe (2007) for the UK’s Comma Press. Crossan’s excellent introduction invites us to reconsider what “we mean by ‘small town,’” and to question how “and why this seemingly innocuous demographic term—one up from ‘village,’ a couple down from ‘city’—[has] come to function as a pejorative adjective, and as a derogatory description of a particular mindset.” While all ten stories in the collection take this judgment to task—elegantly, interestingly, uniquely—my favorite is Unge’s.
Why? For several reasons: first, because I’m pretty sure the narrator is a lesbian; second, because, if she’s not, she sure is conflicted about the fact that she lost her virginity the night before with a guy she picked up at a corner store while trying to scam strangers into buying her booze. This is that new generation of pre-teen and teenaged girls we keep hearing about: the girls who don’t really know why they keep having sex with boys they don’t know, and who feel so sad and alone inside while hoping someone will find them, and love them, and save them. These girls may end up posting nude pictures of themselves online. Or maybe they are the girls who end up having videos of themselves posted on the internet by the guys who took turns using them all night for the camera, for no other reasons but that she was there, she allowed them to, and they never thought to stop. But this story takes place before all that. This story ends on that crucial moment when the girl’s best friend has all the power, and all she has to say, no matter how she says it, is: I love you. I love you enough for the both of us. And this will not happen again because I will not let it. I love and respect you too much.
According to Comma Press’s website, Mirja Unge “was born in Stockholm in 1973. She received the Katapult Award for her critically acclaimed first novel, Det var ur munnarna orden kom, in 1998. In 2000 she published her second novel, Järnnätter. The same year her novel Motsols (Tide) was shortlisted for the Swedish Radio Award. [. . . And in] April 2007, her debut short story collection was published under the title Brorsan är matt, and received widespread praise for its fresh and idiosyncratic style.” And they’re not lying. I’ve never read a more stylistic story. The language bumps off the page and skids and slides in stops and starts. Not only does Unge pull off these flourishes but she nails teenage angst—though I hate to use the word “angst.” It’s more like . . . incredibly emotional emptiness. It’s that feeling you have when you break up with your boyfriend of two or three years because no matter how many great qualities he has he’s just not the guy you’re going to marry, and it’s like that feeling after he gives you your key and leaves. It’s like that space he used to fill in the room. The smell of him you can still smell in the air. The toothbrush that isn’t yours, which you won’t see until much later that night while getting ready for a bed that seems too large. It’s emotional overload. And emptiness. Physical, yes. But also mental. Because it’s your own damn fault he’s gone.
That I feel—based on just one short story—a sense of want based on not being able to read Unge’s three novels because they have not yet been translated to English, astounds me. This one story is that wonderful, and just as consistently surprising at every stylistic turn. “It was just, Yesterday” has stayed with me through the years, and this seems especially relevant because Unge’s author bio reveals that her “most devoted fans are younger audiences, whose problems she deals with in her works (particularly the confusing experiences of young girls growing up).” So it makes sense that I would be drawn to the content as well as her particular prose style. Here’s how “It was just, Yesterday” begins:
If I run at five to eight I’m just in time for the bus and sitting on the bus as usual is that Down’s kid and he’s the King of the Bus. He goes right to the last stop at the special school, so he sits there shouting all the time, he does it every morning when you get on and this morning too of course. [. . . ] He laughs and slaps his bus pass on his thigh, I sit on one of the seats in front of him and check my hair in my little mirror, there it is jet black on my head. It’s only one stop to where Thea gets on and she’d said fucking hell it looks really cool when I dyed it and black suited me she said and pulled her fingers through it Thea did. The bus pulls in by the church and Thea and her brother get on and Thea’s cropped her hair all over so her neck and throat you can’t take your eyes off them. Welcome onto the bus, shouts the King of the Bus and Thea’s done her lips purple.
Now that Thea’s on the bus, the narrator’s gaze never wanders from her, even as they converse, recall recent events, and fill each other in on their previous night’s adventures, which includes the subject of losing one’s virginity. When Thea asks if the boy was good-looking, the narrator can only think of Thea and how, “sometimes she laughs and wants us to kiss.” We learn that the narrator left her bottle of wine behind—the bottle of wine that was the reason for her meeting, talking to, and then going home with the boy in the first place—and when Thea asks why, the narrator tells us:
[I]t was hurting somewhere it was empty and some huge damn lonely thing was just swelling and swelling and I didn’t realize I didn’t know because I hadn’t said anything, I hadn’t pushed away his body I’d just lain there on the sofa and it had felt like my belly and crotch were bursting when he came in and Iron Maiden were screaming and my head was thumping against the arm of the sofa thump thump against the arm and I didn’t say anything I didn’t do anything but I was there with my head against the arm and Iron Maiden and the whisky in my head thump thump.
Although we have been entirely in the narrator’s head throughout the story, we don’t know what compelled her to have sex with the boy other than perhaps the same reasons all girls everywhere lose their virginity when they don’t think much of it and are drunk. On the other hand, we know that she pays attention to Thea: “The bus slams on the brakes for an elk or something, it’s obviously deer trotting across the road into the forest and Thea’s rolling fags, Thea’s painted her nails green and there’s a scent floating about in everything that’s hers, her clothes and room and hair, lovely and soft it’s there.” It is probably not a huge stretch to wonder if she was thinking about Thea throughout that ordeal, to wonder if she was imagining herself with Thea, or perhaps that she was in some way getting even with or hurting her because she was not, in fact, with Thea but with some nameless, forgettable boy.It is this narrator’s particular psychology that makes Unge’s unwritten storylines so compelling, as they offer up so many possibilities for potential readings. It would be incredible, then, to see Mirja Unge’s writing on the larger scale and at work in her novels. If the scope of what she accomplishes in a single short story is this satisfying, one can only imagine what she can do with that broader canvas.