Ian Mond reviews Gunnhild Øyehaug’s Present Tense Machine – Locus Online

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present machineGunnhild Øyehaug (Farrar, Straus, Giroux 978-0-37423-717-2, $25.00, 176pp, hc) January 2022.

Parallel universes seem to be everywhere I look these days. I know this is an inflated effect by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but as I write this my social media feeds are abuzz with the trailer for Everything, everywhere, all at once – a multiverse adventure starring Michelle Yeoh. Of course, parallel realities have been a source of speculative fiction for decades; it is, however, rarer to see the multiverse appear in works by non-genre authors (as opposed to time travel and apocalyptic dystopias, which the literary establishment has embraced). Then comes the Norwegian poet and writer Gunnhild Øyehaug. Originally published in Norway in 2018, Øyehaug’s second novel present machinetranslated into English by Kari Dickson, presents us with one of the most unique treatments of a parallel universe.

present machine tells the story of Anna and her daughter Laura. Now in her 40s, Anna is a popular author who writes under a pseudonym and is working on a novel about the nature of language. His daughter Laura is an English teacher who lives with her partner and musician Karl Peter in a small apartment in Møhlenpris and is pregnant with their first child. So far, so simple. That is, until we find out that neither Anna nor Laura is aware of the other’s existence. You see, when Laura was two and a half years old, riding around on her tricycle, her mother unknowingly split reality in two. As the narrator explains, Anna was reading a book when her eyes caught the word “trädgårdar” (gardens) and confused it with the nonsense word “tärdgård”.

[No-one knew] that by misinterpreting the word precisely in this way, as if some mysterious higher being had grafted this potential onto the word, a parallel universe would open up – just as the words trädgård and tärdgård seem identical if you look at them quickly – and if we were in a garden at the time of this misreading, for the first time on earth we disappeared there. But: This is precisely what happened.

Anna is the most immediately affected by this sudden excision of Laura. She knows she has lost someone or something but doesn’t know who or what, and as such is convinced she is suffering from a stroke. For Laura, it is only as she gets older, as she begins to experience moments of deja vu – especially when Laura returns to the place she lived as a child in another reality – that she begins to ask why no one, including her father Bård, knows who Laura’s mother is.

Genre fiction is replete with instances where a specific word or slogan has a marked effect on reality, though I doubt any of them are as accidental and random as the one described by Øyehaug. However, the sudden and abrupt birth of Anna and Laura’s parallel worlds is just one example of Øyehaug’s playful approach to his subject. The book is peppered with these fascinating digressions on subjects as vast as the origins of language (to the Tower of Babel and Noam Chomsky), “Interstellar” by Jonathan Nolan, the music of the French composer Erik Satie (his experimental piece “Vexations” acts as the novel’s soundtrack), and a delightfully biting bit about how Elena Ferrante ruined the pseudonym. Then there is the story’s narrator, who is neither Anna nor Laura. Not only do they fit into the story, knocking quite cruelly on Anna’s door knowing Anna can’t see them (“because I was the narrator, and I’m invisible”), they also regularly reminisce about the chapter we’re rereading (“This is the twenty-third chapter. There’s hardly anyone here, just a few sleeping horses standing”) and provide updates on their socks (wet or dry) and their Kipp dog. When mishandled, this kind of meta-narrative can be on the nose, but that’s not the case here. In a book that is partly about the complex, even transcendent quality of language, it makes sense to have a narrator who strips away the artifice of storytelling.

While present machine scores in terms of execution and delivery, like a book about a mother and daughter trying to come to terms with a loss they can’t verbalize, it’s less successful. It’s mainly because the crises the two women face are so innocuous – Anna has doubts about her job, Laura has doubts about her marriage – that it’s unclear why reality had to break to resolve these issues. banal. In fact, the character most deeply affected by the split in the multiverse is Bård, Anna’s ex-husband and Laura’s father, who exists in both worlds and has times when he loses focus, straying walks away, trying to recover a memory that no longer exists. . In these moments we see the effect that I believe Øyehaug was looking for.

And yet, despite these reservations, there is an effrontery and a charm to present machine it is therefore difficult not to appreciate, even like, this book.


Ian Mond likes to talk about books. For eight years, he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently, he relaunched his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and again publishes mostly vulgar reviews of an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at mondyboy74@gmail.com.


This review and others like it in the February 2022 issue of Location.

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