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In 'Present Tense Machine,' the allegory of The Fall becomes a linguistic accident

<em>Present Tense Machine: A Novel,</em> by Gunnhild Øyehaug
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Present Tense Machine: A Novel, by Gunnhild Øyehaug

At the start of Gunnhild Øyehaug's Present Tense Machine, a mother misreads the word trädgård — Norwegian for garden — as tärdgård, a nonsensical word, as her young daughter plays nearby. The mistake triggers the expulsion of the child from her life.

Thus the allegory of The Fall becomes a linguistic accident, rather than a hubristic quest for knowledge. From this irrevocable error, the mother's world is spliced into two parallel universes — rendering her invisible and forgotten to her daughter and vice-versa.

Anna and Laura, mother and daughter respectively — exiled from each other but continuing to exist as thinkers and artists in their respective worlds — each often feel an absence akin to a vague but persistent unmooring. Anna, a novelist, worries whether her writing career and teenage children — born long after her accidental cosmic split from her first child Laura — can thrive without her vigilance. Laura, a literary scholar heavily pregnant with her first child, tries to ward off dangers both in her home environment and inside her own mind. Motherhood and each woman's creative identity represent the novel's central duality: To be a biological mother is to be bound by time, physically and psychically divided by gestation and birth, yet to be a creator is to assume an eternal, genderless, and indivisible presence.

The notion of parallel worlds brought into existence by error is based on the Bible story of the Tower of Babel in which God, offended by mankind's desire to build a tall structure to challenge his authority, introduced languages into their midst as a dividing tactic. But by synthesizing the sci-fi trope of parallel universes with stories from Genesis, as well as Greek mythology (i.e., Orpheus and Eurydice, Demeter and Persephone), Present Tense Machine — seamlessly translated by Kari Dickson — assumes varied yet unifying forms: as a gestational fable with a beginning, and middle, but no end; a metaphysical poem on infinite loop; a refutation and affirmation of mortality; and a lyrical essay on the gaps between an original text and its translation. Ultimately, as an ingeniously constructed "machine," Øyehaug's novel evokes a cosmos that can simultaneously expand and compress.

Aside from Anna and Laura, who unknowingly mirror each other in the book's halved universes, Øyehaug also intrudes from time to time as a bodiless "voice," complaining about her wet boots, the bad Nordic weather, and the lack of writing paper that keeps her from ending the novel. This authorial intrusion, in highlighting Øyehaug's various discomforts as she depicts two fictional women struggling to overcome their existential angst, is meta, comical, ironic: The novelist, while playing a transcendent God, seems as flawed and life-like as her characters.

In some way, the idea of linguistic error or wordplay as shaping a person's trajectory seems literally more human(e), even serendipitous, than the classical notion of tragedy, where individuals are inexorably destroyed by the gods. When Anna's misreading separates her from Laura, other social dynamics gracefully realign to mitigate her loss. For example, immediately after the schism, in the first universe, Bård, Anna's first husband, confesses to her he has fallen in love with Sara, a colleague. His revelation nevertheless seems anticlimactic, even soothing, as Anna is convinced she has lost something far more visceral that she can't recall. In the second universe, Laura, growing up with no memory of Anna, has Sara, Bård's wife, for a doting mother "who [cannot] remember not having met Laura before."

Laura, like her forgotten mother, misreads words. In a sequence that mirrors Anna's misreading of trädgård into tärdgård, Laura reads the painted sign on a street sweeper as "Presens Maskin," or Present Tense Machine, while it actually says, rather boringly, "Presis Maskin" — Precise Machine.

Also, in an example of life imitating art, translator Kari Dickson, when asked about errors in translation, responded that once, in translating a Norwegian crime novel, she nearly turned rømlingene (fugitives) into romlingene (rumblings), while describing a snowmobile chase over an icy landscape.

Thus mistakes, omissions, accidents — rather than perfection — create new understandings, deepening one's awareness that art, built upon the instability of language and the diversity of human experience, can be as mutable as life. Anna and Laura, like Øyehaug, cannot resist their irrepressible yet mundane existences, which remind them of Erik Satie's Vexations — a short, idiosyncratic piano piece that must be repeated 840 times as a relay performance:

"There is always a tone that slips out of line, it's like hearing what it sounds like to get something wrong, what it's like to stumble all the time, what it's like constantly to be trying to get something on track, only the track keeps moving ... [something like] an enormous, yet at the same time very small irritation, beautiful because it is incomprehensible, and therefore all the more irritating."

But it's no accident that Anna and Laura simultaneously play Satie's piece in their respective universes, on June 16, 2019 — Bloomsday. As a structural, linguistic, and aural pun, Øyehaug's symbolic attempt to reunite Anna with Laura also merges Aristotle's classical concept of narrative unity with Satie's – and with James Joyce's modernist notion of holistic, yet fragmentary present.

Thúy Đinh is a freelance critic and literary translator. Her work can be found at She tweets @ThuyTBDinh.

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Thúy Đinh