Set in 90s Norway, Girls Against God is inspired by B-horror films and the occult, going deep into the gender power plays in the language we use and the monstrous female body
There’s a Nietzschean angst to the unnamed protagonist in Girls Against God, Jenny Hval’s second novel. Set against the suburban drawl of Norway’s Bible belt, the book loosely follows the formative years of a young girl navigating the repressive Christian society of 1990s Norway, onto university in the US, and back in Oslo, where she forms a black metal band. It is a non-linear, diaristic stream of consciousness that is peppered with poetic fragments and scenes akin to B-horror movies. What starts off as a stanch, teenaged rejection of her surroundings – the opening line, “I hate God”, says as much – goes deeper to explore witchcraft, feminism, and the monstrous female body, all against an oppressive provincial backdrop.
Hval’s protagonist is a character in flux; she is a rebellious teen who dyes her hair black, reads Dostoevsky, and sabotages class photographs by hissing “fuck hell!”. “I wanted to write about someone who’s very young at the time of the black metal movement,” Hval tells me over the phone. “She’s obviously very angry, but she can’t be angry together with this movement, because they’re all guys and they’re interested in a certain type of expression.”
Hatred, then, becomes a tool for self-exploration; it’s a way around the accepted gender norms – even within the rebellious music of black metal – that dictate how she can and can‘t act. “What the protagonist doesn’t want to be is what she thinks she already is. That she is vulnerable or weak because of her sex,” she explains. “The word ‘hate’ is big and male and dangerous, whereas girls are usually ‘sad’ or ‘solemn’, words that are non-threatening.”
Reading Girls Against God, one can draw parallels between Hval’s nameless narrator and the author, with her own upbringing in the southern town of Grimstad. Like her character, Hval grew up in the 90s and dabbled in Norwegian metal (she was the vocalist of a gothic metal band Shellyz Raven until 1999), before moving to Australia to study creative writing and performance, then heading back to Oslo to pursue her solo career.
“I can only speak from my own experience, although I wouldn’t necessarily call it autobiographical,” she says. “Growing up in a small town, you don’t have a huge choice of people or opportunities, so it’s hard to understand language as something that can contain otherness, or even have the capacity to analyse the world outside of the binaries.”
Often, Hval’s first-person narrative feels like an extension of the artist’s broader work, a Kathy Acker-esque blend of surrealism, the self, and reappearing motifs of menstrual blood, death, sex, spit, and shit. In one dreamlike sequence, a dinner party is frequented by mysterious figures, each like a “mix of priest and demon”. One is made from spaghetti, which prompts a guest to, naturally, eat said spaghetti clergy-demon, prompting the others to realise that all the demons are edible (“the demonic spaghetti isn’t real food but it satisfies some other need,” concludes Hval). Another ritual involves a dissolving man with a magical, rotting vagina, from which an egg is violently birthed. He subsequently disintegrates into a puddle of black gruel.
“Growing up in a small town, you don’t have a huge choice of people or opportunities, so it’s hard to understand language as something that can contain otherness, or even have the capacity to analyse the world outside of the binaries” – Jenny Hval
“We had looked at a lot of low-budget horror movies from the 70s,” Hval explains. She loves the trippiness of splatter films; the “weird plot twists, visceral themes, bad effects, dissections of humans” that seem to be “made so cheaply it’s almost ridiculous”. “Low budget horror films are super interesting to me because when you’re not trying to make people believe the story, or you’re not trying to convince someone it’s scary, there’s much more focus on conceptual, visual details. The film is an artwork, rather than a narrative cash machine.”
For Hval, Girls Against God is a practice in seeing “straight through the form and into the contents”. Its freeform style, though not the easiest to navigate at times, is typical of the artist, whose conceptual music, like low-budget horror, draws on cryptic imagery and experimental soundscapes to inspire moods within the listener. On her 2016 album Blood Bitch, this translates to contrasting textures, the use of synths that feel both strange and familiar, grounded yet floaty. Lyrically, it draws on vampire movies, horror tropes of pulp, marrow, and blood. “Period Piece” weaves in sloping melodies like a tapestry, as she describes a scene in a gynecologist’s office (“Don’t be afraid,” she says, “it’s only blood”), while “The Great Undressing” involves a meta-commentary in which Hval’s bandmates discuss the record itself. (Zia Anger: “What’s this album about, Jenny?” Annie Bielski: “It’s about vampires.” Anger: “No!” Bielski: “Yeah... Well, it’s about more things than that...”). “It’s nice to be able to refer to a book instead of a record where a lot of the words exist just as synthesisers or sounds for me,” explains Hval.
Girls Against God takes on this freeform approach. By the time the book concludes, any remnants of structure have unravelled. It’s disorientating yet profound, absurd, but deadly serious. The rigid binaries between ‘love’ and ‘hate’ begin to disintegrate too. “I remember how much hope there is in hatred,” Hval writes, as our narrator ascends from God-hating teen to full adult witch. Magic is positioned in opposition to God, a way to dismantle the power structures set out, typically, by men. But they’re also two sides of the same coin: “The witch’s artistic expression is of course witchcraft, but just like the priests and the establishment, she uses both the body and words to give the craft life,” Hval writes. “When all is said and done, magic is just a better word for God, faith, words, and the existence of God.” In this spooky season and with no blueprint for the month’s ahead in the real world, it’s a sentiment to hold close.
Girls Against God is out now on Verso