Thora Hjörleifsdóttir’s brilliantly uneasy new novel, Magma, opens with chlamydia. Our narrator, Lilja, 20, is being questioned by her boyfriend about contracting the disease while she was traveling abroad before they were seriously dating. He demands to know who she’s slept with. Reluctant to be totally honest at first, she begins to divulge more of her sexual history to him until he breaks up with her at the end of the first chapter.
“I didn’t know it would be such a big deal,” she thinks. “It’s not like it’s incurable. Nobody’s going to die.” It’s the kind of ambivalent understatement about sex and its fallout that made Lena Dunham’s Girls and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag into cultural juggernauts. For such characters, ironic detachment while recounting the pleasure and humiliations of sex constitute personal agency. But in Magma, as in life, agency can be a brutal delusion.
Magma, translated from the Icelandic by Meg Matich, is essentially plotless and takes as its subject the span of the relationship between Lilja and her first serious boyfriend, who goes unnamed. Lilja is in that aimless post-high-school period; she thinks about doing a university course or maybe getting a job, but mostly she thinks about her boyfriend, a graduate student, irresistibly shambolic in the way of grad students who date people too young to see through them. We find them at the moment they decide to get serious about each other, just before the aforementioned chlamydia makes it awkward. Lilja thinks he is “beautiful and smart — I don’t know how many books he owns, at least a few hundreds, and he has this crazy DVD collection.” He thinks mostly about his vegetarianism, the women he meets online, but not very often about Lilja or the children he’s fathered with other women.
Hjörleifsdóttir has a poet’s sense of compression and scale, but a prosaic unwriterliness somewhere between Sheila Heti and Karl Ove Knausgård. The chlamydia scene goes down in a swift page and a half, the sort of dynamic section that characterizes Magma — the longest chapter can’t be more than a handful of pages. I kept wanting to take pictures of the book and post them on Twitter and Instagram. There’s something compulsively shareable about these chapters — the unadorned and frank way they depict how we act when we are debased by the people we desire.
The second chapter, “Bachelor I,” opens with Lilja and her boyfriend-slash-not-boyfriend hanging out once again in his terrible apartment. They’ve been hooking up but aren’t really a couple. She notes the murkiness of their arrangement: “We aren’t together, but I’m with him all the time.” From there, we see Lilja’s boundaries repeatedly challenged and then violated. In “Hygiene,” she describes his increasing interest in piss play: “He usually wants to piss on my back. But sometimes he wants me to rest on my knees while he pees over my head. Once, he peed in my mouth. I didn’t like that.” In “Oral Sex,” he sarcastically berates her when she wants to stop during sex. Lilja also feels gratified by his sexual desire for her. She observes, “Some mornings, when I wake up, he’s so hungry for me that he’s already pushed himself inside me. It’s almost automatic how he just slips in. Then he’s so gentle that I feel a sting of gratitude.” The coercive pressure Lilja internalizes leads to chapters like “Limits I,” where she agrees to have anal sex with him despite not enjoying it because “I want him to believe I’m the best in bed.” In “Limits II,” he erodes another boundary: “I asked him to stop, asked him if I could just get a wash cloth. I pictured his penis, the little clots of fecal matter clung to it as it slid into my vagina. It was like an extreme version of wiping in the wrong direction. But he was so horny and so hungry for me that he couldn’t stop before he got off.”
Later, Lilja reflects on whether she can convince her boyfriend-slash-not-boyfriend to stay with her if she continues to break under his mistreatment: “He’s never going to be my boyfriend, especially if I act like this. But I can’t control myself — I’m always crying — always sensitive — always horrible.” A few lines later, she recounts sobbing in a bathroom after oral sex again: “I was ashamed for being so pathetic. I beat my head against the toilet, feeling like an animal that had been locked in its own cage.” There’s a case to be made that this kind of frank writing has come to stand in for honesty — discomfort as an aesthetic project more than anything else. A minimalism of debasement. In Magma, though, the cumulative effect of many such self-recriminations is a sense of dramatic irony. We see a young woman increasingly substituting an abuser’s logic for her own, and we see the ways that such a substitution damages her. What I found most striking about this novel was its willingness to depict the drowsy, twilit magical thinking of a coercive, obsessive relationship. The terrifying way that intimate partner abuse can feel banal.
It’s not all dire. There is a mordant humor here. One feels, around Lilja’s earnestness, the author’s impeccable timing. In a chapter titled “Willpower I,” after finding out that he’s cheated on her with his ex, Lilja declares to herself: “He called, left a message, but I was a Teflon woman — everything slid off me.” Then, in the next chapter, wryly titled “Willpower II”: “For about fifteen minutes.” The humor sneaks up on you; it’s funny because it’s not really funny at all.
Yet things do grow serious in Magma. There is, near the middle of the book, a short chapter called “Ephemera,” in which a younger version of Lilja seems to blog about her rape. It’s an arresting and brilliant feat of narrative, this little interruption, presented without fanfare or changes of font or formatting: “I was raped this weekend. I swear I wasn’t trying to get with that guy, I didn’t even like him, but that’s how it goes. One way or another, we all lose our virginity somehow.” The following chapter further elaborates on the event, but just barely, and then the novel moves on, as though we hadn’t been granted this peek into the dark recesses of Lilja’s history. A few chapters later, we get the aforementioned “Limits I” and “Limits II,” and there is a temptation to want to read into the proximity of these chapters, but I think that’s a stretch. The novel isn’t making a case that a traumatic event makes one more susceptible to these kinds of horrifying relationships. That would be a sly form of victim blaming. Still, it’s a brilliant bit of structuring that puts the difficult moments of Lilja’s life into tension with each other rather than positing a simple causation.
Why is it that we end up in relationships with people who do not care for us or are unable to express care in ways that are not toxic and damaging? Why is it that so many of us stay in these relationships, wasting time, energy, love, and ourselves on people who are content to take and take, and worse, harm us? Freud says in On Narcissism: An Introduction that when you’ve relinquished a portion of your own narcissism for whatever reason — trauma, society, personality — there is nothing more attractive than someone whose narcissism is intact. And to the brutalized, there’s nothing more appealing than someone who doesn’t seem to need them. Lilja stays for the same reason so many of us stay — because of internalized abuser logic. That the bad stuff makes the few crumbs of kindness, love, and desire directed our way worth it. We stay, too, because it feels like a choice we are making. But in these relationships, there are no choices, only traps. Magma is profane, funny, and uncomfortably honest about what happens when we substitute someone’s image of us for self-knowledge.