Theis Ørntoft

Theis Ørntoft

Theis Ørntoft

Fotografkreditering: Sara Galbiati, Gyldendal Medie
Theis Ørntoft: Jordisk. Novel, Gyldendal, 2023. Nominated for the 2024 Nordic Council Literature Prize.



How do we describe the complex state known as the Anthropocene? That is, an epoch where humanity has become a geological force, altering the planet. Can we tell a story about it in a novel? The answer is that we probably can’t. The reason is that the underlying factors are so intricate that they can hardly be narrated. Narratives require specific individuals, causality, intentions, agency. And these are all things that don’t make sense within the framework of the Anthropocene. However, what we can tell the story of is all the poor people who find themselves in misery. People who are subject, if not to fate, then at least to the state of the planet, and who can do nothing but remain in the struggle and, to the best of their ability, try to make it all work in some random place in an incredibly vast solar system that’s been so fortunate as to develop life on one of its eight planets. This is the starting point in Theis Ørntoft’s Jordisk (in English: “Earthly”). 


In it, we meet Ernst. The year is 1967 and he’s in Tenerife with his wife Inger. At a hotel party, during which she went to bed early, he’s invited to dance by a flirtatious woman he’s never met before, but instead chooses to take a taxi up to a mountain. For a brief moment we may think that Ernst is reaching out and knocking on the Milky Way itself, but it turns out it’s only the closed door to an observatory. There’s not much to distinguish the life of the planets and Ernst’s own inner life, as both are equally unfathomable, but the connection exists like a tremendous pull in life, which is neither manageable nor comprehensible. It’s precisely this pull that this great contemporary novel attempts to capture. 

In the novel, Ernst swaps his banking job for the oil industry because he fears a currency that’s only abstract, diffuse, and intangible. The ruptured connection of money to the physical becomes a metaphor for the reality in which the central characters in Jordisk all find themselves. A reality which, generally speaking, has detached itself from the concrete, both in thought and in action. 


The novel is divided into five parts, with an extensive cast of characters. Apart from Ernst, we also meet his daughter, Alice, and her three children: Joel, Rhea, and Miriam. Then there’s their American father, Nick, who after a stormy start to his marriage with Alice, slowly starts going downhill, gets divorced, and disappears back to the US. In Nick’s section, he is portrayed in a sober light, now also a father to the author and former snowboarder Julia.  

To this end, Ørntoft’s novel isn’t only American in its approach in the sense that it’s reminiscent of family novels by, for example, Jonathan Franzen, or its tributes to John Steinbeck’s epic East of Eden. Essentially, American blood flows in the majority of the book’s characters.  


In this way, the US, for better or worse, becomes defining for the era that the novel seeks to encapsulate. The style of the novel can seem somewhat emotionless, and the book was labelled by a critic as a “paralysis novel” – one might speak of prose infused with benzodiazepines – yet, precisely or perhaps because of that, we seamlessly transition from page to the next, from one unresolved narrative to another, as in the great collective films and series of recent years, such as Todd Solondz’s Happiness (1998) or the television series Succession (2018–2023). We glide effortlessly from life’s most important events to meaningless streams of information, such as when Alice, in the car on her way home shortly after burying her Ernst, remembers an old news story from 1971 about a black panther that escaped from Ålborg Zoo.  

All the characters in Jordisk suffer in their own way from being human, all too human. The most grounded and perhaps therefore the most heroic are Alice and Julia, while the men in the novel are generally haunted by impulses to flee and lose themselves in everything from alcohol, dystopian poetry, to slightly too young girls dancing on TikTok. 


Otherwise, we know Ørntoft best as a poet. He made his debut with Yeahsuiten in 2009 but had a true breakthrough with his dystopian poetry collection Digte 2014 in 2014. In 2018, he wrote his first novel Solar, which critics have described as a “brutally good book”, and which subsequently achieved cult status in certain circles. In Solar, the ending becomes lonely and surreal because the entire burden of humanity lands in one place, namely on the main character Theis, who, like in a computer game that’s being played to the very end, has nowhere else to flee. In Jordisk, the burden and the struggle are distributed among several people. The misanthropy isn’t as blatant as in Bret Easton Ellis or Michel Houellebecq, for example, because the interest in the characters we encounter remains sincere, albeit often bleak. Something in the novel, its gaze on the characters, insists on describing them as humans and not just figures, despite the paralysis and the subsequent disillusioned prose. Herein lies perhaps the only hope: That Jordisk is genuinely interested in the people it tells the story about, even though they may only be interested in themselves and the pull that the universe continually unfolds within them.