from The Bleed
by Lyra Ekström Lindbäck
introduced and translated by Emma Olsson
What does it mean to feel something for real? In Lyra Ekström Lindbäck’s novel Blödningen (The Bleed), several voices interrogate this question side by side, probing fiction, reality, and what exists in between. It tells the story of Em and her mother, Rosemarie, as remnants of fiction and imagination bleed into their everyday lives, threatening to break them down.
In the first of the novel’s three parts, Em partakes in a reality game – think performance art meets live-action role-play – and finds herself drawn to one of its characters. She seeks him out in real life and commences a relationship that blurs the line between real and imagined.
Meanwhile, Rosemarie encounters a former lover, a memory of a past self who is at odds with her current reality as a woman in a decades’ long marriage to a man. Her old flame, then a transgender woman, has detransitioned, and his current identity softens the harsh ridges of Rosemarie’s reality.
Wedged between these stories we find Ekström Lindbäck herself, or rather, her voice as an author: her ‘authorial I’. The following extract from the novel places us here, in the mind of the writer, in an essay that intercepts the fictional worlds of Em and Rosemarie.
from The Bleed
I hide my face in my hands. Soon I’ll pull the denim jacket to the tip of my nose, up over my head, allow myself to disappear for a bit. My breath creates a warm, humid zone. I can still feel her watching me. Not comfortable staring at my mute denim, she seems to let her gaze roam around the café while she waits. Ready to meet her again, I lower the jacket, giggle a little apologetically. ‘I always feel a need to hide my face after larping. Because I don’t really know who to be, or something.’ She smiles the mild smile of people with naturally downturned mouths. ‘What’s larping like? Isn’t it very exposing?’ The word choice feels characteristic for her. ‘Nah, writing’s probably worse for that. Even if it’s fiction, it isn’t good unless it’s for real, if you know what I mean.’ She nods, and I know from her books that she knows what I mean. Still, neither of us would be able to explain what ‘for real’ is.
The term bleed was coined by the larp community to describe an embarrassing mistake. When you can’t separate reality from fiction. You let your personal motives affect the game (bleed in), like by snapping at someone you don’t like who’s meant to be your character’s best friend. You continue to feel things from the larp afterwards (bleed out), like an acted love you can’t shake.
I’m leaving the novel’s characters now and becoming the authorial ‘I’ instead, the one rattling the keys on her ergonomic keyboard while the coffee cools in the cup before her, while the laundry goes mouldy in the machine in the kitchen, while the mice (who she’s never seen herself but since the visit from the plumber knows live quietly alongside her and her partner) crawl inside the walls, while red shadows of double-decker buses pass by outside the frosted windows of their ground-floor flat in West London, in the poorer no man’s land around Grenfell Tower called Notting Dale. Six months will pass unmarked in Rosemarie and Em’s lives. Several mixed-up years will float by in my own, in a singular, murky now.
To feel something for real. Nowadays, at least in the genre of Nordic Larp, bleed has become something sought-after. Game designers want the game to change participants. Want their personal experiences and feelings to influence the fictional world. In turn, participants want to leave the game feeling confused over what was real and what wasn’t.
In Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, the main character Anna reflects over her first novel:
Yet now what interests me is precisely this — why did I not write an account of what had happened, instead of shaping a ‘story’ which had nothing to do with the material that fuelled it. Of course, the straight, simple, formless account would not have been a ‘novel’, and would not have got published, but I was genuinely not interested in ‘being a writer’ or even in making money. I am not talking now of that game writers play with themselves when writing, the psychological game — that written incident came from that real incident, that character was transposed from that one in life, this relationship was the psychological twin of that. I am simply asking myself: Why a story at all — not that it was a bad story, or untrue, or that it debased anything. Why not, simply, the truth?
I always feel undone right after larping. My personality has been broken up and rearranged, my register and movements shifted. During the game I am, regardless of what difficult things I go through, invulnerable like in a dream. Afterwards I feel exposed. No behaviour is natural anymore, which doesn’t feel like a temporary discomfort but a general state that most people I encounter on the subway, on the street and in the grocery store deny with their whole existence. They are invulnerable, they are protected. But from what?
While the others take down the set design, we sneak away, sit down by the docks in the blinding light and raw West-Coast winds. My goosebumps are drawn to his paler, sun-warmed arms. I blink, confused. I can’t shake the mirage of wandering through a rainy, dystopian town, squeezed into a dark black box. He played an android who my character had created in her own image, and later fallen in love with. We mirrored each other even before he knew it, talked with the same irony cut with seriousness. He peers at me. ‘That’s so sick, we have almost the same eye colour, too.’ Closeness bleed, similarity bleed. The next time we meet I’ll be surprised at how incredibly different we are. Apart from the fact that we have the same piercings and are roughly the same height, we don’t look like each other at all.
As I write this down I get yet another feeling of losing my footing. Here I am at my studio desk in Hjorthagen wearing only a bra and shorts in this absurd summer heat; outside the window the trees are yellowing and shrivelled, and I watch as the little ice cubes melt quickly in the steamy glass. My body still beats with a hazy will, shadows of sensory memories glide over me, aromas and touches, an inward pull like after swimming in tidal water. Panicked, he lay shaking in my arms on the little bunk while they shot the other androids out in the street. And now it’s as if that never happened, as if the people we were then never existed. The ice cubes crack in the glass, become all the more transparent. If I distinguish the memories from the fiction, I’ll create just another hall of mirrors.
Bleed is real feelings, he writes to me. The body doesn’t know that it’s larping. The hormones that are released by closeness, stress and fear make it feel like you’ve gone through something real together. For the body, everything is real. For the brain, I read somewhere, the difference between dreams, fantasies and memories is only conceptual. We decide that they belong to different planes of life. Some things are real, some are not.
Fiction becomes a pretext, an alibi. That’s what most people think about role-play: that you dress up as an excuse to make out and cry and fight. That’s how Freud considered art in general. It’s true, both in regard to larping and other art forms, but it isn’t the whole truth.
You don’t create an aura of intimacy by dropping your pants in public; do that and most people will instinctively look away, Philip Roth said in an interview. Yet at the same time that’s exactly what the author does. How the poet achieves this is his innermost secret, Freud writes. The artist’s actual art exists in his ability to expose himself without provoking disgust in others, the disgust that is undoubtedly connected to the barriers that arise between every ‘I’ and the others. But maybe Freud has confused the means with the ends. Maybe you expose the throat, the sex, the heart precisely so that you can tear down the barriers between yourself and others. Your consciousness inside of my feelings. My perception around your desires. Bleed in, bleed out.
In order to survive, humans always carry with them an internal circulation of the outside world. Life began in the oceans, and has never left that, Isaac Asimov states in The Bloodstream. Inside, we are still oceans. The first organisms performed all of their cell processes in one shared fluid. When we crawled up onto land, we were forced to organise our own equivalent to the flowing distribution of oxygen. Seawater, in reality, became much more than just seawater. It became a living river of blood.
The feeling of lacking contours and of being at one with the universe is called oceanic, in a letter Freud received from a friend. The friend wanted to object to Freud’s dismissal of religion. Perhaps the oceanic experience is just a feeling, he writes, but it does lack perceptible bounds. Freud answers that this boundlessness is nothing more than an echo from infancy, which lasts until one stops being nursed and is forced to acknowledge the abyss that separates one’s self from others (what the mother might have felt when someone grew inside of her body is not commented on here). But such a state can also be found in adulthood, Freud grants – rarely, but not pathologically – when the borders surrounding the ego seem to melt away: when you’re in love.
In the summer of 2015 Matti and I fled to a cottage in Finnish Lapland. It was a sensationally warm summer, even above the Arctic Circle, which caused the normally rich insect population to fully explode. And by insects I of course mean mosquitoes. I sat in the anteroom of the sauna and tried to write about love. The psychedelic joy when we’d just met and each sensory impression felt like a part of our closeness, the knowledge that we had found a home in one another, all the shit from the outside world that we were forced to wade through, transphobia and depression: halusin kirjoittaa kaikesta, I wanted to write about all of it.
Everyone knows that there are lots of mosquitoes in the Nordic North. But this was something else, a bizarre state of emergency. They covered my gloves with their crawling, fragile bodies as I grabbed hold of the pen, they swarmed in front of my face net, landed all over my sweaty, clothed body and tried to suck my blood through the fibres of fabric.
The only moderately enlivened thing I wrote during those weeks was about the mosquitoes. I keep thinking about all the killing that goes on and that I can’t help but partake in it without itching and itching. My notebook is stained with smeared, brownish-black traces. On one page an entire little body has been preserved. Its torso is cylindrical and still contains a pair of dried, sprawled-out legs. On the other side, one of the wings has been pressed into the page. Here and there are dark brown dots of either my or the mosquitoes’ blood. Probably mine, that they’d sucked up.
We lived as though under siege in that little timber cottage. When we ran naked out of the sauna to throw ourselves into the lake we wore these silly camouflage hats and mosquito nets, so we could swim for a few minutes without having our faces disfigured by bites. When we went on walks we barely made it past the woods by the house, which actually weren’t woods at all as we were north of the tree line. Amidst the shrunken bushes I took out my notebook and Matti his camera. We agreed that we’d have to include the mosquitoes in anything we tried to capture to avoid going crazy.
I try to concentrate on the mosquitoes’ buzzing, right by my ears, on and around the netting. It has different pitches, probably due to differences in distance. Shrill, persistent, desperate sounds, perhaps from when they hit the net and turn around. For a short moment they go quiet: a breeze has forced them to cling to my clothes or else whirl away. I manage to smear one with my finger over the side, it leaves a trace like from a dirty eraser. I can’t think about anything but the mosquitoes. I sit down next to Matti on the soft, needle-strewn ground at the foot of an abnormally tall pine tree. He photographs the swarm between his red boots. Brings his palm to his knee and it gets covered by half a dozen black dots, he laughs and photographs them. Photographs me, with my gloves in front of my face full of crawling mosquitoes. It constantly feels like someone has come into my clothes and started crawling around. The camera on my face makes me even more aware of just how many mosquitoes there are. A small, almost unnoticeable insect darts over the ‘n’ in ‘many’.
Maybe it’s impossible to write about fortunate love. The only really good thing I’ve read is Arnold by Emilia Fogelklou, which starts with: Fifteen years have passed since Arnold Norlind left this world. Maybe it wouldn’t have been possible to write it had Arnold not died, if she hadn’t known he was about to pass away. As though what takes solid form in fiction must be a ghost in reality, a missing or a haunting.
Writing exposes something uncomfortable about one’s own will, something you cannot choose but that persistently asks for your consent. If you try to replace it with something intentional, the text won’t be interesting. If you insist on treating your life like material, your imagination will instead interfere with life, demand to influence it, break it down a little, potentially fully. You could stop it if you wanted to, but the will has long since been sucked into the fiction, which demands that you continue to live out the illusion. Like Søren Kierkegaard says: a poet is not an apostle, he drives out devils only by the power of the devil. The author has already sold himself, according to him, signed a contract with his blood with which he purchased the power to tell all secrets at the cost of a secret that he’ll never be able to express. What kind of secret is that?
I had a hard time falling asleep last night. My skin itched and burned where I’d scratched it up with my nails in frustration, as though it would ease the torment. Is it crazy to hurt yourself in order to take control of the pain? Something hurts within me; sometimes it leaks out just like that sentence, without letting me know what it is. In the backlight you can see the dancing swarms of black bodies. Up close they are grey, sheer and almost invisible. I wonder how many of them die of starvation every day.
Simone Weil writes that the good is fascinating and rich in reality. Evil is monotonous and dismal, kind of like binge-eating. But in fiction the opposite is true: Fictional good is flat and boring. Fictional evil is varied, intriguing, deep, captivating and full of charm. For in that which is real there is a necessity, an impossibility, that doesn’t exist in fiction, just as the law of gravity, to which we are subjected, doesn’t exist in paintings.
A necessity, an impossibility. That’s what you require of your text if you want the fiction to correspond to reality. An unbearable boredom and law-abidance that in some way still manages to be wonderful. The very impulse to write tightens when I get closer to it, as though it’s at risk of suffocating, like it needs the oxygen from the forbidden-yet-possible in order to continue moving forward.
The mosquitoes grow larger, fewer in number (at least during the day) and all the more desperate. With a jerking persistence they throw themselves at your face, without the whirling lightness that previously made them so difficult to get hold of. On the window net, which lets in cool breezes that crackle in the fireplace, there are now only 15-20 of them, clinging to the net with an ice-cold and melancholy determination.
Sin, Weil writes, consists not of desire nor self-destruction. Rather, it is the impulse to use them as distraction: pleasure and pain merely provide us with the slight indispensable impetus towards sin, and above all the pretext or alibi which is still more indispensable. We aren’t capable of looking straight at what we actually want, so we replace it with something inferior and fictional. Pleasure is just an alibi for avoiding it.
Alibi is Latin for ‘at another place’. You couldn’t have done it, because you weren’t there. Real people do not have access to fiction. Yet at the same time illusions rise out of our desires. In that sense, writing is driven by a will that is completely other than what we normally want. Blurry, disintegrating, split. There is a real will behind my fiction, but there’s an unreal one too, which I would never be able to access if I were forced to identify with it.
Asimov, I. (1963) Blodet. Translated by Bernt Berholm. Prisma, Stockholm. Original title: The Bloodstream. All references featured in this excerpt have been translated from Bengt Berholm's translation.
Fogelklou, E. (1976) Arnold. Bonnier, Stockholm.
Freud, S. (1930) Das Unbehagen in der Kultur. Internationaler psychoanalytischer Vlg., Vienna.
Freud, S. (2010) Der Dichter und das Phantasieren. Reclam, Stuttgart.
Freud, S. (1996) Die Traumdeutung. Fischer-Taschenbuch-Verl. Frankfurt am Main.
Kierkegaard, S. (1945) Frygt og Bæven: Dialektisk Lyrik af Johannes de Silentio. Gyldendalske Boghandel, Copenhagen.
Lessing, D. (2007) The Golden Notebook. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, London.
Roth, P. Finkielkraut, A. (1981) ‘The Ghost of Roth’, interview featured in Conversations with Philip Roth. Ed. George J. Searles. University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, Miss.
Weil, S. (1963) Gravity and Grace. Translated by Emma Crawford. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.
Modernista, 2021, 256 pages
Foreign rights: Modernista.
We are grateful to Modernista Group and Lyra Ekström Lindbäck for permission to publish this translated extract.
Lyra Ekström Lindbäck is a writer and critic with a PhD in Philosophy. Since her novel debut in 2012, much of her work has explored identity and writing. The Bleed is her latest novel.
Emma Olsson is a Swedish-American translator and writer. She received her MA in Translation from Goldsmiths College, University of London in 2022.