Thursday, October 11, 2012

Review of My Struggle: Book One

How do you think about your life? A lot more of our society is built to answer that question than you might assume. Isn't therapy, counseling, psychology, self-help all different answers to this question? Aren't blogging, tweeting, and facebooking mechanisms for self consideration? Though strains of American culture are antithetical to strains of self-consideration, aren't those arguments against thinking about your life, still an answer to the question. And in our memoir-heavy book world, aren't we all just one self-published book away from fixing with some kind of permanence our perspective on our selves.

Karl Ove Knausgaard answered the question in a traditional manner with a radical application. Like so many before him, he has decided to think about his life by writing a book, but unlike most before him he has written a six-volume work that leverages the freedom and narrative fluidity of the novel to tell his story. Furthermore, he had a very particular technique, one that distinguishes My Struggle from its closest precedent, In Search of Lost Time. At an event at Porter Square Books, Knausgaard described a process where he essentially wrote at such a pace and with such a dedication that he annihilated the self he described, writing until the remembering being was wholly replaced by the writing being; writing to a kind of freedom distinct from the timelessness of Proust and far from the self-celebration and preservation that is the contemporary memoir. That pace and annihilation where central to his understanding of the work and part of the experience he wanted to preserve for his readers, so, My Struggle is very lightly edited, which I don't think I would have noticed if he hadn't mentioned it.

Top 3 Author Photo, easy.
The result is a long (obviously) sometimes rambling, sometimes digressive, sometimes tangential, sometimes solipsistic hybrid work, where real names are used (except in one specific case) and real events are portrayed with a commitment to the truth that balances style and intellectual exploration with faithfulness to fact. Some (perhaps even many) readers will be bored or lose focus as Knausgaard relates the hyperbole of teenage emotions for one 150 pages or so and others will wonder why they'd want to read so much about a person who's life isn't particularly distinctive. While still others would want him to cut all the wondering around art theory and literature and general consideration of life and get right down to how he coped with his father's utter self-destruction, how it changed his family relations, and what it meant to his subsequent career as a writer.

But if we are going to truly record our lives, truly fix our lives into written words, then those words should contain the wandering, the theorizing, the bombastic emotions, the navel-gazing because those things are part of life. Furthermore, the 150 page teenage wilderness sets up, in ways more Proust-like than Knausgaard might want to admit, a dramatic transition in Knausgaard's life and one of the most sustained and powerful passages I've recently read.

Knausgaard's father, for reasons still unknown by the end of book one, completely disintegrated in middle age and drank himself to death. In the last years of his life, he moved back in with his mother, sent away her home health care and barricaded himself in the house. They rarely left. They never cleaned. His mother would bring him booze even after he soiled himself on the living room couch. The moment Karl Ove and his older brother show up at the house for the first time is horrible and heartbreaking. Room after room is filled with filth, overflowing with the evidence of a body that continued living years after the soul it contained had died. And it was in this moment where the real techniques of novel writing paid off in terms of the experience of the reader. Halfway through the description of the house, I knew I had to clean the entire house, to see the house cleaned. And that's what Karl and his brother did. Hours and hours of labor. They fill up their Uncle's truck with garbage several times. They needed to pull up carpets. To throw out furniture.

The rest of book one is the Karl Ove's attempt to process the house and the death of his father. There's cleaning and logistics, crying and confusion, smoking and drinking. They have to see the body. They try to figure out the exact circumstances of his death. They have to arrange the funeral. Cope with his absence. Care for their grandmother. Reconcile their memories of the man who raised them, with the man who ruined a house and drank himself to death. And in the end? Well, this was just book one.

I hadn't planned to read My Struggle Book One. I had an ARC but, for whatever reason, it fell to the bottom of the OH MY GOD! IT'S GROWING! ARC pile. But when I saw that Knaussgaard was doing an event at the bookstore, a reading and conversation with critic James Wood, I figured I'd give the book a try. I can understand if readers don't connect with it, but at the same time, there is something both honest and poignant about watching a teenager drown his first crush in hyperbole, or a youngish soon-to-be-father try to balance his impending fatherhood with the demands of being a writer, or watch a young man apologize for crying while he cries again over the death of his father and the state of his grandmother. You life does not have to be distinctive to be interesting. You do not have to do extraordinary things to have extraordinary thoughts. Through his commitment to the process, to the idea, to the work of art he was creating, Knaussgaard has written something unique, something I believe is more powerful and truer than the contemporary memoir.

But perhaps the most important thing I can say about the book in this review is that I was disappointed when it ended. I wasn't done with Karl Ove yet. It's not that I was curious about what would happen next per se, or that I was looking for resolution on particular problems, but that I enjoyed spending time in Knausgaard's mind and memories, with his words. After 471 pages, I wanted to keep reading. The good news is that as long as the translations continue, I can.

No comments:

Post a Comment