MY STRUGGLE, BOOK ONE

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My Struggle, Book One
by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Any attempt to describe the surface story of My Struggle, Book One is bound to sound boring. On its most basic level, the memoir is 430 pages that primarily involve our hero hiding some beer for a teenage New Year’s party and cleaning his grandparents’ house. But 45-year-old Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard delves far below the surface in this first volume of his six-part memoir. (Correction to earlier post: all six books have been written, not all have been translated into English yet.)

In this book, Knausgaard takes seemingly mundane moments from his life and magnifies them with raw emotional detail, context and backstory so that his internal drama–his struggle–comes to the forefront and, believe it or not, keeps us turning the pages. Because these moments have so much meaning to Karl Ove, they mean something to us. And they remind us of all those seemingly mundane but emotionally remarkable moments in our own lives and why we still remember them 20, 30 or 50 years later.

I’ve mentioned before that this book has received a lot of acclaim – I think the hoopla stems from the fact that Knausgaard is creating a new level of intimacy with his readers that’s hard to compare to other memoirs (or “autobiographical novels,” as this series is being labeled). Such intimacy allows the author to pull off a few conventions that are typically considered writing taboos. One example of this is his dialogue, which often includes a lot of “hi, hi, how are you, I’m fine how are you,” etc etc. Typically, this kind of banter is discouraged because even though it’s true to how we speak to one another in real life, it doesn’t translate and lands flat on the page. Yet somehow in this context, that measure of realism seems to work, or at least feel tolerable. It’s almost like we’d feel cheated – like he’d skipped something – if he left out the “hi’s” and “how are you’s” in light of everything else he’s allowing us to experience with him.

In the midst of reading this book, I happened to see Richard Linklater’s new film, Boyhood, a movie that, in a very different way, is also forging a new level of intimacy with its audience. Boyhood was shot intermittently over 12 years, picking up once a year in the lives of its characters, all of who are played by the same actors throughout the 12 years. This is not a documentary, it’s a scripted story, but the aging process is entirely real. Never before has a film portrayed the aging of its characters by following the actual aging process of its actors. The effect is quite powerful: like a concentrated version of observing our family and long-time friends grow older over many years. How can you not feel more invested in someone’s inner life after being so intimately engaged in their outer development?

Where My Struggle pushes its medium by using words to explore the feelings, memories and psychology of its story as deeply as possible, Boyhood breaks new ground by stretching the visual opportunities of film. In both cases the “plot” really occurs within the characters rather than via external events, but the impact is quite gripping.

So here’s a question to ponder: why are adults obsessed with adolescence? Whether it’s the entire YA genre, Catcher in the Rye or these two latest additions to the canon of adolescent journeys, why do we feel compelled to re-visit adolescence again and again? I have my own theories but I’m curious as to your thoughts. Leave a comment below, tweet me or, for those of you who prefer to remain anonymous, send an email to tina@ratherbereading.net – I’ll post your thoughts without an attribute.

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  3. My guess would be that it’s about two things- nostalgia for our own adolescence, and the desire to teach a younger generation that they will also come to see their own adolescence as an important time in their lives. I’m thinking of that feeling you get when you show friends a movie you particularly like that they haven’t seen yet. When the final scene plays, you want them to feel the same way that movie makes you feel when you watch it. Sometimes, I even try to explain to them why it makes me feel that way, or why I like it, in the hopes that it’ll inspire them to like it too. Writing stories of adolescence seems a lot like that to me. Though I’m not a writer, so I can’t speak from experience.

    From experience, though, I can say that events in my own life seem to come into focus for me years after they actually happen. Not from adolescence, but I constantly come back to the lessons I learned in a college class 15 years ago. A class that I didn’t do particularly well in, either. But as I get older, the raw material of what I learned in that class has cemented with my own life experience, so that I understand what I learned in new and important ways. On the last day of the class, though, I don’t know that I would have said that. It was a good class, sure. But I don’t think I’d have predicted exactly how much impact that one term would have on my life and the way I see the world.

    Maybe I should go write a book about how important your college years are…

  4. I had a particularly adolescent nostaligic weekend this past weekend: saturday morning flashback on xrt was 1993, my 20th high school reunion was saturday night. I decided to see Boyhood instead of attending the reunion but I was torn about it.
    I read Stuey’s post and he’s on to something. But, the way I see it is when I have those “how did I get here” moments, both good and bad, I’m often lead back to my adolescence and the seemingly unimportant decisions I made then (or didn’t make) that got me to where I am today. Does that seem right? I guess I’m saying that adolescence has such importance to use because it actually is such an important time.

  5. I think it’s because so much happens at that time. We begin the long job of figuring out who we really are and we’re just waking up to our own potential as fully conscious human beings. Memories from that time stick with us, time itself seemed slow and everything is fraught with meaning and hope and possibility.

    Meanwhile as adults, things get pretty settled (for most of us). We’ve found a groove or are just trying to get through the day or week or year. For adolescents, the world is wide open and everything is a new discovery. My $.02.

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