ONLY CONNECT

My Struggle, Book 3
by Karl Ove Knausgaard

The other day, I was standing on the train platform reading Book 3 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume series, My Struggle. Most of my fellow passengers consulted their phones or walked by me zombie-style, immersed in whatever was coming through their headphones; a few pushed bikes down the platform and a couple sat chatting with one another. While I stood reading, feet planted firmly on the ground in Berkeley, California, March 2016, I was, at the same time, in Karl Ove’s childhood bedroom in Tromoya, Norway circa 1978. A breeze rushed past me as a train left the station while Karl Ove sat on his bed and picked up a book by Ursula K. Le Guin. In that moment, I felt like I was on the tail end of a ricochet, knowing that Le Guin grew up in post-World War I Berkeley.

People like to say that we’re more connected today than we’ve ever been thanks to current technology. But writers and readers know that we’ve always been connected through our conversations on the page. And even my beloved Skype hasn’t figured out how to time travel yet.

My Struggle Book 3

Of course not every writer connects with every reader. And anyone who tells me that Karl Ove is too internal and plot-deficit for their taste gets my full support and understanding. Yet clearly I’m invested at this point, having read the first half of his 3,600-page opus. So what’s in it for me, besides some company while I’m waiting for my train?

I’ll put it this way. Why do we like strange, twisty, suspenseful plots? Because we feel like we’re actively navigating through the story, picking up the crumbs a writer leaves and using our minds to interpret the path on which we’ve been set. It’s satisfying to figure things out and to be surprised, especially when both happen at the same time.

Karl Ove doesn’t map out intricate plots (this is a memoir* after all) but instead he lays out in exceptional detail every last nook, cranny and conifer of both his external and internal worlds. Were I to be air-dropped into Tromoya Island, Norway in the year 1978, I feel confident I could make my way through the “… gardens and rocks, meadows and woods, up and down dale, around sharp bends, sometimes with trees on both sides, as if through a tunnel …” to Karl Ove’s newly developed neighborhood, where buddies Geir, Rolf and Dag Lothar would be waiting to play. And then I’d see Karl Ove’s sadistic, alcoholic father looming in the doorway and feel just as shaken as Karl Ove does.

A cynical person could say that enjoying the kind of intimacy and sharing Knausgaard offers is another form of today’s rampant voyeurism (see reality tv, celeb gossip and pretty much the whole Internet). On the contrary, I think he’s speaking to something older and more visceral and thus, the hubbub around this series.

Simply put, he’s connecting.

P.S., I seem to find myself on an unintended Norwegian kick these days. My library copy of One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway just came in and my buddy Anne recently got us into Occupied on Netflix. I guess it’s no wonder I found myself buying smoked salmon earlier today.

*KOK calls these books “a non-fiction novel”

 

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.