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”

 

HANGSAMAN

This book's weird title comes from an American folk song.

This book’s weird title comes from an American folk song.

Hangsaman
by Shirley Jackson

One of the things I find most interesting about adolescence is the fact that it’s such a new phenomenon. The teen ages (and puberty) have always existed, but for the majority of human history, ages 13-19 were considered a part of a person’s childhood or adulthood, not a separate developmental stage. While there isn’t an exact moment in history when the teenager emerged, in the U.S., it was really not until the mid-20th century that teenagers became a separate group. There are a lot of reasons for this. As earlier 20th century economies shifted from an agrarian economy to an industrial one and the Great Depression took hold, laws mandating compulsory education and child labor protections went into effect. Suddenly adolescents from a wider range of social classes were attending high school in much greater numbers and through this shared experience, a communal culture began to form. Marketers caught on and in the 1940s, they coined the term “teenager” for their newfound customer. The rise of the automobile is also considered a major factor in all this.

It was with some of this context in mind that I recently read Shirley Jackson’s 1951 novel, Hangsaman. You’ve probably all read The Lottery, Jackson’s short story about a town that holds an annual lottery to determine which of its members will be stoned to death by their neighbors. Hangsaman is equally dark in its own way. Its simple premise is this: a young woman begins her freshman year of college at a fictional version of Bennington (at the time, an all-women’s school for daughters of the upper class). But this is not your standard Bildungsroman, my friends. The story is much closer to a psychological thriller. With humor. It’s pretty bizarre.

But a mid-century gothic horror story is hysterically appropriate for a book that follows a hypersensitive, hyperaware young woman as she analyzes every last painful detail of both her family life and her introduction to college. Because what could be a greater “terror of the soul” than adolescence? It’s fair to say that this oddly named, oddly written book captivated me until its clever conclusion. I enjoyed Jackson’s metaphor of female adolescence as a neurotic nightmare.

And then I realized that 1951 was also the year that The Catcher in the Rye was published. It occurred to me that Catcher could be seen as the teenage boy’s neurotic nightmare. Yet The Catcher in the Rye is, well, The Catcher in the Rye—a classic, a part of the canon—and meanwhile who the hell has ever heard of Hangsaman, even with a title so weird it would be hard to forget.

Now you may be thinking, oh boy, here she goes, she’s going to try to tell us it’s some sort of a gender thing and that if Shirley Jackson had been a man, we’d all have read this blasted book back in the 10th grade and it too would be a modern classic. Honestly you guys, I’m not sure it’s quite as simple as that. First, I could never deny the genius of the narrative voice in J.D. Salinger’s book. Jackson’s book is good, but I don’t think I’d use the term “genius.” And I don’t know enough about the history of either book’s publication to say what would have or could have been. But I do find the duality of the two books interesting.

Both Salinger and Jackson were doing something utterly unique when they wrote their novels – they were chronicling the anxiety and alienation of a new demographic, the adolescent. Both were years ahead of the social upheaval of the 1960s, a time when many social factors would converge to create its particular climate. Certainly one of the biggest of those factors was the disillusionment of the teenage population. Both authors understood the psychology behind that disillusionment years before the zeitgeist caught on.

 

TWO GIRLS, FAT AND THIN

Two Girls, Fat and Thin
by Mary Gaitskill

You may remember a previous post about some books I’ve been carrying around for the past twenty years, the contents of which I could not recall. Let’s refer to these books as my “amnesia series.” On my second go-around, the following excerpt leapt out at me from the pages of Two Girls, Fat and Thin:

“ … for every imperfect entity, be it human or material, there exists a perfect counterpart; a lovely princess for every pimply shop girl. This perfection was not an annulment of the shop girl, but an ideal for her to aspire to … That is why advertising is deeply moral; its smiling billboards are neat openings into the air-brushed world of perfect beauty that we can all strive for and attain, to one degree or another, depending on our individual components.”

It’s been more than a week since the finale and I’m still thinking about Mad Men, the best novel I’ve ever watched. (If you haven’t seen the show and/or the series finale yet but plan to, you may consider some of the following a spoiler. If you haven’t seen the show and don’t plan to, I suggest reconsidering.)

Joan

Photos courtesy of AMC

There are so many things we could discuss about Mad Men, but the thought that lingers for me was how, somewhat to my surprise, Don turned out to be more cipher than hero or villain. This man who looked like a prince but acted like a pimple had an entire decade to reconcile his inner demons and emerge the better for it. But he couldn’t. He gained self-awareness, but not self-actualization. He just got better at being the same old Don.

Joan and Peggy’s demons, on the other hand, were external and while they each chose very different ways of handling those demons, both triumphed in the end. So while Don was our protagonist, the women were our heroes. They didn’t just “keep moving forward” as Don loved to say, they survived by learning and growing, ultimately realizing their full potential.

Peggy

The quote above describes exactly why we love duality in storytelling (and duality is a huge theme in Mad Men). Deep down, most people think of themselves as the pimply shop girl though they long to be the princess. Don understood that psychology as well as anyone, which is what made him the perfect ad man. It’s also why Bert Cooper, Ayn Rand devotee, loved Don so much – he knew how to feed the capitalist utopia.

So is this Mary Gaitskill book anything like Mad Men? That would be a no. There are some interesting coincidental parallels: a duality theme, a subplot involving a fictional version of Ayn Rand, some backstory about growing up a (very tortured) girl in the 1960s, but that’s where the similarities end.

And yet I kept the book all these years out of a form of nostalgia. Like a lot of things from the past, it was reassuring to read the book again and recognize that I hadn’t remembered it because I didn’t need to. I was okay without it. In one of Mad Men’s most iconic episodes, The Wheel, Don tells a room of Kodak execs that the word “nostalgia” means “the pain from an old wound” in Greek. I suppose we’re nostalgic for the things we’re still trying to sort out in our minds. Really good stories give us a lot to sift through.

Mad-Men-finale-690

This is my last post for a few weeks, I’ll be on sabbatical for a while. Read something good while I’m gone or re-watch Mad Menyou pick up a lot the second time around.