I just finished Karl Ove Knausgaard’s fifth volume of his six-volume memoir, My Struggle, and I am moved and in wonder at his … at this thing he does. I was going to say “at his talent,” and of course it’s talent, major talent. But what specifically is this thing he’s doing that’s so different from anything I’ve read before?
I don’t have volume six yet (it’s out in August), so yesterday I found a Philip Roth on the shelf here at Erin’s cabin in Tahoe Meadows. Philip Roth! Oh, good, I thought. I have been woefully remiss on reading Roth, something my learned and cultured friend Jonathan expressed true shock at when he discovered it some weeks ago at Roth’s passing.
I brought that to the beach with me and dived in. Obviously, he’s a great writer. Things flowed, it was easy to read, etc. But I was acutely aware I was reading a story. What I like about Knausgaard is that it’s like an unspooling of everything that’s happening in the moment, in the past, in his head, outside of his head. It’s the emotional landscape, woven into the world as it’s passing, and for me it’s gripping, important, and exceedingly moving.
Rather than feeling we’re at the knee of a masterful storyteller who will take care of us, and spin us a tail replete with — well, everything a good yarn should be replete with — with Knausgaard, I feel like I’m discovering things with him, just at the moment he is. He gives me glimpses into his life and past, and we knit together the story based on that. He’s an unreliable narrator in a sense, yet also eminently reliable because he tells it like it is, he narrates and unfolds life just as it is, leaving very little out.
I’ve often wondered why writing about sex immediately makes it porn. Knausgaard writes about sex as naturally as he does everything else. Nothing is off limits. Wet dreams, his late and anxiety-fraught first attempts at masturbation, his struggles with premature ejaculation, coming here, coming there, using kleenex to wipe his hands.
Yep. All of it. I like that.
I also like that he writes of shame. The incredible pain that arises from feeling sure one is not only not enough, but one is reprehensible, worse than a steaming pile of shit.
Presumably, he doesn’t always feel this way. I know he doesn’t because he’s shared with me that he can be up, high as a kite, and elated with life. But, he writes, very well I might say, of the chasm that can open up at the least provocation and engulf him. As am I. I know that feeling too: being washed with such a wave of shame that I am temporarily blinded. Being gripped by such intense anxiety that I am paralyzed. I’ve watched myself as if from miles away being seized by uncertainty so extreme that I walk like a lunatic from one side to the other, taking an action, reversing it, taking it again, reversing it again.
I’ve been in the car, driving, trying to out-drive painful feelings of self-loathing and intense anxiety, my head awhirl, knowing only that I had to go somewhere, get away from the house, leave the house to Donato and the kids, give them some time together, go away. All I knew was that I had to go away. But where? And how? I’ve driven up the hill, down the hill, up the hill, and down the hill, trying to decide where to go. I’ve pulled over suddenly, seized by the absurdity, trying to self-soothe. “Okay. Just stop the car. Stop. There. That’s right. Now, think. What do you want to do? You have to be gone for three hours. Go to a movie?”
Struggling as if for very life with this voice that is one of annihilation. It’s stealthy, deadly serious, and seeps into everything like a contagion. That’s exactly what it is.
I share that with Knausgaard. Maybe we all do. But I realize as I read his work, that he and I also share the experience of a parent who shamed us repeatedly, who made us feel we were the cause of everything terrible in their life, and who eventually drank them self to death. Knausgaard and I — we both have a parent who seized upon alcohol as the ultimate oblivion. His father died of cirrhosis at 55. My mother died of cirrhosis at 59.
Yes, I like Knausgaard’s work, but not only because we share this painful past. He’s so real, and he relates his life as a kind of rollicking adventure. He doesn’t seem to know what will happen next from moment to moment, and he’s a master at building suspense. But that’s also interesting. It’s like everything and nothing happens. Many, many times, we think something big will happen, we’re right there with him in his dread, and nothing really happens. But as a reader, you don’t feel let down by that.
As Knausgaard himself said, you don’t need murders, suicides, crashes, accidents, high drama to write an incredible book. He tried, and we’re right there with him as he struggles to find his voice, as he’s assailed by self-doubt, as his friends and colleagues secure publishing deals, and he becomes sure he’s just not meant to be a writer, no matter how badly he wants it.
He writes, and I love this, that he can’t just spin up stuff, that fiction disgusts him, that he hates this dictate that something big has to happen. The whole plot thing, the climax, all that shit. He hates it. I do too.
I discovered some time ago how much I love non-fiction because it’s real life and it’s real drama. It’s real people and therefore important. My favorite book of all time is The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down because it’s painful, gripping, important, and here’s the rub — stranger than fiction.
That’s the best thing about life, ins’t it? We’re all in this together, we think the days just pass by, we think we’re bored maybe. In fact, I’ve been freakishly and frighteningly out of touch with my own life lately and for some time maybe, maybe forever, but lately especially, and it’s very painful.
What you realize when you read these great non-fiction books and memoirs is that real life is stranger than fiction. If you actually train your gaze on it and open up your heart, your emotions, if you notice the details, if you can capture everything, now you got something powerful and worthwhile.
The chicken at my elbow, for example. Basting in a rub I made this morning from NYT cooking page, from someone’s comment to the BBQ Chicken recipe. At my house, the writer wrote, we always use this rub before BBQing. I copied the rub, substituting where necessary, pulled the semi-frozen chicken thighs from the fridge where I’d placed them last night after retrieving them from the freezer. I tossed them in the requisite kosher salt, ground pepper, cayenne, garlic, onion, and brown sugar.
Jen came by with her friend Jen and their kids — seven and eight years old. They came in loud and raucous as boys that age are wont to do. Within two seconds the fridge door was flung open and left that way, the pantry door, same, and two boys as limber as little pasta noodles had scaled the ladder to the loft and were shouting, hiding in boxes, and fooling around while my 17-year-old daughter Magda was trying to sleep in, after having declared acidly one more time that no, she was not going to softball, and she didn’t care that that’s how traditions die, when people stop showing up, etc.
In the meantime, Jen 1 breezed into the kitchen and plopped a styrofoam platter full of skinless chicken thighs covered by plastic on the counter. “Jen, these are skinless,” I said. “You need the skin for the grill. It keeps the chicken moist.” “Sorry, I didn’t know,” she said.
I had already beseeched Magda the night before to go to softball. She’d already decidedly declined. I tried again this morning, ditto. I’d given up. Got out the yoga mat. Made coffee. Steeled myself to write on Medium. Had the whole inner dialogue. But, what? Write what? What can I write? Why do I have nothing to say? Nothing to write? Why aren’t I noticing anything anymore? Am I depressed? Just getting old? Why have I forgotten where I parked the car twice in the last two weeks? Is it too late? Will I really never be a “real” writer?
So. I’d given up the softball idea and was in the throes of such self-motivational talk as that (yay, me!) when the crew burst in.
I met them on the driveway, in an attempt to keep the house quiet. The crew brushed past me into the cabin. I said, “We’re not going…” They protested. I said, “I know. Magda doesn’t want to. I gave up.”
“We’ll just make her! Jen didn’t want to go! The kids don’t want to play! But you have to go! That’s Tahoe Meadows!”
I said, weakly, “Yes, I know.”
They rousted Magda from bed. Soon, she was calling from the bathroom, “Mom, do you have a white bra?” I didn’t but brought her a black one with white lace. We wear the same bra size, something I love. I remember how terrifying my mother’s bras were. They were gigantic. They threatened to engulf me. My bras are normal size, and we wear the same size my daughter and I, and I just love that, that we share bras.
Mini-dramas like these are what make up a life.
Jen, Jen, the boys, and Magda left for softball. I said I’d come along and watch in a few minutes.
Jen 1 came back a few minutes later with Mac the hound. “He’s barking at the field, can I leave him here? What are you doing, writing about how I ______” and there you have it. I’ve lost the word. Jen is from the south, Florida, and she has a special language, special words for things, and as a writer, I should have captured that word. She said something akin to “how I ejected y’all from the bed,” but that wasn’t the verb. It was a great verb, it was perfect, it defined Jen, and now it’s gone.
You see, that was Karl Ove Knausgaard’s saving grace — he had given up. He’d tried and tried, he’d tried to write novels about the 1600s, about historic events, about this or that, all to no avail. He hates fiction, plot, and all that. As do I. He was sitting in a cafe, sure he was washed up, when he simply tuned in to what a young man at the table next to him was saying and wrote it down, word for word.
That simple act, of writing down what was real, what was actually happening in that moment, opened a dam for Knausgaard. Something clicked into place for him. He began writing for real, his voice presented itself, he unlocked the cavern, and he hasn’t stopped since.
I love him.
Now, Mac the hound is running from window to window barking his obnoxious bark (but they all are obnoxious, Daisy’s is even worse, thank God she barks seldom), panting, ignoring the water I set on the floor for him. I’m standing before the laboring fridge. The green and gold of the meadow spills into the rooms through the windows. The sun is out, the pine needles on the trees unmoving, still. A plane drones overhead. My second cup of coffee threatens to go cold. My back is sore. The green yoga mat is rolled out on the floor. I will shut the computer, leave Mac in the house, put on a bra and shoes and stroll down to the field because Jen just said as she was leaving Mac, “You missed it! Magda’s on second base! Jen taught her how to hold the bat, and she cracked that thing!”
Off I go. To real life, and love, and minutiae and everything else worthwhile.