A Defense of Knausgaard (Gun to My Head)

The work of Karl Ove Knausgaard fascinates me, but not in a way that compels me to defend his work. That’s different than for most of the authors I admire — DOSTOEVSKY! EVERYBODY SHOULD JUST READ DOSTOEVSKY OKAY?!

I mean, Knausgaard is the guy who wrote 3,000 pages about his own, not-that-significant life, and called it My Struggle. And he’s the guy who wrote not one, but two several-thousand-word pieces in the New York Times Magazine, which were in theory about traveling to see the area that his Scandinavian forbearers settled in Minnesota, but were actually about him taking an ill-fated dump in a hotel and about fat Canadians and the like. Telling your friends you’re really into a guy like this isn’t a good way to earn their respect.

But who cares about respect?

In that spirit, here’s what I’d say if somebody really wanted me to defend Knausgaard.

He’s one of the most unpretentious writers I know. It might seem a bit counterintuitive, being that he really only seems to care what’s going on in his head, but who else would have the balls to say, “You know what Times? I’m going to write it like it is.”

It was liberating to see how small and insignificant each separate part of this history was, compared with our notions about its grandness. It felt liberating, because that is what the world is really like, full of insignificant trifles that we use to blunder on as best we can, one by one, whether we happen to be 19th-century immigrants building a log cabin in some forest glade, cold and miserable, longing to sit motionless for a few hours in front of the fire; or a local museum director in a Norwegian children’s sweater; or a crafty Swede, carving runes into a stone and burying it in a field in an attempt to change world history. Or for that matter, an inept Norwegian writer who has spent 10 days on assignment in the U.S. without discovering anything, apart from this.

He’s self-deprecating to a fault. But he writes what is in his head, and the reader can tell how close he is to it — how he’s just willing to put it out there. He has these grand thoughts about the beauty and tradition of Russian Orthodoxy compared to the American plastickiness of Christianity, then he totally shrugs it off and says he’s wrong. There are no language games, no post-modern cleverisms — the guy shoots straight.

knausAnd on a separate but related thread, he writes about things as they actually happen. That’s kind of a horrible thing for a magazine. Narrative storytelling is inherently manipulative … but to read about how things really unfolded — and in a way that I completely sympathize with, in the sense of all that self-doubt and angst and whatever along with the mundane details — is not only novel, it’s refreshing.

Finally, a lot of what he does is actually really beautiful. If I’d picked up Book III of My Struggle and started in the middle, I might not be having to order the next book from the UK because the American version comes out weeks later. But I didn’t; I started with Book I, and to begin there’s this beautiful essay about death, and in a certain section he asks why it is that, if somebody died during a movie showing, we don’t just finish the show — why does death terrify us? I mean, granted: a lot of these essays are sprinkled in among thousands of pages of him changing diapers, fighting with his wife, thinking about his father. But at times it’s really good, and can even be great.

And even for the rest of that stuff, there’s something to be said for the reckless abandon of the work over the careful precision of a novel or memoir. Most of the time I would prefer the latter, sure, but like with Proust the guy is just going somewhere, and you feel compelled to go, because you’re in somebody’s head, and, surprise!, that experience turns out to be really normal, but, still, you’re actually in somebody else’s head who happens to be really thought-provoking. And though putting it this way makes it sound like I’m toking it in between paragraphs, reading Knausgaard can actually be a really compelling experience, in that you’re following along with his diary, caring about what he cares about, recognizing yourself as a kid, feeling that same insecurity. It’s a different kind of beauty, and a different kind of literature, but at its best it is wonderful.

Is Your Core Self Built on Lies?

There’s been a lot of speculation over whether Brian Williams was a “victim” of his memory — was he lying about being on a helicopter in Iraq that was shot down a dozen years ago, or does the version of events in his head actually differ from reality?

If the latter seems far-fetched, consider that there are a whole lot of events in your head that you’re cold wrong about. Williams could very well be lying (and being in a chopper under fire would seem like a pretty monumental event), but the brain is far less like a recorder and much more like an interpreter.

So point of all this: reading up on the controversy, I was reminded of an exceptional short story by a guy with sort of a nerdy, speculative-fiction reputation … insofar as he’s got a reputation at all, because far too few people read him. But his name is Ted Chiang, and the story is a fictional essay about a piece of software in the future called Remem.

Remem is basically an advanced search tool. Many people record their entire lives with something like advanced Google Glass, and Remem can search conversations and events from that record. So say you’re thinking about that time your dad took you to McDonald’s for ice cream to make things up to you, and all you have to do is say, “Remember dad, at McDonald’s with ice cream” and Remem brings up the video in your field of vision.

And it’s not only for use when speaking with someone else; Remem also monitors your subvocalizations. If you read the words “the first Szechuan restaurant you ate at,” your vocal cords will move as if you’re reading aloud, and Remem will bring up the relevant video.

So the essay revolves around a single event, a fight with the author’s daughter. And using Remem, the author finds that things weren’t at all how he’d remembered them.

Here’s the line I thought of when Williams came up:

“I am here to tell you that you have made more than you think, that some of the core assumptions on which your self-image is built are actually lies. Spend some time using Remem, and you’ll find out.”

Oh — and did I mention it’s free and you can read it online right now?

Summer Reading List

I’ve been counting down the days until I can sit down with a few good books. Sometime I want to try reading all the books on some list or coming up with a clever list of my own where all of the books are related, but for now I just really really want to read these. If you’ve read some of these or have any more suggestions, I’d love to know. This summer I am definitely not above vegetative entertainment.

Wolf Totem – Jiang Rong (Sold several million copies in China a few years ago.)

Fathers and Children – Turgenev

The Tiger’s Wife – Tea Obreht

Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

Confederacy of Dunces – Kennedy Toole

Metamorphosis – Kafka

Red China Blues – Jan Wong

Wild Grass – Ian Johnson

Demons – Fyodor Dostoevsky (The best political novel ever written?)

The Seriousness of Novelists

I was reading an interview of Cormac McCarthy the other day, and in usual fashion he came across as quite the serious dude. Among other things, he had this to say:

“I’m not interested in writing short stories. Anything that doesn’t take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing.”

I am not sure how I feel about this. It is at once ridiculous; yet I do have some sympathy for the concept as it relates to writing novels. After reading The White Tiger and loving it, I decided to try some short stories by Aravind Adiga. But they were a bunch of snoozers–it was almost like he wrote it hoping people would buy it on the strength of his first novel. Can great art (and especially great literature) be produced flippantly? Whatever the case, I do think it true that it is very difficult to produce in a classroom setting–for nothing stifles creativity like a creative writing class.


Moby Dick of the West

From one of the best authors of the day. This is taken from The Crossing; the scene is following the death of a wolf a boy had been hunting:

“He took up her stiff head out of the leaves and held it or he reached to hold what cannot be held, what already ran among the mountains at once terrible and of a great beauty, like flowers that feed on flesh. What blood and bone are made of but can themselves not make on any altar nor by any wound of war. What we may well believe has power to cut and shape and hollow out the dark form of the world surely if wind can, if rain can. But which cannot be held never be held and is no flower but is swift and a huntress and the wind itself is in terror of it and the world cannot lose it.”
–Cormac McCarthy

Because I Can’t Help It: More DFW on FDM

“What seems most important is that Dostoevsky’s near-death experience [as a young writer, FMD was thrown in jail for conspiracy and sentenced to be executed. His executioners blindfolded him and tied him to a stake and waited until the executioners yelled, “Aim!” before having a messenger ride in on a horse to grant reprieve. Such was, apparently, a very common method of scaring the daylights out of people in a way that only Russians could do.] changed a typically vain and trendy young writer—a very talented writer, true, but still one whose basic concerns were for his own literary glory—into a person who believed deeply in moral/spiritual values…more, into someone who believed that a life lived without moral/spiritual values was not just incomplete but depraved.

The big thing that makes Dostoevsky invaluable for American readers and writers is that he appears to possess degrees of passion, conviction, and engagement with deep moral issues that we – here today – cannot or do not permit ourselves. . . … Frank’s bio prompts us to ask ourselves why we seem to require of our art an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate questions, so that contemporary writers have to either make jokes of them or else try to work them in under cover of some formal trick like intertextual quotation or incongruous juxtaposition, sticking the really urgent stuff inside asterisks as part of some multivalent defamiliarization-flourish or some[thing]. . .So he—we, fiction writers—won’t (can’t) dare try to use serious art to advance ideologies. People would either laugh or be embarrassed for us. Given this (and it is a given), who is to blame for the unseriousness of our serious fiction? The culture, the laughers? But they wouldn’t (could not) laugh if a piece of morally passionate, passionately moral fiction  was also ingenious and radiantly human fiction. But how to make that? How—for a writer today, even a talented writer today—to get up the guts to even try? There are no formulas or guarantees. There are, however, models.”

[Consider the Lobster; pgs 270-2]

The Sorrows of Young Werther

This passage is wonderful, and unfortunately still true for genius in art and other fields. Werther, who is narrating, has just painted a piece that he was very proud of.

[Written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe]

“This confirmed me in my resolution of adhering, for the future, entirely to nature. She alone is inexhaustible, and capable of forming the greatest masters. Much may be alleged in favour of rules, as much may be likewise advanced in favour of the laws of society: an artist formed upon them will never produce anything absolutely bad or disgusting; as a man who observes the laws, and obeys decorum, can never be an absolutely intolerable neighbour, nor a decided villain: but yet, say what you will of rules, they destroy the genuine feeling of nature, as well as its true expression. Do not tell me ‘that this is too hard, that they only restrain and prune superfluous branches, etc.’ My good friend, I will illustrate this by an analogy. These things resemble love. A warmhearted youth becomes strongly attached to a maiden: he spends every hour of the day in her company, wears out his health, and lavishes his fortune, to afford continual proof that he is wholly devoted to her. Then comes a man of the world, a man of place and respectability, and addresses him thus: ‘My good young friend, love is natural; but you must love within bounds. Divide your time: devote a portion to business, and give the hours of recreation to your mistress. Calculate your fortune; and out of the superfluity you may make her a present, only not too often, — on her birthday, and such occasions.’ Pursuing this advice, he may become a useful member of society, and I should advise every prince to give him an appointment; but it is all up with his love, and with his genius if he be an artist. O my friend! why is it that the torrent of genius so seldom bursts forth, so seldom rolls in full-flowing stream, overwhelming your astounded soul? Because, on either side of this stream, cold and respectable persons have taken up their abodes, and, forsooth, their summer-houses and tulip-beds would suffer from the torrent; wherefore they dig trenches, and raise embankments betimes, in order to avert the impending danger.”

David Foster Wallace on F.M. Dostoevsky

Today I read an essay by David Foster Wallace in Consider the Lobster about Joseph Frank’s biography of Fyodor Dostoevsky. I had wanted to read the biography, and wondered what Wallace’s take on it would be.

In the essay, Wallace brings up a couple of good points:

1)      Canonizing a literary giant somehow makes her inaccessible. How many people get excited over reading classics? “To make someone an icon is to make him an abstraction, and abstractions are incapable of vital communication with living people.”

2)     “There is real and alienating stuff [this I know—very few of my friends or family have actually found Dostoevsky even mildly interesting] that stands in the way of our appreciating Dostoevsky and has to be dealt with [for starters there are obscure military ranks, complicated social hierarchies, poor translations, and perhaps most damning of all—the use patronymic and Christian names so that the same character can be called three different names on the same page]—either by learning enough about all the unfamiliar stuff that it stops being so confusing, or else by accepting it (the same way we accept racist/sexist elements in some other nineteenth-century books) and just grimacing and reading on anyway. But the larger point (which, yes, may be kind of obvious) is that some art is worth the extra work of getting past all the impediments to its appreciation; and Dostoevsky’s books are definitely worth the work…His novels almost always have ripping good plots, lurid and intricate and thoroughly dramatic.” Couldn’t agree more. Brackets are mine.

Self-Serving Establishments, Right and Left

In 2010, a wonderful documentary called Inside Job done by Charles Ferguson was screened at the Cannes Film Festival. Generally well received by critics, it told the story of our modern financial crisis. It was, in short, about corruption: of the financial services sector, lobbyists, and Washington politicians. It convincingly laid a case against Wall Street and the unmentionable chaos it caused. Eliot Spitzer, Barney Frank, and other such politicians railed against the deregulation of the Reagan and Clinton years. In hindsight, their case is certainly convincing. Later, the Frank-Dodd bill was born. (Only to be later picked apart like a two-year old’s chocolate chip granola bar, I might add.)

Hindsight, though, is often unforgiving; in 2008 it was found that Spitzer, the Democratic New York Governor, had patronized a prostitution service. He resigned shortly thereafter. And now, after reading a candid new book by NYT columnist Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner called Reckless Endangerment, it would seem that Mr. Frank himself isn’t above the corruption of financial regulators and major bank executives that he so vehemently condemns in Inside Job.

The problem, then, isn’t the corruption of a few powerful men; it is that the leaders of this nation and its major institutions are fundamentally “self-dealing” at best and corrupt at worst. Wall Street, K Street, Democrats, Republicans.

Considering the nature of the role of Wall Street in this crisis and the appalling amount of corruption there, it is understandable that the targets of Inside Job were generally conservatives, and more specifically the Bachmann type of conservatives who fight to keep the government out of immoral banking conduct. Yet, in Reckless Endangerment, Morgenson isn’t out to get anyone, and that is part of what makes her book so important. She chronicles the reign of one Jim Johnson, who was denied a spot on the Obama campaign after it was found that he accepted some sweet housing deals while CEO of Fannie Mae.

It turns out, though, that Johnson was involved in much more. Johnson, who had been the campaign manager of Walter Mondale’s failed presidential bid, had risen to prominence in the Democratic Party at the time of he became CEO of Fannie Mae in 1991. He had also been a board member of many “prestigious” banking firms. Morgenson claims that it was one of Johnson’s dreams to be named the Secretary of the Treasury. Here are her own words: “He was especially adept at manipulating lawmakers, eviscerating regulators, and leaving taxpayers with the bill.”

It turns out that Johnson was keeping millions of dollars for himself and major shareholders within the company, thus exploiting Fannie Mae’s low interest rates (the Federal Government implicitly backed all of FM’s debt, although this was never admitted). During all of this, Johnson ran soft ads peddling affordable home ownership to those who clearly couldn’t afford it. In short, what was ran, to the public’s view, as a campaign to help the poor was actually a way for Johnson to amass wealth, W. Street-style. Particularly maddening—much like watching the recent ads claiming that Goldman Sachs is saving the world.

Johnson and Co. fought tooth and nail to stay in business, not so much by convincing the public but rather by convincing the few who mattered. It turns out, not surprisingly, that money can get a lot done in Washington these days. Whenever Fannie Mae was in particular danger, Barney Frank would come to its rescue, and combined with the ruthlessness of Johnson, managed to stay in business. A very bad idea, says the financial crisis from 2008. It was later found that Frank had accepted quite a few gifts in turn for his efforts.

In Inside Job and Reckless, there is a message that seems to say that rigid ideology can be a dangerous thing. Morgenson, in fact, is no less merciful to those in the GOP establishment than she is to Johnson. This is especially true where the ratings agencies are concerned. On Wall Street, the situation was largely reversed: conservatives fought de-regulation as if their paychecks depended on it.

Diarmaid MacCulloch, in a book about the history of Christianity, writes, “There is no surer basis for fanaticism than bad history, which is invariably history oversimplified.” Fanaticism is seen on both the left and the right in their attempts to protect clearly immoral institutions and actions, and this is bred in part from an oversimplified view of history.

Maybe in the future we will get a politican who understands nuance. It certainly won’t happen this election with the GOP talking heads (to whom principles are but fads), but in the future we may have a President with Obama’s oratory skill that can actually get the job done.