My Struggle Book 4, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

My Struggle: Book4, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

 

“…he would have to work out the social game for himself. He would have to learn he would get nowhere by whining or telling tales.”

Karl Ove isn’t talking about himself in this quote, but he might as well be. Eighteen year old Karl Ove spends most of the book whining about his inability to lose his virginity, and attempting to write short fiction (telling tales). You might think I’m joking, but I think the moral of this story is that people should masturbate more often, and especially in their early teenage years. Let me backtrack a bit…

Like book 3, book 4 doesn’t jump around as much as 1 and 2. It stays mostly focused on his life from age sixteen to eighteen, with an occasional leap forward to 2009; Karl Ove in his early forties writing the book you’re reading; his wife and children asleep in the next room. I have to mention that I’m a sucker for these sections where he reminds the reader of his present tense writing of the novel. I don’t know why, but I love it.

Karl Ove as a literary character, is a one of the most unusual protagonists I’ve come across, because he isn’t a protagonist at all. This is unheard of in memoirs. Usually when we tell stories about ourselves, we’re the hero, or at the very least we present ourselves and the situations we get into in the best possible light; painting others as the bully, or the one who deserved what they got, etc. Karl Ove is not like this whatsoever. He lays out every dirty detail, and is extremely hard on himself. He writes himself as the antagonist in his own life story. He also writes about his boner a lot. Like, a lot a lot. I started counting when I noticed the pattern, and eventually lost track at fifteen or so times around the middle of the book.

The main story in this volume involves Karl Ove as a young man who is lost, and his struggle to find the kind of world he fits into. His emotionally, verbally, and physically abusive father has left his mother, started drinking, and seems to be a completely different person than he was when Karl Ove was a boy. He’s starting to see that his father was never happy, and needed something different from life than what he was getting. Also, it’s appearing that he was always a very emotional person, like Karl Ove has always been, crying often, and begging forgiveness of his sons now that they’re grown. Karl Ove is still terrified of him, and doesn’t understand how to reconcile this new person that has replaced his father, with the father that raised him.

Karl Ove Knausgaard

At eighteen Karl Ove leaves home for the first time and takes a job as a school teacher in a small fishing community in northern Norway; rural in a different way than he’s familiar with. He’s grossly under qualified for the position, knows it, but wants to be alienated from the familiar. He wants to step a toe outside of his comfort zone. He’s using this experience to save money, and isolate himself so that he can focus on writing more exclusively.

He is absolutely obsessed with losing his virginity, and extremely insecure about his pattern of ejaculating before the act has even begun. In an effort to ease his nerves socially, he begins to drink heavily, which helps him to remain calm while courting the women in this new town he finds himself dislocated in. Drinking also gets him into several situations where he makes a total fool of himself. Even while intoxicated, every time he finds a woman willing to sleep with him, he gets stuck in his own head, and it happens again. This is a great source of embarrassment for him, and he takes it very hard.

 

We already know from the previous installments of his story, that he sees himself as being too feminine or “feminized” as he calls it. At eighteen, he’s scrawny and lanky, and in this fishing community he’s surrounded by what he considers men’s men: manual laborers, fishermen, tough skinned, strong and silent. He constantly compares himself to those around him, and finds himself lacking in almost every way. To make matters worse, his upstairs neighbors are constantly going at it. All of this and more adds to the feedback loop and reinforces his feelings of inadequacy and shame, which in turn reinforces his inability to do the deed.

Karl Ove KnausgaardIn addition to all of this, he’s teaching kids barely younger than himself, and having some trouble not being attracted to the girls in his class, especially the ones who have developed crushes on him. Some of them as young as 13. Oh, Karl Ove. Buddy. Come on, man. You can’t do that! About halfway through the book he has a realization that maybe the reason he Is having so much trouble maintaining control of his ejaculations, and controlling is attraction to his students, and his horniness level in general, is that he has never masturbated. Ever. He sees it as something childish that he should’ve done when he was younger, but now feels it’s too late to begin. He knows that if he were to *ahem* practice on himself a little bit, that he would develop the ability to control himself a little better when he’s with a woman, but he still won’t do it! Good lord eighteen year old Karl Ove! Jerk it already!

So, that brings us full circle to my point from the beginning: masturbation, it’s something everyone should do, especially when you’re young and just starting to develop into the adult you’ll become. Most of Karl Ove’s troubles in this edition would’ve been completely avoided if he had just jerked it a little. So, like I said earlier, if there is a moral here, I think it’s a simple one: masturbate.

 

 

High-Rise, by J.G. Ballard

High-Rise, by J.G. Ballard

A disturbing/enthralling allegory – class struggle, self deception, and the animalistic brutality concealed just below the surface of human civilization.

I knew of Ballard from the new-wave SF of the late 60s / early 70s, particularly Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions compilations, wherein he’s described – by Ellison in his story introduction – as one of the few mainstream lit crossovers coming from the world of speculative fiction. He is an eloquently gifted writer, straightforward but poetically descriptive at the same time.

J.G. BallardHigh-Rise is one of those few short novels that could be the topic of a very concise thesis, that ultimately clocks a longer page count than its source material. There is a simple story of ascent/descent at play, but quite a bit of expressive analogy hiding between the lines. There are three main characters, each representing a differing class; lower, middle and upper. This isn’t immediately apparent, but becomes clear through their differing motivations and desires as society in the High-Rise begins to break down. Each of their stories play out to their logical, disturbing conclusions.

Poems, by Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod

Poems, by Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod

Unless someone seriously goes against his publicly (and hopefully legally) stated wishes, there will only ever be 30 Iain Banks books, including this one, his last and only posthumously published work. It combines his personally selected poems, mostly unpublished, with the poetry of his friend and colleague Ken MacLeod.

Iain BanksNow, I have to be up-front here: I know very little about, and have a hard time understanding poetry. I know enough to be fairly certain that my lack of knowledge concerning the form probably shares a strong causal relationship with my difficulty in appreciating it. I say this just to be clear. I think that like most folks who pick this one up, I read it more as a fan of Iain Banks, than as someone who knows literally anything about poetry.

The prose in his novels has often been described as poetic, which seems correct to me. He had quite a way with words, and his writing has a lyrical feel to it. Reading these poems kind of feels like looking at his novels through some sort of obfuscation lens. If you’re a fan of Banks, you’ll recognize some familiar locations and some themes that are obviously his, and I can assure you that the same wit, snark, and clever antagonism at work in his novels bleeds through in his poetry as well. The plot is stripped, the characters are simpler, but there’s still a story at play in most of them, and his signature lyrical prose is ever present.

What I can’t say for sure is if these poems have any merit to someone who is either unfamiliar with Banks, or themselves familiar with poetry. My entirely subjective, layman’s opinion is that I enjoyed several of them, and the rest were either not great, or went completely over my head. I would really only recommend this for die hard Banks’ completists. Otherwise, you can probably skip it and be just fine.

Ken MacLeodApologies to Ken MacLeod, I didn’t actually read your section in this collection. I am just not interested in poetry enough to want to read it for any reason other than already being interested in the author’s work, and wishing to read literally everything they’ve written. In the extremely thin chance that you are reading this: Hi there! I hope you understand and take no offense. Also, thank you for suggesting the changes made to Use of Weapons, we all owe you big time for that one.

Relief Map, by Rosalie Knecht

Relief Map, by Rosalie Knecht

This was a such a great story, with a cast of characters that I swear I grew up with. It brought back a lot of memories of the shadier aspects of being a teenager in a tiny town, and how much can change for you in one summer when you’re young and haven’t really done anything terrible yet.

The characters were mostly teenagers, but I wouldn’t call this YA fiction. It’s more of a coming-of-age story set within a powder keg of a small town, featuring universal human themes.

Rosalie KnechtThe prose was clear and descriptive, which really brought the story to life. The style here is reminiscent of Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, and his favorite location of Holt Colorado in some ways. Although, it’s entirely separated from that geographic location. The main idea being that this city and these characters are of that same rich, multi-layered caliber.

I have to admit that Tin House has quickly become one of my favorite publishers. They tend to publish these very human stories that you don’t usually find from the big 5. Everything they publish feels like it’s been personally curated for me, and their cover design in consistently on-point.

Reality Hunger, by David Shields

Reality Hunger, by David Shields

You’ll usually find this in the literary criticism section of a book shop, and having now read it, I can’t exactly argue with that placing, but I can say that it would also be right at home in many other sections: cultural anthropology, sociology, memoir, philosophy, history, poetry, or even general fiction (if I’m feeling particularly objective). It’s a lot of things in one, which means that the book itself fully embodies the crux of its own argument, to get all postmodern on you, which simply put is: the distinction between fiction and non-fiction is not as black and white as we think. Or written another way, and quoting directly from the book: “Writing is writing. Every act of composition is an act of fiction.”

I picked this book up and put it back down several times before eventually breaking down and buying it. I kept bumping into it at my favorite used bookshop, thumbing through it and reading little bits here and there, finding myself confused by the format — was it a book of quotes or a book of random thoughts? — eventually judging it too odd and putting it back on the shelf. The next time I came back, it would be gone (of course!), and I found myself missing it, getting what I would consider the opposite of buyer’s remorse, wishing that I had taken it home with me when I had the chance. Eventually, of course, another copy would show up on the shelves and I would start the whole process over again. Eventually that Chip Kidd cover won me over and I took it home.

This is basically the postmodern literary equivalent of building a song out of samples. I was about halfway through before I realized that a huge chunk of this book is sourced from elsewhere, remixed, modified, recombined, and used interstitially between genuine writing done by Shields himself to tie this whole crazy opus together. It’s brilliant and absurd and since it’s sourced from hundreds of different people, it speaks in a lot of contradictory absolutes about art, writing, reality, “reality”, memory, copyright, fiction, identity, persona, subjectivity, the nature of creativity, etc. It contains a lot of things I agree with, a lot that I don’t, and a lot that I’m not so sure about anymore.

David ShieldsWhatever it is, it’s deeply misunderstood. Read a few reviews and you’ll find people who hate it with a passion or ecstatically adore it. You won’t find too many in the middle. Which honestly, is the exact kind of reaction you want something to evoke in others. Otherwise, it’s just mediocre right? Anyway, I think those people with intense opinions on it are thinking way too literally, and might benefit from the practice of trying to hold two opposing opinions in their heads at the same time, and mulling them over. I think what this book really is, is a jumping off point to start a conversation about what is real, what is fake, and why ultimately, maybe it really doesn’t matter that much, and maybe we should stop classifying things and let art be art. Let journalism handle facts, and let both our non-fiction and fiction pieces of art just be.. pieces of art. Maybe we don’t need to worry about which box to put things in anymore. Maybe the process of telling a “true” story injects it with fiction anyway. Or maybe none of that too. Or maybe — and this is more realistic here — just some of it. Pick and choose, etc.

It would be a mistake to read this quickly, which is easy to do since it’s so short, and presented in little bite size chunks. There’s just too much going on here to rush through it. It’s a genuine book of ideas. I had to take a lot of breaks — short and long — to give myself time to process the concepts. I took a lot of notes to organize my thoughts; trying to get to the bottom of what I was feeling about what was being said. If I came across something that really got my thinking, I threw the book down and went for a walk to mull it over a little. Or maybe I would just put it down for a few days, read something else, and come back to it when I was really interested again in the questions it was posing; when the ideas were pulling me back in.

Paraphrasing, of course, but some of those questions were: What sort of responsibility should a memoirist have to literal facts? Can we actually trust our memory enough to state anything we remember as fact? How much truth is there in fiction? How much fiction do we allow in non-fiction? If fiction uses lies to tell the truth, can memoir be just another literary genre, soaked in the author’s subjective experience, but the truth of that experience used only as a means to illustrate something more important? If the point of memoir is that more important bit, does it actually have to be married to truth at all? Just what is being “created” in creative non-fiction? Who owns ideas? Do we necessarily always need Form and Story and Narrative and the other usual pieces of storytelling? Is the space between truth and fiction actually more interesting anyway?

I don’t really have a conclusion on this. Like I said earlier, the book is a jumping off point, and I’m still kind of lost in all of the ideas it presented. If you’re interested in any of those questions, I’d suggest you check it out, it’s really quite bizarre, and I think you’ll enjoy it a lot.