My Struggle: Book 5, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

My Struggle: Book 5, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

“What was consciousness other than the surface of the soul’s ocean?”

Book five details Karl Ove’s life from around age nineteen to thirty-three, but in a lot of ways it feels like the closing chapter of My Struggle. Of course there is still one more book coming in the pipeline; whose english translation I hear has been delayed again, this time until “Fall 2018” due to it being twelve-hundred pages and requiring an additional translator in order to handle the extra page load. According to Knausgaard, the forthcoming sixth volume is supposed to be more about his friend’s and family’s reception to their portrayal in the first five books. That should be very interesting.

This wouldn’t be a review of a My Struggle book if I didn’t mention how fascinatingly readable the prose was. I say fascinatingly readable because I have no idea why it is. I really can’t explain it, but his writing gets inside of me and latches onto something. He does such a fantastic job of relating the deep rooted sense of isolation we experience from, and along with the rest of humanity. We seem to keep two groups in our minds: the self (Us), and everyone else (Them). We are always alone even in company, because we can never truly verify that anyone else really exists.

More than any of the others this book is all about Karl Ove coming to terms with the realities of being a writer. At 19-20 he is in love with the mythology of writing, but not so much with the actual act of writing. He loves the idea but not the reality. He takes criticism of his work very poorly, very personally. He sees himself as not having the depth of soul to truly write like his influences. He feels that there is a chasm between him and others; that he is living a duplicitous life; that he is an imposter and everyone else the genuine article. I think that this ties deeply into his ultimate reason for writing My Struggle: I think he’s trying to demolish the barrier between his private and public life in a way so destructive, it cannot be undone. I think he needs that barrier to break down.

Karl Ove Knausgaard

He states several times that he feels he is a separate person internally than who he is perceived to be externally. He’s able to alleviate this somewhat through heavy drinking, but heavy drinking causes him insurmountable other issues. When he drinks too much, he’s finally comfortable, but he does all kinds of things that bring him shame, and this adds to his compartmentalization of his true self from his public self. In writing this 3600 page, six volume highly personal memoir novel, he is forcing his internal and external, depth and surface selves to intermingle and become one. Since he feels trapped in this situation, to me it seems like a way for him to force himself out.

The character of Karl Ove – I say character because he says over and over that he doesn’t remember much from the periods of time he’s covering, therefore there is definitely a percentage of events and memories that are invented – is the perfect anti-hero. He is often very abrasive to those around him, doing things that are terrible to those he loves, but we’re given so much of his internal thought process that we relate with the reasons for his actions. In a way, it’s more that he’s just very honest about his faults and shortcomings as well as his achievements. Usually when we tell our own stories, we leave out all of the rough edges, and paint ourselves in a much better light. Instead, he seems to be making an effort at self-mythologizing as objectively as he can. Worts and all.

Really, we are all anti-heroes in our own stories when we’re honest about both the bad and the good that we’ve done. I think this is why the concept of an anti-hero is so broadly appealing in stories; it’s really just a well developed character. If a character doesn’t have a little darkness inside of them, they don’t feel real to us.

In conclusion, I loved this book. It wove together the disparate threads from the previous four books very tightly. It was also the first to move almost entirely in a linear fashion, which was a big departure from the others. Finishing it makes me want to go back and reread book two, which was previously my least favorite, but I think the additional insight and perspective gained from reading five would make it much more interesting. The main narrative of book two chronologically lands right after the events of book five. I think that book five could be read before book two, and might even be best experienced in that order.

Now begins the long wait for book six.

Man of the Year, by Lou Cove

Man of the Year, by Lou Cove

“Howie is right: if we’re all going to get whacked, what matters is who is standing beside you when the universe speaks your name. And it matters that you stand with them.”

Synopsis:

In 1978 Jimmy Carter mediates the Camp David Accords, Fleetwood Mac tops charts with Rumours, Starsky fights crime with Hutch, and twelve-year-old Lou Cove is uprooted from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to Salem, Massachusetts– a backwater town of witches, Puritans, and sea-captain wannabes. After his eighth move in a dozen years, Lou figures he should just resign himself to a teenage purgatory of tedious paper routes, school bullies, and unrequited lust for every girl he likes.

Then one October morning an old friend of Lou’s father, free-wheeling (and free-loving) Howie Gordon arrives at the Cove doorstep from California with his beautiful wife Carly. Howie is everything Lou wants to be: handsome as a movie star, built like a god and in possession of an unstoppable confidence.

Then, over Thanksgiving dinner, Howie drops a bombshell. Holding up an issue of Playgirl Magazine, he flips to the center and there he is, Mr. November in all his natural glory. Howie has his eye on becoming the next Burt Reynolds, and a wild idea for how to do it: win Playgirl’s Man of the Year. And he knows just who should manage his campaign. As Lou and Howie canvas Salem for every vote in town – little old ladies at bridge club, the local town witch, construction workers on break and everyone in between – Lou is forced to juggle the perils of adolescence with the pursuit of Hollywood stardom.

Man of the Year is the improbable true story of Lou’s thirteenth year, one very unusual campaign, and the unexpected guest who changes everything.

You simply must read this memoir. It was fantastic, and genuinely one of my favorite reads of the year. It’s endearing and thought-provoking, and a great conversation about the differing degrees of honesty and openness required in different relationships.

Being a child of the mid eighties, and growing up in a tiny little (population ~2000) tourist trap meets hippie haven town in Northwest Arkansas in the nineties, I knew nothing of late seventies Salem, MA when I cracked the spine on this. My ignorance of the time period and the area, mixed with a killer synopsis established my initial intrigue, and the universal coming-of-age themes present in the narrative sucked me the rest of the way in. I ended up absorbing the book in a couple sittings.

Lou CoveThe cast of characters in the Cove family and extended family — as well as Lou’s childhood friends — are odd, vibrant and alive. Louis’ family and upbringing could not be more different than my own, but there are some things that are universal to all childhoods. As each event occurs in the story, I found myself comparing the reactions that my family would have had with the ones that Louis’ did. It’s great to read about people so different from myself and those I’m familiar with, but so similar in other ways.

A handful of times throughout the book, late nineteen-seventies Salem is compared to the Salem of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s day by way of some quotes from him regarding the city he loathed, and characters mentioning him and his works. What a brilliant way to contrast the seventies conservative crackdown on “smut” that was sweeping the area (and the country) at the time, with the narrative witch hunt of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, as well as the more literal witch hunt that is nearly eponymously associated with the word Salem.

It reads a like a first person novel, written from the perspective of a boy in his twelfth year. There is a tiny bit of unreliable narrator going on here as well, since a large portion of the story is about the goings on of the adults in Louis’s life, but told from a perspective that doesn’t quite yet understand that adult world. The hinting at the reality of each situation is handled with skill and finesse.

Ultimately, it’s a story about Louis having an adventure, growing up, or rather being forced to confront the adult world and coming out the other side a changed person.

We Did Porn, by Zak Smith

We Did Porn, by Zak Smith

“When death comes, it very often comes with eyes averted, and with interceding machinery.”

I don’t think anyone who has read this book would argue that there isn’t a fierce and creative intelligence at work here. Zak Smith’s memoir of working in the dual capital-a industries of Adult entertainment and Art scene in NY is pretty scathing, and as honest feeling as a memoir can hope to be. It also paints the alt-porn industry, as well as the greater Adult film industry, as pretty much exactly what you’ve always imagined them to be: complicated as hell. Things are never, not ever, black and white. Shades of grey abound.

Zak SmithI’ve read a few reviews of this book that spend most of their time talking about him specifically: He’s an asshole, or a misogynist, etc. All of which may or may not be true, I don’t really know enough to make that call, however, this isn’t a review of Zak as an individual, but of his book. I’m really not interested in an ad hominem angle. You have to separate the art from the individual. Look at George W. Bush for example, his paintings are just fucking adorable, and he’s literally a war criminal. Keep the individual separate from their art. It’s hard to do, but at worst it’s a good mental exercise, and at best it keeps you from being an asshole.

I always take memoirs with a grain of salt anyway, because seriously, you have to be completely bonkers to believe everything in them. Memory is mostly fiction. Just get together with some old friends or family and talk about the time you… or the other time when so-and-so… and see how often your versions of truth agree with each other’s.

“Give four art people a banana and they will say: It’s wonderfully yellow, it’s too yellow, it’s not yellow enough, I’m so glad it isn’t yellow, and then say it’s wonderfully squishy, it’s too squishy, it’s not squishy… and on and on until the banana gets so famous that they start getting paid to agree that the banana is yellow and good.”

Onto the actual content: This book is well written. There are some absolutely gorgeous sentences, metaphors, and sentiments presented, and I really want this guy to write some novels, because I would read them all. His published art project relating to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow aside, you can tell that Zak Smith’s literary influences swing heavily toward the postmodern side of things. I’m guessing that David Foster Wallace, and Zadie Smith, and Hunter S. Thompson were all influential in the intended direction for this book.

This is basically a three year slice-of-life character based story on those in the alt-porn industry in Los Angeles and New York from 06 – 08. Everyone’s names are kind of changed, and supposedly details have been altered and swapped around and shared to make it not so obvious who is who for those that are familiar with these real life people. If you’re like me, you’re not very familiar with porn stars, but there are a few stories in here that broke into the mainstream a little, that you’ll most likely recognize. If you are familiar with porn stars, you’ll have a good time trying to match these fake names with their “real” fake names.

Zak Smith DrawingIt seems like he really wanted to give another angle on the people involved in the porn business. Something different from what’s already out there. There is so much misinformation, bad information, and downright obfuscation on the subject, from a lot of different camps. Pornographers have been very unfairly pushed into categories of sluts, whores, and victims (the women), and misogynist abusers (the men). Well, if I have to point out just how sexist that demarcation is, then you probably should read this book, or maybe something more along the lines of The Woman That Never Evolved, by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, or really just any Feminist writing (please just make sure it’s not Tumblr feminism, go for the legit stuff). Not to say that there aren’t abusers, or victims involved in the Porn industry, I’m sure there are, and probably a lot. But again, things are never black and white like that.

Between the memoir bits there are a few sections with scans of his artwork; mostly drawings and paintings. Personally, I really like his art, but completely understand why someone else wouldn’t. He spends some time contrasting the art world with the porn world, drawing similarities and differences among the two. He’s very aware that both industries are kind of bullshit. He also seems very aware of how incredibly lucky he is to be able to make a living from his artwork.

It has one of the best ever descriptions of how bizarre the middle-zeroes were, which I think was intended to read as a “look at how strange things were then in comparison to how much better they are now” vibe, but in hindsight it works very well as an illustration of the starting point for exactly when our current issues (Trump, “alt facts”, not agreeing on objective reality, etc) began and stem from. It’s pretty disheartening that things seem only to have gone downhill from there on:

“I’m not sure future generations, comfortable with all the names in their history books, will appreciate the degree to which, in the mid-zeroes, everything even remotely resembling public life in America felt like a crudely mounted shadow-puppet play smoke-screening some unspeakable underlying soul-death.”

Zak Smith drawingI love what this had to say about sexual abuse, and abuse of all kinds. There are a disproportionate amount of porn stars that have experienced some kind of abuse in their past. And if you’re like me, you have a hard time understanding why anyone who had been abused would want to be in the porn business, especially in some of the darker or more kinked corners of it that more closely resemble their abuse. But, it really makes a lot of sense when it’s all laid out. This was one of my favorite sections of the book. Really, anyone who chooses a life on the fringes or edges of what’s considered mainstream or normal society is utterly fascinating to me. There are all kinds of people, and just because the majority of people behave in one way doesn’t necessarily mean that way is right, and all others are wrong. Again with the black and white reference.

“Things that are supposed to make ordinary people happy or sad are molehills in the shadow of a morbid, thousand-mile-high monument to suffering and shame at the center of the city of the brain.
“The abused person then not only wants to not be abused–but she also wants to try to set up experiences of pleasure that equal or exceed the mental and emotional peak of pain that, otherwise, will be the highest and clearest peak in the history of her feelings.
“So she goes to the place the heavy bad thing came from–the sex place–and tries to see if there is a heavy good thing there, too. Because nothing else has that weight. You can’t erase pain from life, but you can get enough pleasure that life seems worth living anyway.”

I know quite a lot of people who are sexual assault survivors, probably more than I realize. It’s a widespread problem, and the victim blaming platitudes that I hear constantly from politicians and religious leaders infuriate me to no end. It appears that this double standard also pisses Zak off, and I can appreciate that. There are some sections in here talking specifically about the ways that politicians (esp. those on the right), and religious leaders have perpetuated and exacerbated the cycle of abuse through their rhetoric and actions. It’s very satisfying to hear someone lay it out so clearly.

In conclusion, a lot of this book is pretty vulgar, but then again it is about pornography and those in the industry. I think it’s important to talk about these things in our society rather than just push them off to the side and pretend they don’t exist. They exist. These people exist. And yes, they are people. I think the whole point of this book is to maybe force people to acknowledge this world that he’s familiar with. It’s real and we should talk about it.

 

 

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.

 

 

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.