Identification (Me and Karl Ove #3)

What I think I’m doing here: This is the final essay of three linked essays on Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (the first two are “Intertextuality” and “Identity“).

I abandon a thought mid-sentence, leaving it stranded in white space, and begin a new paragraph. I sit with my fingers on the keyboard but typing nothing. I stare into space (there is no window nearby in which to gaze at my own reflection). I shuffle disconnected bits of prose around, hoping that some coherent whole will emerge. This is embarrassing, I think. I am embarrassing myself. But embarrassing how? I will hit the little blue “Publish” button and the message will float out on the tides with the rest of the day’s virtual flotsam and jetsam. I am only embarrassed before myself.

There is a scene I particularly like in Book 6 of My Struggle where Karl Ove has just won an award for Book 1 (intertextuality and identity all wrapped up in one package):

When the evening was over, Linda and I, holding the statuette in one hand, walked to the hotel arm-in-arm. She was hungry, I went down to the 7-Eleven to buy some food for her, and on the way back I burst into laughter, it came from nowhere, and I stopped and turned to the wall. Ha ha ha, I laughed. Ha ha ha. Then I carried on walking, through the rain and darkness, over the shimmering asphalt, to the hotel, which was the Savoy, where I stopped again and lit a cigarette, the last before going to bed. I didn’t know what I had been laughing at, but just the thought of it made me laugh again. Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha.

I enjoy Knausgaard’s laughter (again with the Tintin comic “ha ha ha” – is “ha ha ha” different in Norwegian, I wonder? Is there some sort of specialized Norwegian orthography involved?). I enjoy the “to the hotel, which was the Savoy,” and the fact that after spending thousands of pages with Knausgaard I could be confident that one of his purchases at the 7-Eleven would be Pepsi Max (confirmed in the subsequent paragraph). But, what I really enjoy the most, what I hear when Karl Ove is laughing by himself on the sidewalk, is the sound of success.

And this is part of My Struggle’s appeal, especially among writers (insert obligatory Zadie Smith line comparing the books to crack here). I mean, you knew we’d end up here, right? The “Me and Karl Ove” aspect is right there in the title of these posts. My Struggle is at least partly the story of a writer who has failed (in his own estimation, at least) to deliver on early promise and overcomes a terrible case of writer’s block by simply writing down whatever he wants as fast as he can and the result is massive international success. It is embarrassing to admit this, to admit that part of the appeal of the books, of getting inside Karl Ove’s world, is that it is a world where the introverted, struggling writer achieves significant, unexpected success. The boy afraid to look his father in the eye, the university student cutting his face in the bar bathroom, the frustrated stay-at-home dad who cannot overcome the blank page – all these different images will resolve into the award winning author laughing on the street.

Knausgaard invites this sort of identification. In answer to the question from my first essay, part of the reason “includes extended portrayal of a boring children’s birthday party” resonated with readers is because if you are a parent of a certain age and class and cultural background you know that birthday party. You have attended it in some form or another, felt the boredom and frustration of it in a middle class living room somewhere in the contemporary Western world, and Knausgaard has captured it on the page. The stylistically accessible, confessional nature of the books provides this sort of opportunity for identification over and over, in a variety of realms of human experience. Not a father? Not a problem! Here’s a description of awkward adolescent romantic desire. Here’s a description of sibling rivalry. Here’s one describing numinous awe in the midst of everyday life. Here’s a reflection on Dostoevsky. Here’s one on middle class hypocrisy. How about a detailed description of checking out at a supermarket? How about a description of checking out at a supermarket again? How about the checkout line, yet again? Again?

The readers who like My Struggle tend to really like it but the sort of identification that the books encourage can get complicated and uncomfortable. Karl Ove is a deeply damaged character marked by a crippling sense of shame and self-loathing, as well as a self-absorption that veers into narcissism. He is deeply damaged by his relationship with his father, and in turn damages those around him at various points. The shadow to the portrait of the award winning author laughing in the street is Linda’s series of mental health crises that dominate the final pages of the book and Karl Ove’s very human, but not ideal, response. Knausgaard the author, while insisting that Karl Ove is himself, also points out in interviews that the portrait My Struggle presents is of a particularly dark time in his life, told from the perspective of that time. Despite my protests to the contrary, to start from a relatively analytical discussion of the books as texts among texts and gradually move through to the actual experience of reading represents some sort of desire to keep Karl Ove at arm’s length.

Again, it is complicated – it is not just a matter of identifying or not identifying with Karl Ove – it’s also a matter of wanting and not wanting. We may identify and not want to. We may wish we could identify and do not. I have not grown my hair out long or taken up smoking, I don’t want the painful family history, I don’t want the public humiliation and ruined relationships, I don’t want to admit my own level of self-absorption and narcissism, my self-destructive streak. But, I want the success, I want others to know that I possess my own rich inner life, I may want the strong (if complicated) relationships (I mean, do you have a friend like Geir Angell who would listen to you read pages from your unpublished novel on the phone every single night?). It is the complexity of this identification that makes the books interesting, the mixture of aspiration, acceptance, and rejection, all milling around inside me as I read page after page. All that time spent in the fictional checkout line, tallying up wants and needs and their costs, isn’t just time spent in the checkout line.

I find myself at the end of this essay, earlier than expected. I thought I had more to say, more to share, but I am not willing to follow Knausgaard any further than what I have revealed by being willing to spend time writing these essays in stolen minutes here and there over these past weeks, trying to get clear of the aesthetic hangover of one of the more powerful reading experiences of my adult life. I cannot do what he does (nor do I want to). Has writing these three short reflections been a good use of my time? Probably not. Should I admit that in public? Again, probably not. Of course, I am deciding to reveal it in public, playing a role, taking on an identity, there is an “is” and “is not,” even here. But, moving through from the interplay of texts to authorial identity to readerly identification I wish I had something better. I find myself asking is this the best I can do? I don’t think it matters, it is what I did, which is all I have. And, looking at it, I can revel in, truly revel in, the thought that I am not yet a writer.

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[…] What I think I’m doing here: This is the second of three linked essays on Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (the first one is “Intertextuality” final one is “Identification“). […]

[…] (“Intertextuality” will be followed by “Identity” and finally “Identification“). There are many different possible approaches to My Struggle but this is my attempt at […]