Category Archives: General Literature

Star Wars, The Wonder Years, and what went wrong with your parents: Min Kamp’s prequel.

Boyhood Island begins with a scene from Karl Ove Knausgaard’s childhood that he can’t possibly remember. He is an infant, and his parents, still quite young, are arriving at the place that will serve as boyhood home until early adolescence. The scene lasts only a few pages, but its inclusion in this novel is a reminder to the reader, and perhaps to himself, that this book is not autobiography, or even memoir. We are reading a novel, a novel generated by the materials of the novelist’s own life, but a novel all the same. This may be nonfiction, but Knausgaard is imposing an arc on his own life. In the vocabulary of silly American movie blockbusters, this volume is the prequel. Or in the parlance of the golden age of Hollywood, this book functions as a giant flashback.

Narrative regression—whether in Star Wars or in high literature—usually functions in the opposite way to our usual understanding of narrative. We have been given the ending, now we are going back to the beginning, with the ending in mind. Such a beginning, in many cases, only has narrative value if we know the ending. Otherwise meaningless incidents take on narrative significance. Small gestures, a word said in anger, a lost swimming cap, a glass of wine too many, are all freighted with the knowledge of what will happen twenty, thirty years later. In Aristotle’s classic understanding of the beginning, middle and end of any story, these beginnings become the middle, or even in some rare cases the end. And thus Knausgaard puts his beginning squarely in the middle of his own autobiographical arc.

Perhaps Star Wars comes to mind, however bizarre a connection that might be, because we discover in Book 3, that, much like George Lucas’s space opera, My Struggle is a six-volume meditation on the Oedipus Complex that began in medias res. A Death in the Family covered the gruesome death of Knausgaard’s father from alcoholism in its purest, most suicidal form. That novel  hinted at his father’s abuse of his sons, his near near manic need for control. Book 3 takes us back to those moments when a television becomes the battleground to maintain ironclad domination over a small boy. Sons mount their defiance in the only way that they know how, using only the petty, yet strangely vicious weapons afforded to offspring. The mother is a warm  presence, and as readers we long for the absence of the father so that we can enjoy her comforting embrace in peace.

The novel should not be understood only in these overly earnest terms, however: I laughed long and hard while reading this book. Much of the book can be understood as a coming of age story of the artist, a Küntslerroman, and a hilarious and beautiful one at that. Knausgaard does not shy away from the most embarrassing moments of his own childhood. A good chunk of the novel is about his kindergarten year, and he captures all of the hilarity of such an early age. First encounters with porn, first girlfriends, his own self-satisfaction at his literary skills in elementary school: much of the novel reads like relentless self-mockery. He also perfectly renders the intensely sensual world that children live in, the way that their lack of clearly developed social priorities allow them to be in the physical world in a way that adults—with their constant social preoccupations and anxieties—rarely can. The pop-culture antecedent in the English speaking world is The Wonder Years, but Knausgaard writes with a white-hot honesty that that sticky-sweet piece of sitcom nostalgia was never able to achieve.

Layered among these aspects of the novel is a meditation on a profound generational split. The radical shift between the World War 2 generation (Knausgaard’s grandparents) and the Baby Boomers (Knausgaard’s parents) makes for a haunting leitmotif within the novel. Especially on Knaugaard’s mother’s side, we see an earlier, more rural, agrarian community that put a lot of emphasis on the extended family. Knausgaard’s parents, for good and for ill, are moving into the consumer-based culture that framed much of the boomers’ early adulthood. Neighborhood developments replace farms, nuclear families replace extended family, and work animals are discarded in favor of pets. Knausgaard is only a few years older than myself, and like much of my generation, he seems to be reaching middle-age, looking at his grandparents and parents, and asking “What the hell happened?

Before I read Knausgaard’s work, I was tempted to dismiss My Struggle as a bizarrely ambitious work of utter narcissism, a self-indulgent hymn celebrating everything that was wrong with my generation and the one that came after it. After having read the first three volumes of Min Kamp, I’ve come to the conclusion that these books are an important and honest look at our current age, and at my own generation. Knausgaard’s own life might be the canvas, but our social zeitgeist is what is actually being rendered. We stand on the cusp of a new age, and Knausgaard’s alchemical blend of the elements of autobiography and fiction may be the perfect artistic herald. Much like the Romantic poets anticipated and participated in an age of revolution, upheaval, migration, chaos, and backlash, Knausgaard’s narrative art provides perspective on an age when we are reconceiving the concept of the individual self yet again.

Nathan Elliott works in Georgia, lives in Newfoundland, and spends much of his time taking care of a small, beautiful boy. 

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Pleasurable Meditations on Art, Pain, Alienation, and Grief

Upon occasion, I have taught selections from Matsuo Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior. My reasons were less than pure; the state university system in which I taught demanded certain percentages of literature from various cultures. I wasn’t really sure I wanted to teach haiku at first; it’s often taught in the public secondary system, but seldom taught in such a way that it could do justice to the intricacies of Japanese poetry and Zen Buddhism. My own extremely limited knowledge of the Japanese literary tradition made me cautious. The more often I taught it, however, the more I began to value the haiku tradition for its efficiency in teaching certain things to beginning literature students. Much of my struggle with undergraduate literature students was in trying to get them to understand, see, and appreciate that literature was actually art. Yes, Suzy Undergrad, the poet actually chose those particular words in order to create an experience for you in which your usual assumptions about, say, death (or sex, or love, or the gods. . . ) were temporarily suspended so that you could deepen your understanding of it. Haiku boiled down literature to its most essential forms. Choose a season, reflect on a natural object, distill the essence of that reflection into the spare three line, 5-7-5 syllable format. All of the endless permutations of any art form can come out of that simple, basic desire to represent and then reflect. In this way, simple line drawings on a cave wall have all of the subtly as a Kubrick film, as Werner Herzog has suggested. Haiku was simple enough for my students to be able to actually interpret a piece of art as art. At the same time the form was complex and flexible enough to bear the weight of endless permutations.

In Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage Haruki Murakami has practiced a similar minimalism using his own oeuvre. All of the usual hallmarks of a Murakami novel are here. There is the love story, and the usual erotic surrealism. There is a central piece of music that frames the action, in this case Franz Liszt’s “La Mal du Pays.” Murakami uses four colours to frame the actions of four friends, as well as a fifth character, our ‘colorless’ protagonist. In 1Q84, Murakami made his love story as complex as possible. In Kakfa on the Shore he made a love story that was infinitely strange. In Colorless we find that Murakami has stripped love, friendship, and eroticism stripped down to those elements he finds interesting about those subjects. Despite this minimalism, or perhaps because of it, the novel feels like an unusually rich and strong meditation on those very subjects. He has been compared to many different literary artists, but I found myself thinking very much of the deceptive simplicity of the Greek playwright Aeschylus while reading Murakami’s latest effort; both artists reduce stories to their most basic, almost instinctual elements.

Reading Murakami is not like the experience of reading most other novels, and Colorless is no different. You don’t understand a Murakami novel so much as you taste it. A sip of ten-year old single-malt disperses across your palate in stages, yielding very different experiences as the flavor hits your nose, your tongue, and then your throat. I find that Murakami novels have an almost similar sensual element to them; if you try too hard to distinguish the ‘vanilla’ notes from the ‘peat’ promised by that awful copy on the bottle, the sensual pleasure of the actual whisky might disappear. Murakami’s plot elements, and the descriptions, have a way of lingering with you, long after the work of lesser novelists has dispersed. I think that it is this feature of his work that has led to Murakami being attacked or criticized when critics have a difficult time putting a name to the experience they have just had. I am not offering this as a defense of all of Murakami’s work; he may well have his lesser moments the way that any writer might; even Shakespeare had his Timon of Athens.

All that to say: I’m not sure that Colorless proved to be my favorite Murakami novel. I may prefer him in his more expansive moods, such as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and 1Q84; some claimed that 1Q84 was an expansive mess; I found it a generous and fascinating world to inhabit for 900 pages. Colorless left me wanting a bit more: a bit more character development, a bit more dialogue, a slightly less ambiguous ending. Still, the effect of the novel on my palate was unmistakably Murakami. I finished the novel several days ago, and its narrative and images linger with me in a way that only the best stories can. Perhaps Murakami is best understood as a maker of modern-day fairy tales. Like fairy tales, the logic of the narrative is distinctly its own, and thus escapes any easy taxonomy or straightforward explanation offered by the world of literary critics and book reviewers. Like Alice, we have been plunged into the world of the strange—the town of cats, to borrow Murakami’s own metaphor—and we feel strangely more whole when we return to our everyday reality. Murakami, as always, is meditating on the very nature of art itself, and that earnest emphasis on representation and reflection always feels spiritually satisfying.

Nathan Elliott–a globalized, de-centered mess–lives in Newfoundland, teaches students in Georgia, and is homesick for the mountains of Idaho. His favourite foods include sushi and haggis. He expects any day now to wake up in an alternate reality, and he dreads the coming of a second moon. 

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The Taming of a Norwegian Novelist



So, there I was: fresh off of a two-hundred page dash through the end of Book 1—published with the additional title of A Death in the Family in some English editions–I wanted more, and I wanted it right then, even if I was operating on three hours of sleep and I had a toddler to take care of. The wife had a paperback copy of Book 2, A Man in Love, and I proceeded to plunge right in, assuming I’d get the same thing I got in Book 1: a haunting, tightly crafted, poetic meditation on the fragility of life, and the imminence of death. I wanted a sequel, in other words, like every other American consumer who goes to Massachusetts Rusty Spoon Murders in Space 17 and then pulls into MacDonald’s to wash down their warm, predictable, commodified characters with food that is its bland, uniform, and focus-group produced complement.

Knausgaard refused to serve me. Instead he gave me an excruciating anatomy of his second marriage. The other Knausgaard reader in my household noted that she felt like she was married to him, trapped in a six-hundred page marriage that she could neither annul or destroy through sheer bad behavior. Much as the first novel could be easily summed up in a couple of sentences, so too can A Man in Love: Knausgaard falls in love with Linda in the aftermath of the breakdown of his first marriage; in one memorable episode he rips his face open with a shard of glass after she turns back his early advances. After that minor hiccup, they get married, she gets pregnant, there are fights with in-laws, there are fights with friends, there are manic episodes. At some point someone rubs some fruit juice into the carpet to make some point about something that no one can quite remember, let alone why it was important to make a point, or what fruit juice even had to do with it. Then Linda gets pregnant again. If it sounds crazy, well, it is, but if you’ve been married, it may be hard not to recognize yourself in at least a few key scenes.

Knausgaard jumped genres on us, or at the very least, sub-genres. A Death in the Family forced its readers to come to terms with the fullness of death; it finds its precedent in the great Russians, looking back to The Brothers Karamazov and The Death of Ivan Ilyich. A Death in the Family follows the author through the death of his father, and examines the troubled relationship he had with the man that gave him his existence. It gives us the way that the death of others–perhaps especially our parents and grandparents–almost always forces us to confront existential questions. We must confront–not just mortality itself–but who and what we actually are, and how much control we have over who and what we are.

A Man in Love forces—and I do mean forces—its readers to confront the realities of love and marriage; in doing so, Knausgaard travels from the existential depths of the Russian novel to the complex depth-psychology of the nineteenth-century British novel. To be absurdly reductive, the nineteenth-century British novel falls into two camps. Jane Austen’s Regency-era piece of glitter and sexual tension, Pride and Prejudice, is a slow-narrative-strip-tease as we wait to see if Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet will get laid in a manner highly satisfactory to all parties; when Elizabeth secures Mr. Darcy’s handsome countenance as well as his vast estates, all is well in Britain and in our sexual fantasies. There is, of course, the polar opposite of the nineteenth-century marriage plot novel, the narrative that begins–rather than ends–shortly after the marriage has been sealed. Dorthea Brooke has just married the noble scholar of her dreams, Mr. Causabon; dear reader, welcome to the inferno of marriage and psychological realism that is Middlemarch (a personal favorite of mine, to be clear). In these narratives, we find out what really happens instead of living “happily ever after.”

Knausgaard–who flirts with nineteenth-century novel conventions, but never quite gives them his cell number–flaunts and incorporates the conventions of both the marriage plot novel of Austen and Trollope and the psychological realism of Dickens and Eliot. There is no happy ending here, there is no sad ending here, because there is no ending here. In this novel, love grows and stretches into marriage and gives birth to children and fights and broken vases and some serious questions about whether or not the mother-in-law isn’t breaking into the liquor cabinet when she’s supposedly minding the baby. What marriage does not produce is easy resolution, or a sense that you have it all figured out. The very nature of love and marriage propels you endlessly into the future, as you try to figure out the next day, the next fight, and how to have make-up sex without waking the baby or the alcoholic neighbour.

In that sense, this is the perfect sequel to A Death in the Family. That novel undermined our narrative expectations about grief and death. A Man in Love undermines all of our usual narrative expectations about what it is to fall in love, get married, and have children. Love is a force that so profoundly reshapes you that it gives you raw joy and the petty desire to carve your initials into the dining room table just to get that asshole to listen for a change. The novel has a description of the birth of his first child, which will likely have many a parent in tears as it recaptures the sense of blinding anxiety, pain, and joy that accompanies any birth. My favorite passage, however, comes at the end when our hero breaks his collarbone in a soccer match, and is over-joyed to find that his painful injury gives him an iron-clad excuse to have a real day off for the first time in years. As his young daughter scrubs his back in the bath, you get a sense of all of the absurdity and pleasure that family life affords.

At the end of the book—if you make it—you may feel like you need a divorce from Karl Ove Knausgaard. But that’s only because you’ll understand marriage and love a little better than you did when you started.

Nathan Elliott is a hopeless romantic who moved to Newfoundland to marry a poet. He spends the rest of his time looking after a toddler, reading, trying to find time to swim, and wondering if Lloyd Dobler and Diane Court had a good trip to England. 

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Simple beauty

Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland gets away—seemingly—with a lot that it shouldn’t.

I will say, at the outset, that it was a beautiful, haunting novel that I greedily read in a matter of days. Lahiri’s sentences are simple. The story is relatively straightforward: a young man is shot and killed by the Indian police once it is discovered that he has played a role in the India’s Naxalite Movement. His death reverberates through generations, profoundly influencing a daughter that he will never meet, born in a country, culture, and climate that he will never know. Grief seeps through this novel like a slowly rising flood, warping lives and loves for decades. If you have any taste for family sagas that take you through generations of change, then you should read this novel. If you are interested in the way that political history interacts with the lives of individuals, then you should read this novel. If your heart has been completely wrecked beyond all repair, then you should read this novel. If you love beautiful writing for its own sake, then you should read this novel.

You should also read it simply because Lahiri gives an enthusiastic middle finger to much of what I see is fashionable in contemporary literary fiction. Lahiri’s prose—in an age where we too often get mind-numbing descriptions of physical landscapes, in increasingly ornate sentences—rarely makes use of more than one or two commas in a sentence. Contrast her prose with someone like Michael Ondaajte, who seems determined to make every single sentence of his belabored novels a prose-poem. Ondaajte is celebrated for this, but I too often feel like I can see the craft instead of simply enjoying it. I’m being invited to admire the stitches, and can’t simply be comfortable wearing the shirt. Lahiri describes the physical landscape—her title and central metaphor for the novel take their cue from the lowland flood plains of India and Rhode Island—but Lahiri uses a relatively simple sentence to describe that landscape and then moves on to another simple sentence to describe what character does. People move. Seasons change. Someone gets killed. Somehow these simple sentences gradually add up to something far more gorgeous and intense than any one sentence could possibly convey. By discarding the need to be constantly gorgeous, her narrative becomes utterly seductive.

Similarly, Lahiri thumbs her nose at authority of narrative unity, namely Aristotle himself, and the guru of character development, E.M Forster. The Lowland moves us rapidly through decades of time. She jumps over a five-year period with barely so much as a semi-colon to let us know what happened in between independent clauses. The result—according to the powers that be—should be shaky, two-dimensional characters that we don’t really know or understand, thus violating the novel’s almost genetic need to give us the illusion of psychological depth. Yet we do know Lahiri’s characters, and we grieve with them. How does she pull this off in the face of what we’re taught makes for a good novel, a good play, a good story? I’m not entirely sure, but I think it might be Lahiri’s love for the story itself. She understands what motivates us at a base level when it comes to a story, whether it be The Odyssey, Hamlet, or the Bible. People fight, people fall in love, people fall out of love, people die, people try to piece together their lives and find joy, sometimes they fail. Those emotions are always recognizable, and they always resonate.

This novel gets away with being beautiful, in spite of all the attempts of the literary authorities to codify beauty into a prescription for what should be beautiful. The temptation—for any writer—after reading something this beautiful, is to attempt to imitate it. One English professor I read complained that every time his creative students started reading Faulkner he knew that he was about to see a batch of stories involving overly ornate descriptions of incest, family secrets, and violence. But imitation is to miss the lesson that Lahiri and Faulkner both teach us: they created their works of art by writing the novels they should write, and refusing to accept any particular prescription for how that should come about. They strove to find the beauty in what they had to say, and refused to let anyone tell them otherwise. Lahiri’s stories reportedly faced rejection at the hands of literary editors for years, almost certainly for the reasons I’ve outlined here. Clearly she insisted on her own artistic vision, and I’m happy to have been the beneficiary in reading The Lowland.

Nathan Elliott manages to teach in Georgia while living in Newfoundland, thanks to the power of the internets. He spends the rest of his time looking after a toddler, reading, trying to find time to swim, and trying to write a little. 

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Welcome Back, Mr. Walter: Spokane still loves you.

            

9780061926624

“I fucking hate Portland. It’s so earnest and smug. There was a Portland guy here in Shelton on a meth pop and even he had it—that too-sweet-to-believe thing.”
           So begins one of Jess Walter’s short stories in the recent collection We Live in Water. The character turns out to be a drug runner—so perhaps we shouldn’t take him as the voice of Walter himself—but still the quote lingered with me long after I finished the collection. After taking us to the remote Italian coast in Beautiful Ruins, Walter returns us back to his old stomping grounds in these stories, which are set in Coeur D’Alene, Spokane, Portland, and Seattle. Many of the stories have a distinct film noir vibe, or at least as noir as you can get when Idaho pine trees are in the background. Other stories seem to have a distinct debt to another Northwest short story writer, one Raymond Carver; if Carver wrote the stories of those left behind by Reagan’s and Thatcher’s greed driven mania for privatization in the 80s, Walter focuses on those in the Northwest who never quite got the trickle-down from the software boom. This is the same territory that Walter covered in earlier novels such as Land of the Blind and–one of my personal favorites—Citizen Vince. But Walter’s voice is ever more refined in these short pieces; it’s possible that the genre’s focus on individual plights allows Walter greater latitude to focus on what is his great theme, which is the way that America deals with class. America prefers to believe that class doesn’t exist; as a first generation college kid from Spokane who went to Eastern Washington University, Walter isn’t drinking the Kool-Aid that America is so often peddling.
           Highlights of the collection include a homeless man trying to scrap enough money together to buy his kid the latest Harry Potter book, a released white-collar convict trying to redeem his soul in a reading program, the fore-mentioned drug-runner who manipulates homeless kids in Portland into running a fake charity program. A particularly poignant, hilarious, and horrifying story follows two former Mead high school students as they try to rescue a kid sister from a life of prostitution in Las Vegas. The highlight of the collection for me, however, is the last piece in the last collection. It’s a non-fiction piece entitled “Statistical Abstract for my Hometown, Spokane, Washington.” Walter artfully arranges any number of facts and observations about Spokane into a haunting meditation on place, and his own continuing decision to live in Spokane, a place he confesses to having wanted to leave countless times.

                       Right at the peak of my obnoxious and condescending loathing for my
                       hometown, I rented a houseboat in Seattle for $900 a month so I
                       could pretend I lived there. While staying on that boat, and hanging
                       around Seattle, I had a conversation with someone about all that was
                       wrong with Spokane. He said that it was too poor and too white and
                       too uneducated and too unsophisticated, and as he spoke, I realized
                       something: this guy hated Spokane because of people like me. I grew
                       up poor, white, and unsophisticated, the first in my family to graduate
                       from college. And worse, I had made the same complaints. Did I hate
                       Spokane. . . .or did I hate myself? Was this just a kind of self-loathing?
                       Then I had this even more sobering thought: Was I the kind of snob
                       who hates a place because it’s poor?

Something about what Walter said registered with my own complicated relationship with the Idaho panhandle. Walter’s honesty about himself, Spokane, class, and the Pacific Northwest are refreshing. Readers need not worry that the stories are self-satisfied meditations on these depressing issues; as always, Walter is relentlessly funny about the darkest subjects, and his ability to land a solid plot twist firmly across your jaw make his stories compelling reading.
           The late Alistair Macleod, at a reading I attended about a year before his death, claimed that good literature was “the news.” His stories, he said, were the news from places like Cape Breton, Nova Scotia as Atlantic Canada made a late turn toward modernity. Flannery O’Connor gave us the news from the remoter counties of Georgia as it too struggled to understand itself in a new America. Walter’s stories give a similar feeling: this is the news from the Pacific Northwest in a post-9/11, post-housing-boom world. It’s a frustrating, haunting, sometimes frightening world that Walter gives us, but I’m glad that someone has the courage to see it.

Nathan Elliott manages to teach in Georgia while living in Newfoundland, thanks to the power of the internets. He spends the rest of his time looking after a toddler, reading, riding a bike, and trying to write a little. 

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Should Jess Walter be writing about the Italian coast when he could be writing about Spokane?

Beautiful Ruins 

9780061928178

Reading Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins for a book club recently, I was constantly reminded of the rumor that the work was to be made into a film, as the Italy section of this novel just screams “this will look great in the trailer” with moments such as a comical fight on the beach or a drunken Richard Burton giving a rousing speech to the fishermen of Porto Vergogna before an aborted rescue attempt[i]. Even the high concept set-up is perfect for a movie: a young actress getting her first big break in Cleopatra is diagnosed with stomach cancer and sent to a quiet fishing village to wait for her lover, where she catches the eye of the young hotel proprietor. Meanwhile, in modern-day Los Angeles, a jaded production assistant, a wannabe screenwriter, and way past-his-prime movie producer try to discover the actress’s fate (all the while exposing the kind of movie industry in-jokes that are shown so often in films that they really aren’t in-jokes anymore). I can see the kind of film Beautiful Ruins could be, and it would be a terrible disappointment, one that leaves the best parts of the novel out in favor of easy storytelling.

The Italian sections of this novel are not without their charms. Pasquale, the young hotel proprietor, has a decent backstory and the mystery of whatever became of Dee once she left the island is a hook that keeps you reading through the first third of the work. Once the action shifts more toward life back West the novel gains momentum and explores the day to day reality of family and relationships–and the difficulties of being honest with oneself–Walter hits on something that resonates much longer than the screenplay-perfect Italian backstory does.

One of Walter’s strengths is his ability to capture the Pacific Northwest, not just its landscape, but its sensibilities[ii], and the problems with the Italian sections of Beautiful Ruins are that despite the intriguing set-up, they ring false, not capturing the same kind of authenticity and spirit of the sections in Seattle, Idaho, and elsewhere. Even the Los Angeles chapters provide eclectic delights, such as an entire chapter devoted to a movie pitch about the Donner Party. Dee and Pasquale, in the early portions of the Italy story are ciphers, beautiful, but woefully naïve. The more lived-in characters of the present are more relatable, whether it is the retelling of a promising date gone wrong, an addict’s last deluded musical stand, or a young man’s realization that he’s been a “milk-fed veal” his entire privileged life[iii].

One narrative that serves as a bridge between the Italian and American sections is that of Alvin Bender, a World War II veteran who sells cars for his father ten months out of the year and then enjoys two months of drinking and writing the great American novel in Porto Vergogna. It is not much of a spoiler to note that Alvin, a charming, raging alcoholic, never finishes his novel, but rather rewrites the same chapter over and over. A character notes that perhaps that chapter was all he had in him. It is included in the novel, and it is perfect. You go in thinking you will be treated to a sweet wartime romance only to realize too late that it is something else. The shift is subtle, and devastating. Some may think that this kind of digression from the action in Beautiful Ruins was beside the point, taking away from the love story of Dee and Pasquale and the final chapter of Beautiful Ruins, with its cheat of a happy ending recap for all, but to me, Alvin’s chapter and other digressions such as a character’s failure at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Shane’s Donner Party pitch are the point. As Shane says of the end of his protagonist’s journey, “William Eddy has simply…survived. And as he faces the horizon, we realize that maybe it’s all any of us can hope to do.”

Not every story is the epic journey of grand moments and sweeping success. There is a grace just in survival. The best moments of this novel reflect that.

I got curious about the rumored film version of Beautiful Ruins, and to my very pleasant surprise I see that Todd Field (In the Bedroom, Little Children) is attached to direct and has supposedly written the screenplay with Walter. This fills me with a hope that the film, if ever made, will reflect more than its screenplay ready passages and will retain what makes it a must read.

[i] Complete with characters with names like Tomasso the Communist! Cue wacky music.

[ii] Every transplanted Northwesterner needs to begin reading his works right now, even weaker entries such as early mystery The Land of the Blind, where a teenage character provides the most perfect and concise description of the difference between Spokane and Seattle ever recorded.

[iii] Walter’s supporting characters are a joy. I could have read a whole novel about Saundra, Shane’s waitress ex-wife; P.E. Steve; or of Pat’s adventures at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Julie Feighery is a college reference librarian in the Midwest. In her spare time, she likes to hang out with her two sons, jog (with a “soft j” like Ron Burgundy), and fight the squirrels for the spoils of her vegetable garden.

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Swooning over Norwegian Autobiography

 My Struggle, Volume 1

My Struggle

While doing some poetry readings at a literature and music festival this summer, my wife became friendly with a Welsh poet who is rising on the UK scene. At some point they both discovered that they shared an affinity for the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard. By my wife’s own admission, two serious women—published books of poetry, multiple advanced degrees, and years of reading tons of books between them—giggled like schoolgirls over Knausgaard’s prose, both confessing to a kind of literary crush. The Welsh poet—who I’ll leave nameless—had actually been backstage with Knausgaard at a reading! Can you believe it!? On telling me this when my wife returned home, I rolled my eyes in a way that can only be called theatrical, and wondered not so quietly if their fascination really had absolutely nothing to do with Knausgaard’s craggy rock-star good looks.

Knausgaard

What, exactly, explains the appeal of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six volume work on his own life? How, exactly, did this writer convince someone to publish six doorstop worthy books on his own life? How did he then begin to command the kind of enthralled audiences he has both in his native Norway, as well as all over much of the literate world (the books have been translated into at least fifteen languages since 2009) without getting tarred and feathered as the most shameless narcissist since, well, Narcissus? As if that wasn’t enough, he gives the work a title that—in Norwegian—deliberately evokes Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Yet my wife’s reaction is shared by no less a literary heavyweight than Zadie Smith, who likens the books to a drug addiction.

I’m not even sure how to review My Struggle, Volume 1. The typical review is supposed to summarize some relevant details, perhaps mention something about the writer’s past work, before evaluating a few of the book’s strengths and weaknesses. If reviewing fiction—especially mystery or thriller fiction—the judicious reviewer will avoid saying too much about the conclusion of the plot. As a reviewer, I am required to have given the potential book buyer enough temptation to try and read a good book, or enough discouragement to avoid a bad book, without having taken away whatever pleasures the book itself might hold should the reader decide to fork over hard-earned money to the book merchant and take the plunge.

Yet the book—is it memoir? creative-nonfiction? autobiography? or a novel?—makes me want to protect its narrative secrets. That alone—the fact that I just typed a sentence that included the phrase ‘narrative secrets’ in it—is nothing less than absolutely hilarious. For 90% of the book, possibly more, is centered around a handful of relatively banal days from the writer’s actual life. The book has no chapter breaks, and is very simply divided into two parts. Most of Part 1 is framed around one New Year’s Eve Party, wherein our teenage Norwegian hero tries his rural best to get as drunk as possible and talk to a girl he has a crush on. Most of Part 2 concerns a bleak week in the writer’s early adulthood cleaning his grandmother’s house after his father’s death. Yet he manages to pull this narrative witchcraft off to the extent that I’m worried that I might give something away, much the way that I might fret about accidentally revealing the killer while reviewing a mystery.

On top of that difficulty, it is also true that telling you more about what is in the book would be a bit like giving you a basic recipe for homemade bread to explain the pleasures of a loaf pulled fresh out of the oven: there’s no way that you will understand the appeal of My Struggle from reading about the yeast, the flour, and the water than went into making this book.

My own relationship with the book is a strange one, but perhaps will tell you something about the book. This January, while going through another round with bronchitis, my wife read sections of Volume 1 out loud to me while I laid in bed. I was amused by the writer’s descriptions of his boyhood. This man, I thought, is a good writer. He’s very funny, especially when talking about being in a school rock band in Norway in the 80s (the episode is full of “Smoke on the Water” and self-loathing, like much of the early 1980s). Despite that favorable reaction I was not compelled to return to the book. This summer, watching my wife get completely seduced by the series, I decided to give them another go while I waited for some books  to arrive at the post office. For the first few days I meandered through the text, a few pages after supper here, a few pages before going to sleep there. Around the end of Part 1 I began to get a whiff of what all the fuss was actually about, and found that I was really enjoying myself. I began Part 2 with a freshly open mind while trying to keep half an eye on my toddler son as he played on the beach one overcast morning. Within a few pages, I knew that I really must clear the rest of the day to complete reading the book. Some fifteen hours later, at around 3:30 am, having ignored wife and child for the better part of a day to bolt down over 200 pages, I came away from the novel–which is what I have decided to call it–somewhat stunned.

Had I just read the best thing since reading James Joyce’s “The Dead”? Had Knausgaard managed to evoke both Proust and Dostoevsky and compare favorably with them? Had a 400-page meditation on the death of a writer’s father just kept me completely enthralled? Could Knausgaard keep anyone enthralled, with anything? What in all holy hell was going on here? And for god’s sakes what was my wife doing sleeping at 3:30 am when there were books to discuss, damn it all!

I’m not ready to answer all of those questions just yet. But I will say that, despite about three hours of sleep, I practically skipped down the stairs to breakfast the next morning, vibrating with the urgent need to talk to my wife about the book. I was as crushed out as the rest of them. For the last week hardly a meal goes by in my little house without a pretty close discussion of exactly how Knausgaard is pulling off his literary high wire act. Now it is my toddler son rolling his eyes every time his parents bring up the Norwegian writer’s name again.

Perhaps there is nothing more to be said, good or bad, than this: at the end of breakfast that morning I demanded to know where my wife had stashed Volume 2 of My Struggle.

Nathan Elliott manages to teach in Georgia while living in Newfoundland, thanks to the power of the internets. He spends the rest of his time looking after a toddler, reading, riding a bike, and trying to write a little. 

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