Saturday, December 24, 2016

Coming of Age in Bergen: Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle: Book Five

Outside of a classic that contemporary readers often feel obligated to read, for example, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, few probably ever spend 3000 pages reading a single writer. There are only a handful of writers who I would admit I would stay with for over a million words: J.M. Coetzee. Norman Rush, possibly. Beckett, of course. Beckett’s entire oeuvre likely doesn’t equal 3000 pages. I also think of William T. Vollmann, with his voluminous output, some of which I’ve read and dared to read, but I’ve never read anywhere near 3000 pages of his work; 3000 pages is merely a fraction.

Having read almost 3000 pages of My Struggle thus far, I’ve been with Karl Ove Knausgaard for the long haul. Every book of My Struggle has had me eager to read the next one.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what draws me in and keeps me coming back; there’s voyeurism in looking at his life. I found myself fully engaged reading Book Five, feeling a mix of recognition tinged with despair, and the satisfaction of simple narrative anticipation.

Whereas there was a kind of romantic youthful innocence an easy settling in Book Four, with Book Five we live with Knausgaard through that difficult period that is the twenties. Of the five books so far, Book Five is where Knausgaard reveals himself becoming serious about his life. This might be the most fraught, most difficult time of a man’s life. For Knausgaard, it’s that period where he discovers the first inklings of adulthood with the casual recklessness of relationships, the reckoning with a career and the daunting prospect of trying to imagine life going forward. As this is a writer’s memoir, Knausgaard is searching for his voice at this time, also, to become a writer and find the inspiration to take to the page. I’m reminded of Bryan Charles’s There’s a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From, though in that memoir the writer is coming to terms with similar issues, a kind of extreme social anxiety was the narrative driver.

I’ve had many of the same experiences that Knausgaard had growing up in the seventies, though of course with different landscapes and cultures. There’s the curiosity of the unfamiliar, which is embodied in the Norwegian customs and rituals, the rural differences. This is an enthrallment of an unfamiliar, or an eerily familiar, like an alternative universe paralleling my own. All of which made me feel present and involved in his life in the way the best fiction manages to engage. His musical references are mine, also: XTC, The Smiths, Simple Minds, are among some of the bands he is often profoundly affected by. On the other hand, I never went through the desperate relationship that he had with his father, nor did I have a gravitational attraction to alcohol. In some way, the crying he readily admits to feels manipulative of the reader; it can smack of forced sentiment. But his life is lived on his sleeve. The helpless anxiety that Knausgaard expresses at believing his future wife, Tonje, is going to slip away from him and fall into his brother’s arms--is palpable. It has already happened, after all, with another girlfriend early in the book. The pain and shame that is clearly a burden of an alcoholic father and wrestling with a major drinking problem himself, as well as a tendency to self-harm, feels painfully real to me as a reader.

Reading Knausgaard becomes an act of empathy. On the other hand, Knausgaard comes off as a sad case, and the inclination to take pity on him is there. But he’s not exceptional. His initial words on the book are retrospectively bleak:

“All that is left of the thousands of days I spent in that small, narrow-streeted, rain-shimmering Vestland town is a few events and lots of sentiments. I kept a diary, which I have since burned. I took some photos, of which twelve remain; they are in a little pile on the floor beside the desk, with all the letters I received during those days. I have flicked through them, read bits and pieces, and this has always depressed me, it was such a terrible time. I knew so little, had such ambitions, and achieved nothing.”

This might be a near universal sentiment for anyone looking back on their youth. I avoided seeing his story this way, perhaps out of some further sense of identity with him. Halfway in to the book comes the recognition that the engine that drives his life, is Knausgaard coming to terms with a shame instilled by an abusive father.

Knausgaard overcomes the role his father portrayed: brute, quick to anger, alcoholic, everything that’s the opposite of Knausgaard’s mother. This awareness is a component of the first few volumes, assuming one has read them in sequence, and this knowledge, I think, colors our subsequent reading. In a sense, a man learns the role from his father, good or bad and all in between. The male of society is not typically thought to be a natural nurturer.

Questions linger, unresolved in Book Five. Why do the two sons—Karl Ove and Ygnve--hate their father so much--and how overwhelming to them is his death? They are rife with sadness, as much as his passing might be a relief to them. In Knausgaard’s life, the death of the father becomes a kind of transfer of the role. When Knausgaard goes into family life, he seems to want to overcome his own father’s terrible life and legacy. That’s the struggle of My Struggle. Shame is the more obvious statement, as some reviewers have grasped onto, but is it shame at being like his father? Or not being obedient enough as his father demanded of him? What is really the source of shame? When you are sensitive, and you are shamed for it, it can be one of the most crippling experiences. I almost added the phrase “to overcome”, but I think one does not overcome their true nature: one learns to live with it.

Moving forward with a family for Knausgaard, would seem to suggest a sort of bargain. He’s confused about his life going into his thirties; as difficult as the family situation is, however fraught or full of joy and tribulation--it’s not easy. But as he leaves his family, he returns to one. The difficulty of his life with his father lingers and seems almost unresolved. AS much as he struggles with his new life, having children saved him. At least it makes him less self-involved. In them, his life carries on.

In a sense, in Knausgaard’s closing words at Book Five, his escape from Tonje and Bergen is, as he says, a way of not thinking. To play armchair psychologist, could we surmise that his eventual marriage and four children is also a way to move forward without thinking about the past? In other places in the memoir he talks about how he will do right by his children--it is stated almost as if it’s in spite of himself. It seems more as if he believes it’s the only thing he can do to not become his father--which some would say he is fated to do anyway.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Vicarious Narratives Part I: On David Szalay’s All That Man Is

The relationship of a reader to a work of fiction, when it works, is symbiotic. In the best instances--or at least the most conducive to a level of enjoyment for the reader--there is an element of the vicarious. This is the sense that you, as a reader, are privy to certain information. The irony of this is that you can feel this way--when anyone else who picks up the book will get the same experience. I’ve often thought a gossip quality in a narrative can serve a similar function as it allows the reader an entry into the piece, and a sense of engagement; maybe this is the same quality as “getting something” from the text and akin to what occurs for genre readers (horror, thriller, romance, et. al.) I’m thinking of this as I read David Szalay’s much praised All That Man Is which, though the opening story did not feel compelling to me--in fact, so underwhelming is it that I considered stopping. The only reason I did read the entire novel (which is essentially a novel in stories) was having favorably read chapters that had appeared in the Paris Review. On the whole, there are elements of several chapters that offer what I’m calling a vicarious experience, and these made it worthwhile.
Szalay does not write charming characters, another quality I’ve been fixed on as a necessity for an engaging read. Maybe the vicarious quality makes up for this lack of charm. With a degree of winsomeness, I can summarize the book as a series of male characters in their attempts, however pathetic, to find willing members of the opposite sex. As Szalay’s novel exemplifies it, this is a formative primal urge.
As often as it is there, this welcome and engaging quality of the vicarious is as often missing in Szalay’s work. I’m not sure if Szalay has deliberately tried to dampen his character’s appeal to the reader, and for what reason. Nevertheless, he frequently manages pulling a reader in to the narrative. This is the gift that a writer must strive for, and achieve.
I suspect Szalay did not start out the book with that first story, as I doubt many agents or publishers would have found it compelling. This aspect is something that I become conscious of in my own work, usually with the novels. It is obvious that the narrative needs to carry a reader. I think post Knausgaard, this quality of the vicarious is one that I need, as well because I’m finding less fiction engaging these days. Or I need to find this quality in order to commit to reading.
For Szalay, the curiosity for me began to kick in fifteen or twenty pages into the second story. Up to that point, I believe I was thinking, “where is this going?” while suspecting it would have to go to the obvious places. But isn’t this then just an instance of having my expectations met? If so, is that merely a kind of escapism, and is that what I’m really looking for? I think I teeter on the edge of that: the expectation of having my expectations met, and the expectation, still, of surprise.
Szalay isn’t always clear on where he places the focus in the novel. The opening ot the third story is almost bewildering in its lack of clarity as to the narrative’s direction. I don’t believe this is intentional, but the sense is that the author is trying to work within a close third person. As with the first story, the storytelling puts the reader at sea in trying to understand the writer’s intent. I get the sense that Szalay may have started the story with one idea, then shifted focus (and none of the chapters have titles, just numbers).
Szalay is often sloppy, and lacks precision (it might be argued that that is one and the same thing). I think I wanted to like All That Man Is more than I did, based on those constructed notions that the author was writing for me, not coincidentally the vicarious quality I believe we are praising Knausgaard for. But in this case I come away with an equivalent sense of unease, as if I’ve just had to listen to someone’s tawdry coming of age tales on a cross country (Europe) bus trip, and maybe that was ultimately more of a disappointment.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Inward Gaze (Part I), and “My Dinner With Andre”

The position Andre takes in My Dinner with Andre is a despondent one of privilege. He’s so conscious of his despair that it seems a thing of study, a project, and he comes off much like a maudlin Woody Allen character. Wally points this out to Andre, but in the process he becomes almost strident, and defensive, while Andre maintains a cool unflappability. For all of his despair--and outrageous experiences that verge on the implausible--Andre is the one we are meant to perceive as a sage. (Let me just say up front--I have always loved this film.)

The movie has much to say about the evils of capitalism, which, by virtue of its obviousness, you might think yourself crass to not immediately drop everything to go trek into the woods to live. This critique of capitalism is a position I am familiar with, and have found indispensable at certain periods of my youth. Yet seeing how entrenched society is, I have come to resist my old railing against the system in favor of the inward look, the solace of, for lack of a better notion, poetry (not poetry explicitly, but poetics, perhaps, the search for apt words, the struggle to speak, to articulate; this does include poetry, of course).

Brian Eno believes it is all inside of us--by which he means god or the divine, as does Jung (“...who looks inside, awakens.”), and I want to agree. It’s that which I give to myself that grows rich and spends me (Rilke). I don’t know when, or if, I have ever really had to go looking outside of my own passionate engagement with my creativity in search of something, an answer, a cure-all--though I’m sure I’ve made the effort; particularly when it was asked of me. Or expected.

Is the inward gaze an apt countermeasure to the perceived evils of our technologically driven society, or is it akin to apathy? I worry this attitude might be false contentment, or cold comfort: the world is going to pieces while I’m navel gazing. I recall a friend pulling the phrase out (“cold comfort”) in a way that made me think he was a tourist observing his own neurotic tendencies, as he seemed to have a new diagnosis every few weeks or so. This, again, is the privilege of the intellectual, the social commentator, the crank--the Luddite? That’s what I sense from Andre in the movie, that his despair is a pose bundled into a convenient cultural criticism that allows him to be clever, and self-regarding about his diagnosis.

For many of us, I suspect, observation and comment can seem like the only and main comfort. Is this any different than tweeting or sending text messages to cohorts? Is the resort to social media a quick fix--is the careful delineation of thoughts posted for an unknown audience in any way approximate to the inward gaze? Maybe only in terms of one being private, while the latter is public. The use of social media is often only a quick fix. It’s often merely reactionary.

To my own argument I’ll say, my expositions here don’t require the jittery feedback of an immediate response. My work is more on the slow burn of accumulating thought. I’m not looking to deaden my senses; the work I do is to awaken myself to the possibilities inherent in language. I consciously make the choices I do with my time. These activities are, to me, not escapes; of course, I can conjure the voice of an Andre saying, “You do not see them as this, but that’s what they are.”

I consider the plight of Andrew Sullivan, who laments his dependence on technology in a recent New York magazine, and imagine that for him, what he complains about is actually his bliss: his mind being sapped for a constant hit of dopamine. How is my presumptive bliss--this, writing, reading--any different? Isn’t the loss of our mind to a fictional world for hours at a time no less of a concern?

I think back to Mihaly Csikszentmialyhi’s essential book, Flow, which first established for me the importance of maintaining that inward gaze. There’s a popular class at Stanford, and now a book (Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life), in which the authors have utilized these concepts to help people figure out their true calling in life. Frequently, I try and fail to find flow in my work, but I’m not going to trade in the search to follow some daily stream of nonsense on a screen. I don’t have a smartphone to keep myself entertained. (Not to seem too virtuous, but I do have periods of my youth spent at mindless screens (video games), and later, mini-web rabbit hole searches; but I always resurfaced, and never stayed with these activities for long). Maybe this is the key to flow: ultimately, I find my own creative process more stimulating and satisfying than the soporific feed of the web.

I’m aware of how lucky I am. Maybe my concern be more of a concern for my fellow men, who may not have the same wherewithal. I tend to presume that everyone has enough self-restraint to wise up and take care of themselves to put their devices away when the muse beckons; I can’t complain about a lack of willpower.

In My Dinner With Andre, Wally reckons with the panic that he can’t still his mind--this film was made in 1982, long before we became immersed in the web 24-7, so this is prescient--and for a lot of technology junkies, a moment of quiet within one’s own mind is a difficult breach, possibly far more dreadful than anything imaginable. I believe I know this fear, also, but if anything have learned how to turn it into a tool for my writing; indeed, I think it’s the only way writing gets done.

What if this condition of the unquiet mind is as rampant as it seems to be, or we are led to believe? I sometimes suspect it is far worse than I can imagine; that the mass of men (and women) really do live lives of quiet desperation. Maybe this is the present form of quiet desperation: the immersion of our devices, another app. Is this why it can seem that people turn to technology for the next quick fix, much the way Andre goes hopping among pseudo mystical retreats in search of an answer?

I try not to imagine a bleak technological future, and maybe I’ve convinced myself that I remain at a safe, self-imposed remove. I neither feel a need to shout among the train riders engrossed in their devices, nor do I salivate for the next gadget.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

2016 Best of the Net nomination for "Building the Perfect Wings"

Decomp magazine has nominated my piece, "Building the Perfect Wings" for the 2016 Best of the Net. Thanks to the editorial staff at Decomp for selecting my work!

As well, my first official published poem, "Reversal", will be appearing in Crack the Spine Literary Magazine next month. Thanks to them, and to all the editors who have given these votes of confidence for my work, now and over the last eleven years.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Five (Make that Six) New Works Going Live Soon

It's been a busy and productive time, and this explains the dearth of recent posts. However, I have new pieces upcoming in five journals, in the following alphabetical order (links added as available):

Draft: The Journal of Process, and their Marginalia blog will feature my piece "False Memoir, True Fiction: The Slippery Slope."

JMWW will publish "Survey" on August 17th.

Fiction Southeast will publish "Be Proud, Be Brave, Aspire!" on August 25th. This piece was originally written for a feature in a national magazine, and focuses on my ambivalence about the writing life.

Fjords Review will publish "Verse for the Averse", my review of Ben Lerner's "The Hatred of Poetry". I've been an avid Lerner-ite since I've read his two novels, and have recently started dipping into his poetry.

Juked will publish "Domestic Triptych", which continues in a vein of short fiction I've been writing about relationships.

Newfound will publish "Writing Contra Technology", my review of Sven Birkerts's "Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age". This book is a follow-up to his Gutenberg Elegies.

Thanks to the terrific journals and editors of the above. Links to follow when available.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Creative Nonfiction in Gravel Magazine, "The Other Animals"

A new work of memoir / creative nonfiction is live at Gravel Magazine. "The Other Animals" details my crafty evasion of the future Trump demographic, while camping in Michigan's Nordhouse Dunes several years ago. In the piece, I give a nod to the late Jim Harrison, who provided silent counsel on that singularly life changing trip. Many thanks to Gravel Magazine for their great work, and to Michigan for providing the picturesque setting.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Flash Fiction vs. The Novel: How to Make a Writing Practice in Today’s Market

The path to a successful writing career is not always clearly marked. I think of Samuel Beckett writing Waiting for Godot, and his surprise and despair at its eventual success. Over the years, this unprecedented play would eventually astound and confound audiences worldwide, making the author’s name. Yet Beckett had been writing fiction for years, and his foray into playwriting was initially out of frustration with how his fiction was being received. After Godot, he continued to write plays and fiction, and in his fiction, perhaps in reaction to the success, he went inward, creating even more obscure and consciously inaccessible work. Ultimately, his playwriting defines his body of work as frequently as his fiction does.
The road my writing career has taken is ultimately not the one I had envisioned. If anything the way I imagined it was to be more traditional (read: with more financial rewards). But somehow, without a clear path to having my novels published, I have tried to adapt to the market. I could as easily say I have adapted my writing practice to the limits on my time to write. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Though I’ve not lost any of the ambition I have for the novel, the restrictions on my time have led me to writing quite a bit of shorter fiction. As I have adapted, I’ve begun to feel the trend away from the traditional route is inevitable, but also another potential path.
In terms of the online writing market, there are far more outlets for what could be considered esoteric and experimental short work, which seem to dominate the online journals. This may be because there are more people writing, and there is an accommodating rise in a need of outlets for this work.
Starting out as a writer of fiction, I was hungry to publish. This then became a desire not merely to publish, but to publish more. Naturally, this led me to writing and submitting shorter work. Yet I was already writing this type of material in school--informed by my reading--before I knew there was a market for it. Essentially, this type of writing has fallen under the rubric of traditional flash fiction, though it goes by many other names: short fiction, short experimental fiction, hybrid writing, etcetera. In fact, much of this type of writing is similar to what Beckett was producing in his Texts for Nothing, and fizzles. What I’m not talking about are short stories per se, but the work that predominates online venues such as Decomp, Spork Press, Word Riot, and many others.
               I’m sure there is some correlation between the length of a piece and its likelihood of getting published. There’s probably also a correlation between the intensity and effect of short fiction, versus that of longer work. The intensity can’t be maintained for 70,000 words. In fact, most people wouldn’t want to read it. (It’s called Finnegan’s Wake.) Yet often enough, with short experimental work, I believe I’m writing at my best. I don’t have to adapt to any style or form. There are no expectations, frankly, and fewer rules, for what this short fiction can be. In it, I find I can thrive.  
Much of the time, I try to carve chunks of time to finish a traditional novel, an ever present grail project, because the reward for that can be multiples of what one receives from publishing a piece of short fiction. Still, that kick from getting my work published is always rewarding. And it’s much more expedient to write a 500 word piece than it is a 70,000 word novel.
Where does this place me as a writer among thousands of other writers? I still aspire to a traditional career, but over time I am adjusting my original expectations and goals. I am ten years into my writing career, and I’m accumulating a body of work that has been vetted by many editors I’m grateful to. I consider this short fiction some of my most exciting work. Is it because I don’t rely on writing to support me financially, that I’ve been able to pursue a career in this way? This notion, though in some ways merely convenient (I would have made money on it if I could have figured out how), validates the idea I have for myself of being an outsider. The trade-off with a traditional career is that I can write whatever I want--whatever comes to me in the odd hours and can’t be shaken. This might actually force me to experiment, if not simply to compete, then because I’ve made it a point to subvert my own expectations for my work.
              Yet there is a paradox here. I’ve spent many hours on novels--years, really--and exponentially less time on most of the work that has gotten published. This could imply that I’m better off to keep pursuing the online fiction writing markets. The success I’ve had publishing has me often wondering if I am trying to hard to peg myself, and my writing. (This happens in my reading also, as I spend inordinate amounts of time trying to find books to read, and am often as disappointed as those people who feel duped into reading the next big thing. My gut inclination often, thankfully, gets me to veer from this reading.)
A novel can become an all consuming project; Henry James’s “loose, baggy monster” is a reminder to keep perspective and not overthink the work. Yet a novel is a rationally plotted compendium; though it might be made up of those pieces that could resemble the short fiction, the end must conform to the larger project. A novel is much less open ended than a piece of short fiction. I’m ambivalent about this.
               In my writing practice, I teeter between the unearthing of my subconsciousness, those visions tapped in dreams, and the material where I try hard to attain clarity and project a plausible story. If I have any frustration, it might be the limits of this way of traditional storytelling. With short fiction, I break the rules all the time. Inevitably, this is what grabs an editor.    
              I rarely let this work inform my novel writing. I might do this because I don’t see any writers as models for this approach. In a sense, a writer can be ghettoized by their success; it might be difficult to convince oneself that it’s worthwhile to venture into a different form. If only this was my problem.

Monday, February 1, 2016

New short fiction in Decomp Magazine, "Building the Perfect Wings"

Thanks to editor Jason Jordan at Decomp Magazine, who has accepted for publication my fiction "Building the Perfect Wings" for their February issue. This is another fatherhood related piece, my pet theme lately. Decomp is a terrific old school literary web magazine with a discerning emphasis on experimental and short work. Publishing since 2004, they have an estimable web legacy--and plenty of award nominees and recipients in their ranks. I'm pleased to join them. You can read it here.