JUNE 5, 2014
AT THIS POINT, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume autobiographical novel, My Struggle,is throwing some serious monkey wrenches into the mechanics of book reviewing. Three volumes in, and so much of what one wants to say has been preempted by reviews past. My first instinct is to give you some context, but chances are if you’ve clicked on this review, you’re most likely already aware of the basics (unlikely bestseller in its native Norway, lots of talk about Proustian length, Hitlerian title, names have not been changed to protect the innocent). Criticism’s most primitive question — “Should I read this book?” — is more or less answered for you. If you liked the first two, you’ll probably like this one. If you didn’t, there’s no reason to start now.
In fact, Boyhood Island, the third installment of My Struggle, is in many ways the least attractive so far. It confirms what all young girls know: boys are gross. Putting aside the harrowing descriptions of adolescent terror, child abuse, and the very existence of middle school, there are hundreds of words expended on defecation. I’d wager that, in terms of narrative attention dedicated to shitting, the only books published this year that will compete with Boyhood are child-rearing manuals and medical textbooks. This excretory emphasis may hearken back to the moment in Book Two when Karl Ove’s friend Geir tells him, “You can spend twenty pages describing a trip to the bathroom and hold your readers spellbound. How many people do you think can do that?” In my review of that volume, I linked this comment to Knausgaard’s rumination on modernism and the novel form. But in the context of Boyhood, excrement suggests something about the overall structure of My Struggle as a whole. However gross, it serves as the departure point for Karl Ove’s engagement with the world: his fascination with bodily functions initiates a reckoning with the tension between the social and the familial, between the minefield of adolescent sexuality and the gothic castle of a tyrannically patriarchal home. Halfway through the saga, Boyhood also suggests something about the psychological needs underlying My Struggle. Knausgaard describes childhood as a “ghetto-like state of incompleteness.” The reader can understand this series as Knausgaard’s attempt to erect himself into a fully formed whole.
The story of Karl Ove’s development into his adult, writerly self continues apace here. His talent for the deceptively simple sentence and holographic description is in full effect once again, as is his intimacy with memory’s subtle dilations. As the subtitle, Boyhood Island, suggests, this volume documents Karl Ove from about age six through 12. The distance between Knausgaard the writer and Karl Ove the character makes itself felt more here than in the first two volumes. The supremely confident prose style of the older man works in service of the anxieties and preadolescent clumsiness of the boy.
Boyhood opens with the scene of the young Knausgaard family arriving at their new home in Tromøya, an island off the southern coast of Norway. Karl Ove is an infant, and his older brother, Yngve, is just old enough to walk. “Memories” of the move and their early years on the island follow, but as Knausgaard soon tells us, “Of course, I don’t remember any of this time. It is absolutely impossible to identify with the infant my parents photographed, indeed so impossible that it seems wrong to use the word ‘me.’” The photos of the infant Karl Ove represent events Knausgaard couldn’t possibly reminisce about: “the ‘me’ reminiscences usually rely on is not there, and the question is then of course what meaning they actually have.” The answer is, basically, none. These passages, and further reflections on memory, suggest that what we get in Boyhood is a double history. One documents the events and life of young Karl Ove; another traces the processes of identification that allow Knausgaard to understand himself as a man formed by the boy he is constructing in his writing. As Wordsworth had it, “The Child is father of the Man,” and the younger Karl Ove provides the material through which the older Knausgaard writes himself into being.
But this book also features Karl Ove’s actual father, who appears in a much different light than he has in previous volumes. In Book One, A Death in the Family, we see Karl Ove’s father in decline — alcoholic, divorced, disturbed, dead. In Boyhood, Dad is a tyrannical force: “The very thought of Dad, the fact that he existed, caused fear to pump through my body,” writes Knausgaard. Karl Ove’s father operates more like a surveillance system than a parent; he notices the slightest alteration in Karl Ove’s or Yngve’s behavior, the slightest change in anything they own, the merest streak of spilled food or drink. He mocks Karl Ove, twists his ears, threatens and shakes him for any discernable insubordination.
In interviews and the first two volumes, Knausgaard has suggested that his “struggle” is the struggle to write — to create art. I came away from Boyhood, however, with the impression that his struggle has some conspicuously Oedipal dynamics. Karl Ove spends significant amounts of time fantasizing about his father’s death, imagining how he will eventually stand up for himself:
Place my hands on his cheeks, and squeeze until his lips formed the stupid pout he made to imitate me, because of my protruding teeth. There, I could punch him on the nose so hard that it broke and blood streamed from it. Or, even better, so that the bone was forced back into his brain and he died. I could hurl him against the wall or throw him down the stairs. I could grab him by the neck and smash his face against the table.
Karl Ove “longs” to be close to his mother, both physically and emotionally; he fears and loathes his father. The Oedipal signage couldn’t be clearer.
Then again, it’s difficult not to despise Karl Ove’s father. Perhaps all acts of violence committed by men are subconscious attempts to murder the father, but Karl Ove’s father acts so odiously that he is just asking to be hit, Oedipal drama or no. And, of course, the universal claims of psychoanalytic theory ensure that, for anyone willing to see it, Oedipal drama appears wherever you look. Even when that drama is apparently absent, the adept psychoanalytic mind finds the absence itself meaningful. As René Girard put it, “The convenient thing about Oedipal interpretation is that there is no better evidence for it than the absence of a murdered father, except, of course, the presence of a murdered father.”
The father-murdering impulse is undeniable, but there is an idea at work in Dad’s domination that outstrips the family romance and provides further insight into My Struggle as a whole:
Dad […] tried to purge our lives of anything that had no direct relevance to the situation in which we found ourselves: we ate food because it was a necessity, and the time we spent eating had no value in itself; when we watched TV we watched TV and were not allowed to talk or do anything else; when we were in the garden we had to stay on the flagstones, they had been laid for precisely that purpose, while the lawn, big and inviting though it was, was not for walking, running, or lying on. Yngve and I had never celebrated a birthday at home, and that was rooted in the same logic, it was unnecessary, a cake with the family after dinner was sufficient. We weren’t allowed to have friends at home and that was also another aspect of the same logic, because why would we want to be indoors, where we only made a mess and created havoc, when the world outside existed? Our friends would have been able to tell their parents how we lived, and that may well have been a factor; actually the same logic applied here, too. Actually it explained everything.
Excess is the enemy of fatherhood, and any indulgence in excess implicitly defies Dad’s austerity. Thus we might see Knausgaard’s long, luxuriant sentences — his dwelling on the minutiae of experience, his investment in the documentation of ephemera, the very length of My Struggle — as a defiance of the prohibition of excess. In that sense, the logic of excess can, indeed, “explain everything” — not only about his father but also about Knausgaard’s project.
Well, probably not everything. But some things. Kicking around a local dump, Karl Ove and his friend Geir decide they should defecate outside. The next several pages are spent considering the pleasures and pains of shitting, deciding where they should go and how they should do it. They must go in the forest, because to crap in the dump would be, “for some reason, inappropriate, there was something dirty about it, it seemed to me.” The dump is full of “trash” rather than shit, of “shiny plastic bags and cardboard boxes,” whereas “anything soft and sticky was wrapped.” The competing fascination with bodily excess and proper categorization encapsulates the tension between Karl Ove’s internalized sense of his father’s prohibitions and the desire to indulge in their violation. Reveling in the “wonderful feeling” and “peace and light” that come with shitting transgresses Dad’s logic. To do so in the appropriate place, and to conform to the order of even a garbage dump, obeys Dad’s logic.
The garbage dump scene also evokes Karl Ove’s father’s own alcoholic breakdown documented throughout A Death in the Family. There, “desiccated lumps of cat shit litter[ing] the sofa” mark the first signs of Dad’s decline, his increasing unwillingness to take care of himself or his family, his abject relinquishment of authority and control. Dad’s rigorously organized authoritarian grip on his sons ultimately cannot stand its own pressure, and the scenes of defecation in Boyhood Island both echo and prefigure Dad’s dissolution.
This tug between past and present, the unreal sense in which Dad’s later decline actually foreshadows Karl Ove’s earlier formation of self, suggests yet another logic at work in My Struggle. Where father compartmentalizes, son disorganizes, allowing the contingencies of memory and association to guide the construction of the entire series. Rather than following chronologically, the volumes seem organized around emotional necessity instead of temporal reality — can one really understand young Karl Ove’s traumas without first understanding, in A Man in Love, the older Karl Ove’s ambivalence toward his role as a father?
Well, even if you can’t shit in the garbage dump, it’s at least a good place to look for used pornography. Moving from a fascination with his own bodily functions to the bodies of others, Karl Ove eventually dedicates himself to the pursuit of girls and pornography, as well as his appetites for literature and music. He and Geir troll the dump looking for discarded porno mags before securing a more reliable connection. They also compare crushes, and Karl Ove pines for a series of girls only to find himself an outcast, not even boyfriend material by a 13-year-old’s standards. While the fear of his father remains, he gets “an electric shock of excitement” from looking at porn. Later, he describes it as bathing “in a kind of sea, in which there was no beginning and no end, a sea which, from the first moment, from the first picture, you always found yourself in the middle.” In some sense, Karl Ove’s battle with his father is fought through the proxy of his own body, through fleeing the fearful claustrophobia of the home for sexual desire’s oceanic sprawl.
Fear, shit, sex — all in all, it’s a healthy romp through Freud’s stages of psychosexual development. In this progression, Boyhood traces young Karl Ove’s pushing out against the constraints of family life to a more expansive world of elective attachment. Ultimately Dad decides the family must move, despite it being Yngve’s final year of high school. Yngve resists and leaves the family, preferring to spend his final school year on his own. The book concludes with a kind of midsummer orgy, though the act itself is less voracious and more loving than the word “orgy” implies. It is as though Karl Ove’s departure from his hometown gives the girls permission to indulge their own innocent lust. After a goodbye party for Karl Ove, it is as though they have been granted permission to satisfy the desires they secretly harbored — what happens in Tromøya, stays in Tromøya. The whole final scene is described in opiate-soft focus, and the sense of pent-up erotic potential is finally released. Karl Ove receives the sexual attentions of the girls he clumsily pursues, a substitute for the maternal embrace the dread of his home life forbade. The older Knausgaard describes how Karl Ove “pressed [his] face against their soft, white breasts, kissed their dark, erect nipples, ran my hands over their thighs and between their legs.” But as the young girls caress him, they disperse into a bodily atmosphere. They are no particular people — they attain the generality of an idea: the erotic returning to its source in the familial, but purged of the restraining paternal threat.
I confess to doubting the absolute veracity of this final scene. But that is because it is a fantasy, even if it really happened. Whether or not the orgy actually occurred, whether it is exaggerated or not, that’s hardly the point. Beginning with his inability to identify with his infant self, Knausgaard frames My Struggle as an attempt to maneuver away from the constraints posed by the contingencies of physical fact: you can’t choose your parents, as they say, and that means everything. How sad to have to think of yourself as that fear-addled, rejected thing you once were as a child. Boyhood rejects such prescribed attachments, untethering Karl Ove from the post of his earlier existences. The idea that we can rewrite our own past is one of the most powerful and persistent fantasies of modern life. My Struggle is the most heroic (if, perhaps, doomed) attempt to inscribe that fantasy into reality.