I hate hearing this question, but people ask it all the time. The teller at the bank asks it. So does the barista at Starbucks, and the checkout clerk at Whole Foods. They see me quietly reading a book while I’ve been waiting in line, and when it’s finally my turn for service, they stare me down and demand:
What’s that book about?
I know they mean well. I know they’ve been trained to strike up casual conversations with customers. But I’m almost always at a loss for an equally casual response. I’ve been asked this question with The Recognitions by William Gaddis in my hands, and The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil, even the dreaded Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. What are these books about? If I could sum it up in a few choice words, I would, but instead I hem and haw, before stumbling through some rambling rejoinder. (“Well, see this river runs past Eve and Adam’s before returning by a commodius vicus of recirculation to Howth Castle….”)
In short, I feel put on the spot, and come up lame right out of the starting-gate.
But lately I’ve been reading the newest installment (volume three) of My Struggle, the brilliant and quirky autobiographical novel by ultra-trendy Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard, and I finally have a pithy response to the question. When asked for an on-the-spot plot summary from the custodians of the cash register, I stare back defiantly, hold up the book for their inspection, and declare:
Absolutely nothing happens in this book.
Okay, perhaps I exaggerate. But not much. There’s very little story in My Struggle, and what passes for plot moves ahead at a Norwegian glacier’s pace. In volume one, Knausgaard starts cleaning his grandmother’s house—and a hundred pages later he is still scrubbing and polishing. Another subplot about procuring beer and transporting it to a New Year’s Eve party goes on for 60 pages before a single drop of alcohol is consumed. Knausgaard’s prose style is to contemporary fiction what the slow motion camera is to sports broadcasting. It stops all action dead in its tracks.
Knausgaard has somehow pushed narcissism to such an extreme point that it takes on the appearance of total selflessness.
The teller at the bank may scoff at my reading choice, but it isn’t easy to write so well about so little. “What seems beautiful to me,” Flaubert once declared, “what I should like to write, is a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external.” In these pages, Knausgaard’s comes very close to realizing this ambition. He fulfills, perhaps better than any other living author, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s strange dictum: "The true writer has nothing to say."
But here’s something even stranger. My Struggle, for all its lack of drama, is a riveting book to read. In an oft-quoted tweet, novelist Zadie Smith compared Knausgaard’s novel to an addictive drug: “I just read 200 pages of it and I need the next volume like crack.” Critic James Wood made the bizarre, but plausible claim that My Struggle is fascinating even when it’s boring. Jonathan Lethem has called the Norwegian author his “hero” and even crowned Knausgaard as the “emperor whose nakedness surpasses royal finery.”
I share this obsession with My Struggle, but let’s be honest, it’s a sick obsession. We read with horror and delight, because the protagonist—who is Karl Ove Knausgaard himself—is determined to reveal every embarrassing and shameful detail of his past life. Imagine a literary novel with grand Proustian ambitions, but combined with the ethos of those creepy Jackass-type reality shows in which contestants get a dose of renown by making fools of themselves. That’s the spirit of My Struggle.
No humiliating detail is left unshared in these pages. Knausgaard has plenty of them to relate, and it is part of the peculiar flavor of this book that they never amount to dramatic transgressions or tragic flaws of Shakespearean proportions. Rather, he dishes up a seemingly endless stream of examples of pettiness, irritation, hypocrisy and awkwardness. We follow the young Knausgaard as he is forced to wear a woman’s bathing cap, complete with flowery design, at a community swimming class, and gets teased mercilessly by his schoolmates. We watch his girlfriend flee from him in repulsion after dating Knausgaard for just five days—mostly due to a single kiss, perhaps the least romantic smooch ever described in literature. We see, over and over again, his self-loathing over crying in front of family and friends. We learn about his various phobias—his fear of scary TV shows or the sound the bathroom faucet makes. None of these biographical details, on their own, seem worthy of novelization, but the cumulative impact of hundreds of disclosures of this sort is impressive, indeed perhaps even unique in the annals of modern fiction.
As noted above, Knausgaard is often compared with Proust, but I’m reminded even more of Rousseau—the Rousseau of the Confessions, who promised to tell his life story with such brutal and shameless honesty that his project, “which has no precedent … once complete, will have no imitator.” Rousseau was wrong, the tell-all memoir would emerge as a genre in itself, but few have probed its artistic possibilities more deeply or committedly than Knausgaard. For some confession is a path toward forgiveness and redemption, for others merely an excuse for titillation and gossip, but with My Struggle, self-exposure and self-abasement get turned into an aesthetic doctrine.
Knausgaard does not limit his revelations to his personal failings. His zeal for full disclosure extends to all the family members, friends, and acquaintances who show up as characters in My Struggle. His father’s alcoholism, his grandmother’s dementia, his wife’s mental illness, his children’s tantrums—all of these are dissected with unflinching candor during the course of this bold work.
Our author has paid a high price for such honesty. His mother begged him to stop writing My Struggle. His wife wept when she read it. His uncle denounced Knausgaard publicly and no longer speaks with his famous nephew. Fourteen family members signed a letter to the press denoucning the book. But even total strangers have gotten angry at the tell-all author—in Sweden, one reader set fire to the K section in a bookstore, justifying his action with the explanation that Knausgaard is "the worst author in the world."
But this very willingness to sacrifice almost everything for fiction, from personal dignity to family ties, has paid off, at least in literary terms. A half million copies have been sold in Norway—staggering when one considers that the country’s population is just 5 million inhabitants. Knausgaard’s reputation has spread rapidly around the world, first as a rumor of an iconoclastic Nordic novelist with epic ambitions—My Struggle, in its entirety, spans six volumes and a total of 3,600 pages—and then as a formidable presence in bookstores, as his work has been translated into at least 15 languages.
So a literary star is born, but if this were a real star, cosmologists would need to revise the rules of physics to account for its peculiarities. Indeed, almost everything in My Struggle eventually turns into its opposite. Knausgaard has somehow pushed narcissism to such an extreme point that it takes on the appearance of total selflessness. He has managed to transform self-abasement into a kind of grandeur, humiliation into a purified form of pride, and—above all—fiction into the most painful mode of truth-telling.
How does he turn everything on its head? What’s the secret, and where did he learn it? I don’t pretend to have the answers to those questions, and certainly hope the barista doesn’t ask them when I buy my next latte. But I recognize the power and authority Knausgaard has achieved in these pages, and have a hunch that many other writers will soon be following him on his embarrassing, transfiguring path.