Earlier, at Hal Foster’s, we’d talked of Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian author of a six-volume novel (or memoir?) called My Struggle (two volumes of which have been translated thus far). Everywhere I’ve gone this past year the talk, amongst bookish people, has been of this Norwegian. The first volume, A Death in the Family, minutely records the perfectly banal existence of “Karl Ove,” his unremarkable childhood, his troubles with girls, his adolescent attempts to buy beer for a New Year’s Eve party (almost one hundred pages of that), and the death of his father.
The second, A Man In Love, renders a marriage in as much detail as any human can bear:
What was going through her head?
Oh, I knew. She was all alone with Vanja during the day, from when I went to my office until I returned, she felt lonely, and she had been looking forward so much to these two weeks. Some quiet days with her little family gathered round her, that was what she had been looking forward to. I, for my part, never looked forward to anything except the moment the office door closed behind me and I was alone and able to write.
As a whole these volumes work not by synecdoche or metaphor, beauty or drama, or even storytelling. What’s notable is Karl Ove’s ability, rare these days, to be fully present in and mindful of his own existence. Every detail is put down without apparent vanity or decoration, as if the writing and the living are happening simultaneously. There shouldn’t be anything remarkable about any of it except for the fact that it immerses you totally. You live his life with him.
Talking about him over dinner—like groupies discussing their favorite band—I discovered that although most people felt as strongly about their time spent under Karl Ove’s skin as I had, we had a dissenter. An objection on the principle of boredom, which you sense Knausgaard himself would not deny. Like Warhol, he makes no attempt to be interesting. But it’s not the same kind of boredom Warhol celebrated, not that clean kind which, as Andy had it, makes “the meaning go away,” leaving you so much “better and emptier.” Knausgaard’s boredom is baroque. It has many elaborations: the boredom of children’s parties, of buying beers, of being married, writing, being oneself, dealing with one’s family. It’s a cathedral of boredom. And when you enter it, it looks a lot like the one you yourself are living in. (Especially true if, like Karl Ove, you happen to be a married writer. Such people are susceptible to the peculiar charms of Karl Ove.) It’s a book that recognizes the banal struggle of our daily lives and yet considers it nothing less than a tragedy that these lives, filled as they are not only with boredom but with fjords and cigarettes and works by Dürer, must all end in total annihilation.
But nothing happens! our dissenter cried. Still, a life filled with practically nothing, if you are fully present in and mindful of it, can be a beautiful struggle. In America we are perhaps more accustomed to art that enacts the boredom of life with a side order of that (by now) overfamiliar Warholian nihilism. I think of the similar-but-different maximalist narratives of the young writer Tao Lin, whose most recent novel, Taipei, is likewise committed to the blow-by-blow recreation of everyday existence. That book—though occasionally unbearable to me as I read it—had, by the time I’d finished it, a cumulative effect, similar to the Knausgaard.
Both exhaustively document a life: you don’t simply “identify” with the character, effectively you “become” them. A narrative claustrophobia is at work, with no distance permitted between reader and protagonist. And if living with Tao Lin’s Paul feels somewhat more relentless than living with Karl Ove, there is an element of geographical and historical luck in play: after all, Karl Ove has the built-in sublimity of fjords to console him, whereas Paul can claim only downtown Manhattan (with excursions to Brooklyn and, briefly, Taipei), the Internet, and a sackload of prescription drugs.
Lin’s work can be confounding, but isn’t it a bit perverse to be angry at artists who deliver back to us the local details of our local reality? What’s intolerable in Taipei is not the sentences (which are rather fine), it’s the life Paul makes us live with him as we read. Both Lin and Knausgaard eschew the solutions of minimalism and abstraction in interesting ways, opting instead for full immersion. Come with me, they seem to say, come into this life. If you can’t beat us, join us, here, in the real. It might not be pretty—but this is life.
Would the premature corpsification of others concern us more if we were mindful of what it is to be a living human? That question is, for the sentimental humanist, the point at which aesthetics sidles up to politics. (If you believe they meet at all. Many people don’t.) Concern over the premature corpsification of various types of beings—the poor, women, people of color, homosexuals, animals—although consecrated in the legal sphere, usually emerges in the imaginary realm. First we become mindful—then we begin to mind. Of our mindlessness, meanwhile, we hear a lot these days; it’s an accusation we constantly throw at each other and at ourselves. It’s claimed that Americans viewed twelve times as many Web pages about Miley Cyrus as about the gas attack in Syria. I read plenty about Miley Cyrus, on my iPhone, late at night. And you wake up and you hate yourself. My “struggle”! The overweening absurdity of Karl Ove’s title is a bad joke that keeps coming back to you as you try to construct a life worthy of an adult. How to be more present, more mindful? Of ourselves, of others? For others?
You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there…. That’s being a person…. Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty—forever empty.
That’s the comedian Louis C.K., practicing his comedy-cum-art-cum-philosophy, reminding us that we’ll all one day become corpses. His aim, in that skit, was to rid us of our smart phones, or at least get us to use the damn things a little less (“You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel kinda satisfied with your products, and then you die”), and it went viral, and many people smiled sadly at it and thought how correct it was and how everybody (except them) should really maybe switch off their smart phones, and spend more time with live people offline because everybody (except them) was really going to die one day, and be dead forever, and shouldn’t a person live—truly live, a real life—while they’re alive?