I thought about taking a picture of the book or, perhaps, a selfie of me holding the book up against my face. I’d upload this photo to facebook or twitter with a caption like, “The journey begins” or “Here we go.” Or worse: “My struggle?” I felt that starting a 3600-page, six-volume book needed some sort of fanfare. My brother’s friend, in a few weeks, was going to hike Mount Kilimanjaro; in anticipation, he’d been running on his treadmill using a special helmet that adjusted the amount of available oxygen for its wearer. He’d been sending out pictures of his training to his friends. I’d never seen one, but I imagined the photos to look like the Daft Punk robot running on a treadmill.
In the end, I took no photo and disclosed nothing online. In Knausgaard’s native Norway, one in nine adults had read My Struggle. Both amazon and Barnes & Noble were sold out when I tried to order on line, so clearly American readers were catching up to their Norweigan counterparts. My wife said I was making too big a deal about it. She compared the process to reading all of the Harry Potter books, which I’d never done. I wanted to correct her and say that this was a much bigger ordeal. From what I’d heard, reading these books was a life-altering event. I wanted to say that reading My Struggle in the 2010s was like reading Proust in the 1920s, but I couldn’t, because I’ve never read Proust, and I’m not entirely sure how to correctly pronounce his name.
Four days before starting My Struggle, I reported for jury duty. My fellow prospective jurors and I filled out a brief questionnaire that asked about our occupation (doctor); marital status (married); if we were married, our spouse’s occupation (doctor); if we had children and, if so, their ages (yes, 2 and 18); our highest level of education (M.D.); if we or a family member had ever worked for an insurance agency (no); and our hobbies (jogging, reading). I was among the first 12 selected for interviews. We sat in a room, together and in two rows based on our selection order, and the attorneys for the plaintiff and defendant took turns asking us questions after scanning our survey responses. The woman seated two spots before me had also put down reading as her hobby, because the plaintiff’s attorney asked her what books she liked to read (“Mysteries,” she said. “Who’s your favorite author?” he countered. “P.D. James,” she replied, and she was eventually chosen for the jury). I hoped the attorney would ask me what I liked to read, because I thought it would be hilarious to answer “lyric essays.”
I was excused from jury duty because the plaintiff’s attorney felt that I could not objectively hear an orthopedic surgeon testify about the extent of his client’s back pain. The attorney’s exact question: “Can you, as a doctor, hear an orthopedic surgeon talk about a patient’s back pain and the residual effects of a spinal cord injury without relying on your own preexistent knowledge about that condition?” My answer: “No.” Coincidentally, the book I’d brought with me to jury duty was Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, and I was in the midst of reading her essay entitled “In Defense of Saccharin(e).” This essay is primarily about sentimality (I think), and she uses her reliance on artificial sweeteners as an extended metaphor (I think). She says (I think): Artificial sweeteners let us have the pleasure of sweetness without the guilt of sugar, and that kind of guilt-free sweetness is what we try but often fail to get out of nostalgia. The problem with the metaphor, though, is that relatively new research (in my, admittedly, esoteric field) has uncovered receptors for sweetness in the gut. Sugar substitutes activate these sweet receptors more than regular sugar because, technically, Diet Coke is sweeter than Coke. This activation, in turn, tricks the body into thinking that a sugar load has been consumed. The result, first shown in animal models and just this past year in obese but non-diabetic humans, is that drinking enough artificially-sweetened fluids can actually lead to insulin resistance, the first step towards diabetes. Should I be excused from reading and appreciating Jamison’s essay because of my “preexistent knowledge,” to borrow the plaintiff’s attorney’s phrase?
One of the pleasures of reading My Struggle is that “preexistent knowledge” is undeniably a boost to the reading experience. In part, this is because a man telling his life story is essentially telling a metaphor-less tale. When Knausgaard describes, early in Book One, how his daughter, Heidi, “took almost every opportunity to try to harm” her newborn brother, this detail is no different than Heidi’s usual breakfast of muesli with curdled blueberry milk. Because he is telling the truth, there is no further meaning to Heidi’s attacks on her younger brother – they don’t, for example, represent the way the old torture the young, or how we all fight against change.
The counter, of course, is that everything Knausgaard shares is a metaphor. He is not telling us everything about his life, just the events he feels worthy of inclusion in this (all-inclusive-appearing) novel. And, the fact that he’s labeled My Struggle a “novel” and not a “memoir” or “autobiography” is a confession that he played with some of the details to impart more meaning to his life’s story. This is what we all do, though. Let’s pretend that someone considers posting on twitter: “Bon Iver’s ‘Beth/Rest’ is a surprisingly good running song.” This person may or may not be me. Regardless, the tweet can be taken at face value as a recommendation for anyone seeking a good running song, but, in all honesty, who really needs that kind of recommendation? More likely the tweet is a way for the tweeter to imply: I jog, I take care of myself, I listen to good music, I listen to indie rock, I get the joke that Bon Iver is telling in “Beth/Rest,” I felt good about myself and my life this morning, because it was sunny and my knees weren’t bothering me and Bruce Hornsby-esque synthesizers can be pleasurable at such moments in a completely non-ironic way.
Knausgaard is living out everyone’s – or, at least, every writer’s, every blogger’s, every facebook poster’s, every tweeter’s, every Instagram user’s – 21st century fantasy. We believe our lives are unique, special, meaningful, and deserving of a larger stage. We are convinced that others give a fuck about and maybe even are fascinated by the minutiae of our daily routines. We could be the subject of a great reality TV show (on the appropriate channel). Because we rarely, if ever, test-drive these fantasies, they will always seem true. Knausgaard, in contrast, has written 3600 pages on life’s most trivial and most important matters: many “events” occur in Book One, but the two major events that drive the narrative are his quest, as a teenager, to have a beer-filled New Year’s Eve celebration (the trivial) and the painful week, at age 30, spent cleaning the house where his father drank himself to death (the important). His fanatical readers have confirmed that his life – all of it, from his adolescent inability to open a beer bottle with a lighter to his adult discovery that his grandmother was also an alcoholic – has been worthy.
The title of this essay is a lyric from a Guided by Voices song: “Ex-Supermodel” from Alien Lanes, an album I haven’t listened to in years until this past week. Why has a 3600-page novel become the most popular book in Norway, and why are reviewers like Jonathan Lethem, Zadie Smith, and James Wood begging their readers to immerse themselves in Knausgaard’s world? Of the many reasons for Knausgaard worship (e.g. the distinct voice, the exceptional pacing, the brutal honesty), I think the primary appeal of the reading experience is nostalgia. Not the artificial sentimality that Leslie Jamison explores and dissects in her saccharin(e) essay – not the kitsch that Milan Kundera described in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (“Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!”) – but rather the mixture of genuine happiness and regret that listening to an old album offers. In other words, the kind of “preexistent knowledge” that we can’t afford to lose because, consciously or subconsciously, this knowledge informs our approach to each new day’s challenge (or, I should say, each new day’s struggle). In a podcast interview with Brad Listi, Leslie Jamison joked about that Kundera quote, used in the saccharin(e) essay, by suggesting that a third tear flows upon realizing “my childhood is gone.” In that vein, My Struggle is six volumes of Knausgaard’s third tear.
Knausgaard’s writing not only makes me want to listen to old music, like Alien Lanes, but also to remember what I thought about listening to this music so many years ago. Guided by Voices songs offer ideal nostalgic listening because their lyrics (and, in some songs, the music itself) are abstract. I’m not at all sure what “Ex-Supermodel” is about, but I used to interpret the song as a sell-out’s confession. The narrator, a rock musician, has married a beautiful woman, an ex-supermodel, and to make her happy, he’s given up his rock and roll fantasies for the dependable life of scoring movies. “I write music for soundtracks now” is another way of saying “I gave up my silly, childish dreams for you, and, in the process, I’ve settled down and become an adult.” The song, in my interpretation, was yet another example of that third tear. I once thought of turning the song and its implied story of a failed rock musician into a short story, but I never followed through on that plan. Like the soundtrack-writer, I never made good on my own dreams of being an artist. Knausgaard makes memory mining contagious, and because in My Struggle he often veers towards the humbling memories, he in turn makes humility contagious, too.