Dear Cecily, Omari, and Dan,
I wish that, among the Stokkebeye rolling tobaccos, I preferred the "Norwegian Shag" to the "Danish Export." If so, it would have been the former I rolled twenty-or-so of—along with my eyes—in my office as I finished volume one, with a morning glass of wine, which would have given me a better reason to start this letter by telling you how I failed to find the tragedy in each of the grandmother's rollies, dramatically described as their rolling was. I didn't find tragedy, even, in the grieving family sharing endless Sprites and vodkas (a truly tragic drink), or in the urine dripping from the grandmother every few pages, or in the manly-IRL-silence that Knausgaard turns into handwringing-writerly-overshare-about-insecurity-around-gender.
Which would also give me a better excuse to use the smoking to show you how manly I am (though I'm doing it anyway, Danish or no). Look at me: like Karl Ove, I may not be able to open my beer with a lighter, but I can chain-smoke with poorly-timed booze, despite a tragic family history of drinking.
My cock is so big right now, Karl Ove, thanks to you. As my friend caught a glimpse of my purse's interior a few weeks ago, she spotted your first volume peeking out through the zipper: "Diana, I never would have guessed."
I wish I had the commitment necessary to try writing this with Knausgaard's level of irritating detail. Not for the sake of parody, but to work through a real ambivalence: we've talked already about these constant "reality effects," realism produced by the meaninglessness of detail at the expense of what would be a more paranoid, and purportedly more satisfying, sense of descriptive purpose. If in the "paranoid novel," everything has too much meaning, too many plots coincide, realism often insists on making you look in detail at things with little narrative effect. Throughout the beer scene, for example, I was convinced it was all leading up to the realization they'd been given alcohol-free beer—otherwise, why spend so much time trying to determine whether they were getting drunk, demarcating each burp?
But I really don't want to whine about the non-purposive description. I like plenty of novels where descriptions are given seemingly without purpose, and I can get easily annoyed by the moments in Pynchon that seem to predict a graduate student's future decoding. I think that Knausgaard's descriptions often prime me for that kind of attention—aha, he's repeated this three times, it must have some upcoming purpose—without doing much with it, and I haven't decided yet where or whether the fault lies for that.
Anyway, I'm suspicious that Dan asked me to participate in this project in anticipation of what a brat I'd be about it.
Here's my first bratty post, as promised by Cecily: on all the anxiety about opening beers with lighters, as if it's not alcohol itself that opens the door to masculinity (if so, K's grandma would wield a bigger dick, i.e. bigger narrative role), but how we get to it:
I couldn't open the bottles with the lighter, so I passed it to Jan Vidar. Without saying a word, he whipped the tops off both and handed me one." (125)
Without saying a word, even! Sigh—put this man in the movies. When I started reading, I told my roommate that I was going to drop out of the project if Karl Ove and Jan Vidar didn't make out by the end of the first book. Consider my bluff called:
"Is there a bottle opener around?" I asked.
Øyvind bent forward and took a lighter from the table, tossed it over to me. But I couldn't open bottles with lighters. Nor could I ask Jan Vidar to open the bottle for me, that was too homo.
I took a bottle from the bag and put the top between my teeth, twisted it so the cap was right over a molar and bit. The cap came off with a hiss." (129)
I'm not surprised by the fact that Knausgaard repeatedly lets this insecurity stand in for the other insecurities that will come later—when he comes to the SHOCKING realization he actually does care about his father. I'm struck instead by the way he seems to lose control of his writing in the process. Is it possible that he accidentally repeated "I couldn't open bottles with lighters" within four pages? This is the narrator, not dialogue, so it can't be accounted for with a general "but we all repeat ourselves!" And a thing he just did has now become "too homo" (I don't envy Bartlett's having to translate this phrase).
And of course the solution involves putting a bottle into his mouth. But, just as with asking Jan Vidar for help, this solution shouldn't be repeated:
Time for another bottle. I didn't want to use my teeth again, something told me that sooner or later I would come up short, sooner or later the molar would give way and break. And now that I had shown that I could open bottles with my teeth, perhaps it wouldn't seem so homo to let Jan Vidar open it for me. (130)
Here's another instance of narrative suspense that loses its erection. Reading this, I assumed that either: 1) Something bad would come of this method, or that 2) He'd find another alternative. Instead, Karl Ove successfully repeats the teeth-trick sans repercussion on the following pages:
I really wouldn't be able to keep this up, I thought as I placed it on the table and opened another with my teeth. (131)
And he carries on, asking his friend for help with one beer, using his teeth for the next, and no one (quite sadly, if you ask me) makes out or loses a molar. Later in this same scene, after asking Jan Vidar to open another, Jan—whom Karl Ove wants to ditch—hugs him at midnight, to his dismay:
Why the hell did he have to hug me? What was the point? We never hugged. We weren't the sort of guys who would hug.
What a pile of shit this was. (136)
After this upsetting display of friendship, he opens a third bottle with his teeth—apparently unwilling to invite anymore intimacy—and moves through the night, only to be rejected by the girl whose party this whole scene was meant to bring him to.
I linger on all these neurotic beers both because the quotes are a good example of how silly My Struggle can be, and because they present an underlying tension that doesn't get resolved in this first volume. It's not just that he's afraid he can't do manly things, but that he feels masculinity is negotiable: if you can open a beer with your teeth, you're allowed to ask a friend's help; if you can get the friend to open the beer without asking him with words, the silence undoes the lapse; if your friend hugs you, though, you better not ask him for help.
It's as if he's not afraid of homoeroticism as such, but of finding out he's the bottom. Another man's vulnerability creates a safe space for his own, as in a later scene at his father's party:
"Anyone got an opener?" I asked.
The main straightened up, patted his thighs.
"I've got a lighter," he said. "Here."
He made to throw it underarm, at first slowly, so I could prepare myself to catch it, then, with a jerk, the lighter came flying through the air. It hit the door frame and clunked to the floor. But for that I would not have known how to resolve the situation because I didn't want any condescension because I let him open the bottle for me, but now he had taken the initiative and failed, so the situation was different.
"I can't open it with a lighter," I said. "Perhaps you could do it for me?"
I picked up the lighter and handed it to him with the bottle. He had round glasses, and the fact that half of his scalp was hairless, while the hair on the other half rose too high, like a wave at the edge of an endless beach on which it would never break, lent him a somewhat desperate appearance. That, at any rate, was the effect he had on me. The tips of his fingers, now tightening around the lighter, were hairy. From his wrist hung a watch on a silver chain.
The beer cap came off with a dull pop. (177)
The man's inability to toss a lighter effectively gives K permission to show his vulnerability not only to the man, who makes nothing of the exchange at all, but also to the reader, whom K initially seems to let in. He offers a strangely emotional description of another man's haircut, but then pushes the reader away: "at any rate," "on me," no homo; perhaps you, dear reader, wouldn't have felt the same way about the endless beach of his hair, he admits, about his jewelry, about the tightening of his hairy fingers. This final gesture does a good job of being both very gay and very straight.
Unlike K's opening musing on our inability to deal with death, for example, which sets up his return trip to his father's corpse toward the end, the fear of homosexuality and impotence seems to sink away by the end of this volume. Or at least, it's replaced with a constant stream of tears his brother doesn't share, all while Karl Ove plays maid and insists on taking the lead in scrubbing the house.
In focusing on the recurring insecurity around the lighters, I risk the kind of White Feminism Juliana Spahr both pilloried and confessed in her recent poem:
Next My White Feminism has me searching all the references to breasts in Karl Ove Knausgård's volume four.
There are over forty fairly mundane references.
He seems to like them large, round, big, inviting, pendulous, firm, bouncing, white, tanned, magnificent, like apples.
I.e.: our desire to show ourselves to be better than Knausgaard in his relationship to gender risks becoming a too-easy self-purification: by promising I don't resemble this, I can avoid admitting what I actually resemble.
Because reading Knausgaard might be my failed lighter-as-bottle-opener, but for femininity. Whenever I open it, I say to myself, “I wish Lila and Lenù were here.”
To be fair, I was resistant to reading Ferrante, too; I thought its relatively straightforward narrative progression through individual experience would seem "out-of-date" (this was dumb of me). But as I kept reading, and re-reading—especially when I got to Days of Abandonment, where she explicitly puts the poverella in a lineage with other women rendered hysterical by heartbreak (I talk about this a bit in a recent post on Monica McClure's poetry on Harriet)—I kept experiencing the Neapolitan Novels as if they combined two different kinds of older novels: one where the individual's experience is allowed to stand in for the nation, or for some other broad unit of historical experience, and one where the narrative focus is allowed to stay with women, with the interior of the household and the family. Ferrante's ability to make these two capital-N Novels into one made me think harder about the way representation of certain experiences (the taking-seriously of the way a poor woman has to become a class traitor and a disappointment to her family to become a writer, for one) was more "experimental" than other emphases on illegibility, narrative fragmentation, etc.
Part of My Struggle's anxiety about literary masculinity feels tied up in this question: whether enough remains unsaid or unrepresented or undone in white male experience to justify its relatively detailed, coherent, legible, etc. representation. Both Knausgaard and Ferrante's narrators, at least, express concern about producing art after modernism, and admit some self-consciousness about work that seems to "return" to some older form.
Towards the end of the book, this Problem with Opening Beers seems resolvable by the presence of plastic bottles in his grandmother's house (perhaps a sign his father suffered from the same dysfunction?). But Karl Ove can't drink from the father's glass: "I'll never drink beer from plastic bottles again."
As we read on, I'm curious to see what Knausgaard does with these tics of castration fear. Part of me hopes the narrator actually loses a figurative molar trying to act like a man; part of me is still waiting for the hot sex with a hairy silent sub. But I have to assume this is all a set up for some more complicated relationship to sensitivity and inadequacy. I keep turning to the short poem the boys have the poet Hauge read, as their interview comes to a close:
The cat is sitting
when you come.
Talk a bit with the cat.
He is the most sensitive one here. (338)
I fear that we're building up to a narrative climax where we (gasp) find the manliness in sensitivity. I hope, instead, we actually get talking cats.
ALSO IN THIS SERIES:
My Struggle, vol. 1: Cecily, June 6
My Struggle, vol. 1: Omari, June 14
My Struggle, vol. 1: Dan, June 17
My Struggle, vol. 2: Omari, June 24
My Struggle, vol. 2: Cecily, July 1
My Struggle, vol. 2: Sarah Chihaya, July 5
My Struggle, vol. 2: Dan, July 12
My Struggle, vol. 2: Jess Arndt, July 18
My Struggle, vol. 3: Omari, July 25
My Struggle, vol. 3: Marissa Brostoff, August 1
My Struggle, vol. 2: Dan, August 4
My Struggle, vol. 3: Jacob Brogan, August 8
My Struggle, vol. 3: Diana, August 12
My Struggle, vol. 4: Omari, September 1
My Struggle, vol. 4: Dan, September 2
My Struggle, vol. 4: Diana, September 15
My Struggle, vol. 5: Omari, September 27