An Analysis of My Struggle (Min Kamp): Volume Two (Karl Ove Knausgaard)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
“The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s only aim.”
–Oscar Wilde, Preface, The Picture of Dorian Gray
“Woo. I don’t know how to sum it up / ’cause words ain’t good enough, ow.”
–One Direction, “Better Than Words”
If I could accomplish one thing in my life, it would be to prevent people from comparing the Scandinavian hack Karl Ove Knausgaard with Marcel Proust. Knausgaard does not have a fingernail of Proust’s genius. Comparing Knausgaard to Proust is like comparing John Green to Proust. Those who have actually read À la recherche du temps perdu know that Proust’s great novel is not the direct presentation of its author, a self-disclosure without literary artifice. Those who compare Knausgaard to Proust have never read Proust and have no knowledge of Proust beyond the keyword “madeleine.”
Knausgaard calls his logorrheic autobiography, My Struggle (Min Kamp), a “novel,” but in what sense is it a novel? It is completely devoid of novelistic properties. There is not a single metaphor in the text, as far as I can tell, and the extended metaphor (perhaps even the pataphor?) is one of Proust’s most salient literary characteristics.
The first volume dealt with Knausgaard’s unimportant childhood; Volume Two concerns the middle of the author’s life, his present. He is now in his forties and has a wife and three children. He spends his time, and wastes our own, recounting trivialities, stupidities, and banalities. All of the pomposities are trivialities. All of the profundities are stupidities. All of the epiphanies are banalities.
For most of this review, I will refer to Karl Ove Knausgaard as “Jesus,” since he resembles a cigarette-smoking Jesus on the cover of the English translation of the second volume.
We learn that Jesus dislikes holidays. We learn that raising children is difficult. Jesus takes his children to a McDonald’s and then to the Liseberg Amusement Park. In the evening, Jesus, his wife, and his daughter attend a party. Jesus thanks the hostess, Stella, for inviting them to her party. His daughter forgets her shoes. Jesus gets the shoes. He sees an old woman staring through the window of a Subway.
Jesus smokes a cigarette on the east-facing balcony of his home and is fascinated by the “orangey red”  of the brick houses below: “The orangey red of the bricks!” He drinks a Coke Light: “The cap was off and the Coke was flat, so the taste of the somewhat bitter sweetener, which was generally lost in the effervescence of the carbonic acid, was all too evident” . He reads better books than the one that we are reading (The Brothers Karamazov and Demons by Dostoevsky) and tells us that he never thinks while he reads. For some reason, this does not surprise me.
Jesus attends a Rhythm Time class (I have no idea what this is) and meets a woman for whom he has an erection.
Jesus’s daughter points her finger at a dog. “Yes, look, a dog,” Jesus says .
Jesus assembles a diaper-changing table that he bought at IKEA. The noise irritates his Russian neighbor. He cleans his apartment, goes shopping, irons a big white tablecloth, polishes silverware and candlesticks, folds napkins, and places bowls of fruit on the dining-room table.
In the café of an art gallery, Jesus orders lamb meatballs and chicken salad. He informs us that he is unqualified to judge the work of Andy Warhol. I agree with the author’s self-assessment. He cuts up the meatballs and places the portions in front of his daughter. She tries to brush them away with a sweep of her arm.
Almost ninety pages later, Jesus is in a restaurant eating a dark heap of meatballs beside bright green mushy peas and red lingonberry sauce, all of which are drowning in a swamp of thick cream sauce. “The potatoes,” Jesus notifies us, “were served in a separate dish” .
(Parenthetical remark: “[A] swamp of thick cream sauce” is my phrasing, not Knausgaard’s. Again, Knausgaard avoids metaphorics.)
Upstairs in the kitchen of his apartment, Jesus makes chicken salad, slices some bread, and sets the dinner table while his daughter bangs small wooden balls with a mallet. And so forth and so on for 592 pages of squalid prose.
Never before has a writer written so much and said so little. The music of ABBA is richer in meaning.
Interspersed throughout the text are muddleheaded reflections on What It Means To Be Human. We learn (quelle surprise!) that Knausgaard is a logophobe, “one who fears language”:
Misology, the distrust of words, as was the case with Pyrrho, pyrrhomania; was that a way to go for a writer? Everything that can be said with words can be contradicted with words, so what’s the point of dissertations, novels, literature? Or put another way: whatever we say is true we can also always say is untrue. It is a zero point and the place from which the zero value begins to spread [here, Knausgaard seems to be channeling Ronald Barthes]. However, it is not a dead point, not for literature either, for literature is not just words, literature is what words evoke in the reader. It is this transcendence that validates literature, not the formal transcendence in itself, as many believe. Paul Celan’s mysterious, cipher-like language has nothing to do with inaccessibility or closedness, quite the contrary, it is about opening up what language normally does not have access to but that we still, somewhere deep inside us, know or recognize, or if we don’t, allows us to discover. Paul Celan’s words cannot be contradicted with words. What they possess cannot be transformed either, the word only exists there, and in each and every single person who absorbs it.
The fact that paintings and, to some extent, photographs were so important for me had something to do with this. They contained no words, no concepts, and when I looked at them what I experienced, what made them so important, was also nonconceptual. There was something stupid in this, an area that was completely devoid of intelligence, which I had difficulty acknowledging or accepting, yet which perhaps was the most important single element of what I wanted to do [129-130].
The only value of literature, then, according to Knausgaard, resides not in words, but in the transcendence from words. Literature is not composed of letters, for Knausgaard; literature is the feelings and the impressions summoned forth within the reader. After all, any idiot can have feelings. Very few people can write well.
It is clear that Knausgaard, then, does not think very much of literature. He is much more interested in LIFE. Everyone alive has life. Yes, palpitant life–throbbing, living life. Life is the most general of generalities, but talent is much rarer, to channel Martin Amis.
This might be the reason that Knausgaard dislikes Rimbaud’s verse, but is interested in Rimbaud’s life.
“Fictional writing has no value”  for Knausgaard. After all, fiction is distant from life, isn’t it? This Thought is at least as old as Plato. Knausgaard is unaware that fiction is, paradoxically, more honest than autobiographical writing. Autobiographical writing is fiction that cannot speak its own name, fiction that pretends to be something more “real” than fiction.
(Parenthetically: Despite what Knausgaard tells you, Pyrrho did not practice misology. He affirmed the uncertainty of things. Following Pyrrho: One can never say, “It happened” with certainty; one can only say, with certainty, that “it might have happened.”)
Hater of words, enemy of literature: Such is Knausgaard. He despises language, presumably because he does not know how to write. What is one to say of a writer who hates writing so much? One thing ought to be said about him: He is alarmingly typical.
Knausgaard is at home in a culture of transparency, in a culture in which almost everyone seems to lack embarrassability. Almost no one seems embarrassed anymore. People go out of their way to reveal everything about themselves on social-networking sites. Average people reveal every detail of their lives to strangers. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution is violated, and almost no one seems to care. We live in a culture in which our privacy is infringed upon countless times every day, and where is the outrage? Those who are private–or who believe in the right to privacy–are regarded with malicious suspicion. Seen from this cultural perspective, the success of My Struggle should come as no surprise. An autobiography in which the writer reveals everything about himself will be celebrated by a culture in which nearly everyone reveals everything to everyone.
Art is not autobiography. As Oscar Wilde declared in the preface to his only novel, the purpose of art is to conceal the artist. Literature is not auto-bio-graphy, the presentation of the self that lives, the “writing of the living self.” It is, rather, auto-thanato-graphy, the writing of the self that dies in order for art to be born.
MY FAVORITE BOOKS, MY FAVORITE FILMS, MY FAVORITE MUSIC: Joseph Suglia
My favorite music is German, African, and English Progressive Rock from 1969 until 1987.
My favorite films are an enigma.
My favorite writings include those of Gayl Jones, Roland Topor, D.H. Lawrence, J.G. Ballard, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, William Shakespeare, Martin Amis, Paul Valéry, Daphne du Maurier, Will Self, Herman Melville, Marcel Proust, Gore Vidal, John Wyndham, Richard Matheson, John Milton, Ambrose Bierce, Georg Trakl, Witold Gombrowicz, Henrik Ibsen, Georges Perec, Roald Dahl, Elias Canetti, Frank Wedekind, Epictetus, H.L. Mencken, Arthur Schnitzler, Michel Leiris, et al.
An Analysis of A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING THAT I WILL NEVER DO AGAIN (David Foster Wallace) by Joseph Suglia
I have written it before, and I will write it again: Writing fictionally was not one of David Foster Wallace’s gifts. His métier was, perhaps, mathematics. David Foster Wallace was a talented theorist of mathematics, it is possible (I am unqualified to judge one’s talents in the field of mathematics), but an absolutely dreadful writer of ponderous fictions (I am qualified to judge one’s talents in the field of literature).
Wallace’s essay aggregate A Supposedly Fun Thing that I Will Never Do Again (1997) is worth reading, if one is an undiscriminating reader, but it also contains a number of vexing difficulties that should be addressed. I will focus here upon the two essays to which I was most attracted: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” and “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” a conspectus on the director’s cinema from Eraserhead (1977) until Lost Highway (1997). Wallace seems unaware of Lynch’s work before 1977.
In “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace warmly defends the Glass Teat in the way that only an American can. He sees very little wrong with television, other than the fact that it can become, in his words, a “malignant addiction,” which does not imply, as Wallace takes pains to remind us, that it is “evil” or “hypnotizing” (38). Perish the thought!
Wallace exhorts American writers to watch television. Not merely should those who write WATCH television, Wallace contends; they should ABSORB television. Here is Wallace’s inaugural argument (I will attempt to imitate his prose):
1.) Writers of fiction are creepy oglers.
2.) Television allows creepy, ogling fiction writers to spy on Americans and draw material from what they see.
3.) Americans who appear on television know that they are being seen, so this is scopophilia, but not voyeurism in the classical sense. [Apparently, one is spying on average Americans when one watches actors and actresses on American television.]
4.) For this reason, writers can spy without feeling uncomfortable and without feeling that what they’re doing is morally problematic.
Wallace: “If we want to know what American normality is – i.e. what Americans want to regard as normal – we can trust television… [W]riters can have faith in television” (22).
“Trust what is familiar!” in other words. “Embrace what is in front of you!” to paraphrase. Most contemporary American writers grew up in the lambent glow of the cathode-ray tube, and in their sentences the reader can hear the jangle and buzz of television. David Foster Wallace was wrong. No, writers should NOT trust television. No, they should NOT have faith in the televisual eye, the eye that is seen but does not see. The language of television has long since colonized the minds of contemporary American writers, which is likely why David Foster Wallace, Chuck Klosterman, and Jonathan Safran Foer cannot focus on a single point for more than a paragraph, why Thomas Pynchon’s clownish, jokey dialogue sounds as if it were culled from Gilligan’s Island, and why Don DeLillo’s portentous, pathos-glutted dialogue sounds as if it were siphoned from Dragnet.
There are scattershot arguments here, the most salient one being that postmodern fiction canalizes televisual waste. That is my phrasing, not Wallace’s. Wallace writes, simply and benevolently, that television and postmodern fiction “share roots” (65). He appears to be suggesting that they both sprang up at exactly the same time. They did not, of course. One cannot accept Wallace’s argument without qualification. To revise his thesis: Postmodern fiction–in particular, the writings of Leyner, DeLillo, Pynchon, Barth, Apple, Barthelme, and David Foster Wallace–is inconceivable outside of a relation to television. But what would the ontogenesis of postmodern fiction matter, given that these fictions are anemic, execrably written, sickeningly smarmy, cloyingly self-conscious, and/or forgettable?
It did matter to Wallace, since he was a postmodernist fictionist. Let me enlarge an earlier statement. Wallace is suggesting (this is my interpretation of his words): “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!” The first pose is that of a hipster; the second pose is that of the Deluded Consumer. It would be otiose to claim that Wallace was not a hipster, when we are (mis)treated by so many hipsterisms, such as: “So then why do I get the in-joke? Because I, the viewer, outside the glass with the rest of the Audience, am IN on the in-joke” (32). Or, in a paragraph in which he nods fraternally to the “campus hipsters” (76) who read him and read (past tense) Leyner: “We can resolve the problem [of being trapped in the televisual aura] by celebrating it. Transcend feelings of mass-defined angst [sic] by genuflecting to them. We can be reverently ironic” (Ibid.). Again, he appears to be implying: “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!” That is your false dilemma. If you want others to think that you are special (every hipster’s secret desire), watch television with a REVERENT IRONY. Wallace’s hipper-than-thou sanctimoniousness is smeared over every page.
Now let me turn to the Lynch essay, the strongest in the collection. There are several insightful remarks here, particularly Wallace’s observation that Lynch’s cinema has a “clear relation” (197) to Abstract Expressionism and the cinema of German Expressionism. There are some serious weaknesses and imprecisions, as well.
Wallace: “Except now for Richard Pryor, has there ever been even like ONE black person in a David Lynch movie? … I.e. why are Lynch’s movies all so white? … The likely answer is that Lynch’s movies are essentially apolitical” (189).
To write that there are no black people in Lynch’s gentrified neighborhood is to display one’s ignorance. The truth is that at least one African-American appeared in the Lynchian universe before Lost Highway: Gregg Dandridge, who is very much an African-American, played Bobbie Ray Lemon in Wild at Heart (1990). Did Wallace never see this film? How could Wallace have forgotten the opening cataclysm, the cataclysmic opening of Wild at Heart? Who could forget Sailor Ripley slamming Bobbie Ray Lemon’s head against a staircase railing and then against a floor until his head bursts, splattering like a splitting pomegranate?
To say that Lynch’s films are apolitical is to display one’s innocence. No work of art is apolitical, because all art is political. How could Wallace have missed Lynch’s heartlandish downhomeness? How could he have failed to notice Lynch’s repulsed fascination with the muck and the slime, with the louche underworld that lies beneath the well-trimmed lawns that line Lynch’s suburban streets? And how could he have failed to draw a political conclusion, a political inference, from this repulsed fascination, from this fascinated repulsion?
Let me commend these essays to the undiscriminating reader, as unconvincing as they are. Everything collected here is nothing if not badly written, especially “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” a hipsterish pamphlet about Midwestern state fairs that would not have existed were it not for David Byrne’s True Stories (1986), both the film and the book. It is my hope that David Foster Wallace will someday be remembered as the talented mathematician he perhaps was and not as the brilliant fictioneer he certainly was not.
An Analysis of FIGHT CLUB (Chuck Palahniuk) by Joseph Suglia
Before discussing the form of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1996), I would like to reconstruct its political content.
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The thirty-year-old narrator of Fight Club feels alive only when surrounded by decrepitude and death. He attends testicular-cancer support groups in order to enhance his vitality: By distinguishing himself as much as possible from the sick, he attempts to wrest himself away from a consumerist culture that suppresses death; by exposing himself to the mortality of others (which grants him the knowledge that he also is going to die), every moment in his life becomes more valuable. One of the infinite number of go-betweens in this culture (his job is to determine the expenses of recalling lethally defective automobiles), the narrator yearns to die in an airplane crash in order to free himself from the superficiality of a world that trivializes death and immortalizes the unliving commodity (a “necrophilous” culture, as Erich Fromm would say). Only what he imagines to be a direct experience of death grants him a real and intense sense of life, and, as the novel proceeds, violence will come to be his salvation.
[Let me remark parenthetically: the word “violence,” etymologically, means “life.”]
And yet Western culture manufactures not merely inclinations and proclivities, but also aversions and forms of disgust: Particularly relevant to a discussion of Palahniuk’s novel is the aversion toward violence and mortality that the narrator attempts to unlearn.
The narrator’s desires are prefabricated. As countless others in a consumerist society, his selfhood is defined by the merchandise that he purchases: His “perfect life” is constituted by “his” Swedish furniture, “his” quilt cover set, “his” Hemlig hatboxes, and the IKEA catalogues that serve as the foundation of his “identity.” He is the member of a generation of men who identify themselves with commodities (“Everything, the lamp, the chairs, the rugs were me” ), commodities that, according to the Marx of the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, serve as extensions of one’s personality in the capitalist world.
Enter Tyler Durden (a man who is, apparently, the same age as the narrator). Aggressive, virile, and charming, Durden represents alternative possibilities that the narrator could assume. Tyler is radically opposed to the progressive “improvement” of the self that has been so valorized by capitalist societies; he claims that the drive toward “perfection” has led to the loss of manhood and has transformed men into feminized purchasers and consumers who slave away in life-draining jobs.
By randomly destroying property (with which members of consumerist society identify), Tyler intends to explode the foundations of capitalist “identity.” Since Rousseau and Hegel, it has been assumed that the bourgeois self is divided into civil and private dimensions: the citizen and the “true” individual. Here we encounter two analogous versions of a single self: Whenever the narrator (who subserves capitalist society) falls asleep, Tyler Durden (who represents the “authentic” self) inhabits his body.
Tyler and the narrator form a masculine unit that exists apart from the feminized support groups that are populated by man-women such as Bob, an estrogen-saturated former weight-lifter who sprouts what appear to be mammary glands, as well as Marla Singer (associated, at one point, with the narrator’s mother), who appropriates the narrator’s support groups and eventually unsettles the homoerotic / homosocial bond between the two men.
Tyler founds “fight club,” an underground boxing organization and a perverse version of the support group attended by the narrator. The split between the bourgeois and authentic selves is replicated in the difference between one’s work existence and fight club: “Who guys are in fight club is not who they are in the real world” . Fight club thus opens up a separate space, one that is divorced from the dependency and servility of the world of exchange; it posits a self-sufficient universe in which control and mastery, sovereignty and force are achieved, paradoxically, through self-destruction. The fights are not based on personal acrimony but on the exercise of power. It is the fight that is pure; it is through the fight that one’s human implications are drawn out. Norms learned from television (that mass accumulation is life’s goal, that success is equatable with financial success, that violence must be shunned)—all of these values are reversed in fight club, the sole objective of which is the reclamation of one’s manhood, which has been diminished in the feminizing world of capitalism (hence the phallic imagery that crystallizes throughout the novel).
The constituents of fight club (copy-center clerks, box boys, etc.) are members of the Lumpenproletariat, those who labor without a productive or positive relation to work, who are estranged from their own slavery, and who are excluded from every social totality. Even those on the higher levels of the bourgeoisie, it seems, conform to the same model. Their strength is vitiated; they, too, function as the refuse of a society that refuses to acknowledge them. Dying in offices where their lives are never challenged (and therefore lacking anything with which to contrast with life), they are the mere shadows of the proletariat, deprived of access not merely to the fortunes of the capitalist world, but also to consciousness of their own oppression: They are “[g]enerations [that] have been working in jobs they hate, just so they can buy what they don’t really need” .
Eventually, fight club transcends and operates independently of the individuals who produced it (following Tyler’s anti-individualist creed) and becomes wholly acephalic: “The new rule is that nobody should be the center of fight club” . Fight club thus transmutes into Project Mayhem, a revolutionary group that begins with acts of vandalism and food contamination and eventually expands into full-blown guerilla terrorism. Its aim is regression: to reduce all of history to ground zero. Project Mayhem wants to blow the capitalist world to smithereens in order to give birth to a new form of humanity. What fight club did for selfhood and individuality (the formation of a new “identity” apart from the one mandated by capitalist society), Project Mayhem would do for capitalist society itself. In the same manner that fight club destroys capitalist “identity,” Project Mayhem aims to destroy Western civilization in order to “make something better of the world” —a world in which manhood would intensify through a non-moral relation to violence.
Here we are in territory already elaborated—much more richly—by J.G. Ballard. And John Zerzan, Portland anarchist.
Washing oneself clean, returning to one’s hidden origin, primitivism, regressionism, cleansing, and sacrifice… Soap, which Freud named “the yardstick of civilization,” is here emblematic of a reduction to primal manhood. The meaning of soap is not, in this context, propriety (as Freud would have it), nor, unfortunately, the ebullitions of language (Francis Ponge), nor, following Roland Barthes, the luxury of foaminess. Soap is indissociable from sacrifice.
[Fight Club does not merely imply, but states in the most obvious manner that bare-knuckled fist-fighting makes one more virile, more masculine. Palahniuk’s jock-fascism is jockalicious.]
If Western culture, as Freud claims in Unbehagen in der Kultur, is a culture of soap (sanitizing one from the awareness of death), the accustomed meaning of saponification is here transformed into its opposite. Western culture represses the sacrifices that were its origins through a process of cleansing: Soap here would indicate a return to those repressed sources. Violence must be re-vived in order to reclaim the self, now unclean.
The dream of capitalism complements the dream of fascism: “We wanted to blast the world free of history” . Their common project is dehistoricization. By attempting to destroy history, Project Mayhem pretends to break with the capitalist world but ends up mirroring it. Capitalist culture homogenizes all of its inhabitants until individuality is lost—its alternative, communism, would lead, theoretically, to the redistribution of wealth and the elimination of rank. Neither is accepted by Fight Club. Nor, for that matter, are the utopian primitivism and fascistic terrorism represented by Project Mayhem. The refusal of the capitalist / communist / fascist alternatives does not imply nihilism, either. Fight Club posits nothing other than the impossibility of a way out. This is evident in the text. When the narrator attempts to demolish the fascist version of his self, his phantom double remerges. Neither capitalism nor its double is overcome. Tragedy is not death, the liberation from all forms of the political; it is, rather, the impossibility of dying.
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A few words on the form of Fight Club (the only section of this review that will be read).
This could have been an excellent novel.
Any strong writer knows that a dead page–a dead paragraph, a dead sentence, a dead word–is unacceptable. Every page, every paragraph, every sentence, every word should be electric, vibrant, vivacious. Fight Club moves in the exact opposite direction: Its prose is soul-deadening, life-negating, dull. It is a prose that neither confronts nor challenges.
Chuck Palahniuk does not have an easy way with words. The language of this book is metallic, anti-poetic, and illiterate.
The writer claims to write in the way that “people talk.”
This would be good advice if we lived in an age in which people knew how to talk.