The Physics of Sorrow

downloadGeorgi Gospodinov, 2011
Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel

“The physics of sorrow – initially the classical physics thereof – was the subject of my pursuits for several years. Sorrow, like gases and vapors, does not have its own shape or volume, but rather takes on the shape and volume of the container or space it occupies.” (250)

The last few books I’ve read have left me less than inspired and I was beginning to grow apathetic towards reading in general. I’d like to think that my disappointments were due to several life events that have been keeping me busy and distracting me from devoted, focused reading, but in reviewing my criticisms of Annihilation, 10:04, and The Story of My Teeth, I’m convinced that these books were disappointing for concrete, valid reasons inherent in the style and plot structure of those books and not just my own distracted perspective. As I had been growing concerned that my reading pursuits were taking a turn toward a region of unending disappointment I was pleased by the uniquely intoxicating world depicted in the pages of The Physics of Sorrow. Although the title may be slightly melodramatic, this book should not be categorized as depressive. There are a lot of fun things going on in this book and the title shouldn’t discourage the reader from exploring its labyrinthine exploration of ideas.

 I’ve opened this post with the passage above that gives mention to the gaseous, transient state of sorrow as an indication of the fluidity of ideas of emotion, identity and metaphor explored in these pages. The success and allure of Gospindinov’s novel doesn’t solely rely upon broad philosophical statements about life; this book’s true charm lies in its ability to playfully weave through different stories told from different perspectives and time in a cohesive and readable style that captivates the reader.

The central story circles around the myth of half-man half-bull Minotaur, the bestial offspring of  Pasiphaë, the greek hero Minos’s wife who was orphaned in the labyrinth to become a monster. This story touches upon the significance of myth as a tool to distort man’s view of the world: the misunderstood orphan becomes the feared monster. This central theme is at the root of the narrator’s ability to travel through time and relive the lives of his ancestors, rediscovering the lost connection between his grandfather’s illegitimate offspring when he was a Hungarian prisoner of war during World War One, or his father’s  lifetime living in poor basements in post-war Bulgaria, or his own strange disconnection to modern day technology while living in Paris. All of these stories from different slants of time are twists and turns through the labyrinth of story-telling and ultimately reveal the importance and power of story, or myth, as a deep rooted necessity for human identity.

To get a sense at what I am trying to convey, consider the following reflection told from the lense of the narrator’s grandfather’s observations of the gravestones in an ancient cemetery:

“What happened to the names after their owner died? … Words are our first teacher in death. The first sign of the parting between bodies and their names. The strangest thing about that cemetery was that the names repeated themselves. I stood for a long time in front of a headstone with my name, freed up by someone who had used it for only three years.” (51)

Ideas of identity, loss, and timelessness are infectious within this book and speak volumes about the potential of literature as a tool that transcends a mere function as a source of entertainment. The narrative that weaves through multiple perspectives from mythological musings of the story of the Minotaur to World War One to present day reflections on the influence of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Spiderman, and the PlayStation aren’t just gimmicky experimentalism for the sake of experimentalism. This is a profoundly enriching book that uses narrative as a tool to explore ideas of lineage, identity, abandonment, violence, and loneliness, as well as the over-arching ideas of mythology and Platonic ideals. Ultimately, this books is focused on the universal ideas of the sublime and transcendence and their relationship to the everyday:

“Even if you … haven’t heard of Kant, or if you inhabit the eternal, illiterate fields of anonymous villages and towns of empty days and nights, the sublime will reveal itself to you in your own language. As smoke from a chimney on a winter morning, as a slice of blue sky, as a cloud that reminds you of something from another world, as a pile of buffalo shit. The sublime is everywhere.” (168)

Why is this important? Why is this significant? So much human energy is spent on the ideals that are valuable only from a certain perspective. Our place in time, our moment in history, our mark on this earth, is momentary. The human belief, or rather, the western philosophical belief in the significance of individuality is brushed aside when framed within the scope of human pre-history. The importance of human achievement is fleeting and ironically discredits the significance of the individual:

“We live in houses that will continue to live on even after we die. We go to cathedrals, where long lines of people and generations who are no longer with us have trod, as if on Judgement Day. All of this tells you: you pass on but we remain. We’ve buried plenty before you, we’ll take care of the ones you’ve sired as well. Think up at least one good reason why that which is built of stone should last longer than that built of flesh. I don’t see any particular point of justice in that. We can only wonder what sense of time and the eternal the ones who came before us had, in the dark of the night in the primeval, living in flimsy huts, outliving their flimsy huts, outliving their hearths, moving from place to place, measuring out their lives in days and nights, in lighted and extinguished fires …. they truly lived forever and they died at thirty.” (172)

The Physics of Sorrow is a vapor that intoxicates, filling the void of literary potential. This book speaks so many volumes that it is unspeakable.

 

 

 

 

Please ignore the silly ads below this post. They do not reflect my opinion or the content of this post.

 

Posted in Fiction, Translations | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Story of My Teeth

downloadValeria Luiselli, 2015
Translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney, 2015

The Story of My Teeth is a beautifully bound book told in 10 short, but disjointed chapters that unfortunately don’t make any sense or provide any meaningful insight. When I say that this is beautifully bound, I am referring to the actual physical presentation of the book that includes several sketchings of physiologically accurate presentations of uprooted teeth as numerical indicators for each chapter in addition to several black and white full page microscope slide views of histological slices of tissue with additional presentation of aphorisms translated from fortune cookies as well as quotations taken from several famous authors. There are eight pages of this stuff between each chapter and although it is very pretty to look at, this overly excessive and academically experimental presentation should have been a red flag to this reader because The Story of My Teeth is a nothing more than a forced smile with nothing of substance behind it.

I’d like to think that something was lost in translation or that perhaps this wasn’t the right book for me at this stage in my life, but there was so much wrong with this book that I just never found myself finding any interest in it. It actually bored me. At least it was short and the pretty presentation kept me going, but this book felt less like an actual novel and more like a graduate student’s masters thesis in experimentation. Why oh why this is so highly recommended I can’t fathom.

The plot starts out somewhat engaging, the narrator, a young man born with screwed up teeth works for several years as a security guard at a juice factory until he is promoted to become a counselor of sorts. He doesn’t last long in this position and he soon becomes an auctioneer. He boasts that he is the best auctioneer in the world, but he is really just a small time charlatan. He manages to replace his teeth with Marilyn Monroe’s pearly whites and then he auctions off his old teeth to raise money for his church and in the process he auctions himself off to his estranged son who, in an odd set of circumstances, exacts revenge on the father that had abandoned him since childhood. Through all of this we have the auctioneer telling us stories within the story as he is portraying his allegorical style of auctioneering. All of the mini allegorical stories are pretty much meaningless drivel that become excessively annoying as they reveal themselves as opportunities for Luiselli to name-drop different famous authors within the text of the book.

The only take away I got from this story is that The Story of My Teeth is an experimental mess. Only after I read Luiselli’s Afterword, did the light-bulb turn on for me about what was going on here; this is pretentious writing at its worst:

“The Jumex Collection, one of the most important contemporary art collections in the world, is funded by Grupo Jumex – a juice factory. There is naturally a gap between the two worlds: a gallery and a juice factory, artists and workers, artwork and juice. How could I link the two distant but neighboring worlds, and could literature play a mediating role? I decided to write tangentially – even allegorically – about the art world, and to focus on the life of the factory. I also decided to write not so much about but for the factory workers, suggesting a procedure that seemed appropriate to this end.” (192)

Luiselli says it herself, this was an experiment to try to write a book not about but for the working class from the perspective of the artistic class and unfortunately that self-righteous experiment ultimately reveals that this book is really for no one – or at least it wasn’t for me! If that afterword was a forward, I would have been forewarned about what I was getting myself into and could have potentially saved me from this toothless story that had no bite.

Please ignore the silly ads below this post. They do not reflect my opinion or the content of this post.

Posted in Books I hated, Fiction, Translations | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

A Brief History of Portable Literature

downloadEnrique Vila-Matas, 1985
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean & Thomas Bunstead, 2015

“as is well known, to be born is to begin to die.” (13)

A Brief History of Portable Literature is a brief novella with much to say in a complex and whimsical way of saying it. This is the story of a secret society of novelists and artists, The Shandys, who supposedly existed in Europe during the modern period following the first World World and shortly after the second. The Shandy’s primary aim was to create literature that was “portable,” or in other words, brief, as is this novella. But the brevity isn’t just out of economy of words, but to demonstrate that brevity in size of text need not be paired with brevity of scope. This actual novella includes many true life novelists in its scope, including Duchamp, Fitzgerald, Kafka, Hemmingway, Riguat, and many others. The plot ranges from a misguided trip to Africa in search of revelations, to travels to New York art scene, to epidemics of suicide, to secret meetings in a submarine, to the eventual crumbling of the Shandy society through one of its members devotion to Satanist beliefs. There is a lot going on here in the slim 84 pages and it somehow works, provided the reader suspends disbelief in the enjoyment of the ride.

Much of that suspension of disbelief mus be attributed to the semi-nihilistic and anarchistic Shandy belief system of free-living and disconnection from societal norms:

“The portable writers always behaved like irresponsible children. From the outset, they established staying single as an essential requirement for entering into the Shandy secret society or, at least, acting as though one were.” (3)

The bachelerohood nature of the creative is a central theme to this novella and is probably the only take away I gathered from my reading. It is, admittedly, an ambitious read that some readers may find overly academic, but I believe that such a reaction misinterprets the free-spirited intention of this book. Yes, many artists and creative types have an academic vein to their behaviors and beliefs, but ultimately their creativity is motivated by a need to demonstrate vision and originality that extends beyond themselves. Interestingly, a book that is overly focused on the necessity of bachelerohood to achieve such creativity adeptly explores the contradictions of identity and lineage:

“Am I going to be my father? Does this mean that my whole life has been a fantasy lived in a another person’s name? Are we nothing more than our ancestors, and never ourselves?” (41)

With passages such as the one above, this brief history manages to touch upon central themes that extend beyond creativity or literature that are central to human identity.

 

 

 

 

 

Please ignore the silly ads below this post. They do not reflect my opinion or the content of this post.

Posted in Fiction, Translations | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Gulp

downloadMary Roach, 2013

Gulp, Adventures on the Alimentary Canal was an informative tasting of journalistic semi-pseudo-scientific writing. In these pages Mary Roach explores a variety of curiosities regarding the  human digestive tract, following the  route that all food must pass, beginning at the first whiff of smell and taste through olfaction all the way on to the final excretion that all bowels must pass. Although, this non-fictive book is supported by strong research and interviews with several qualified specialists, Gulp should not be mistaken as a self -help of medical text. Roach writes with a journalistic inquisitiveness to satisfy any reader’s interests in the inner workings of their digestive exploits. With this in mind, any reader looking for the opportunity to expand their understanding of the body’s workings should be warned that throughout the book Mary Roach maintains a playful awareness about the subject matter that borders on, but never crosses, the prepubescent juvenile realm of fart and turd jokes. There is good fun in these pages and for non-fiction writing Gulp is an enjoyable light read.

I can’t say that there is anything groundbreaking or overly insightful here, but of course my nursing/medical knowledge has provided me with a fairly good understanding of the inner workings of the digestive tract, another reader may find some insightful information in these pages. Gulp is a fun light read that moves quite quickly, provided the reader isn’t too squeamish. In Gulp Roach explores several alimentary ailments including the historical belief that animals could live in the stomach and cause digestive discomfort to actual evidence of tapeworms and other parasites including the bane of hospital inpatients, the bowel destroying bacteria C. diff. Roach’s discussion of stool transplants to treat/cure C. diff was perhaps the most interesting part of the book for this nurse/reader. I found it inspiring that there is good evidence that stool transplants can treat and cure chronic C. diff and I found it quite frustrating to hear that the primary reason that this procedure hasn’t become common practice is that insurance is likely to deny coverage since the research of the procedure’s effectiveness has been caught up in FDA bureaucracy. Much of the book is filled with nice little tidbits of well researched information written with an entertaining flare. It is a worthwhile read, but not one that inspires me to say much more than that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Please ignore the silly ads below this post. They do not reflect my opinion or the content of this post.

 

Posted in Medical, Non-Fiction | Tagged , | Leave a comment

10:04

downloadBen Lerner, 2014

Often when I begin a book by an author I’m unfamiliar with it may take me 30-50 pages to warm up to the author’s style and voice. The cadence of the language, the approach to themes, and tone are all particular traits that distinguish one book from another. It may require some time for a book to reveal its distinct beauty and promise. Going against this norm Ben Lerner’s 10:04 immediately drew me in with a uniquely profound and timely narrative voice that presented the all to common and farcical contradictions of post-millennial cosmopolitan anxiety and tension.

The initial allure of this book was the self-deprecating snarky voice of the narrator who obviously enjoys poking fun at the ridiculous contradictions of modern New York life while self-abashedly acknowledging that he is part of the ridiculous culture he is poking fun at. The opening pages describe an amusing scene as the narrator, an author, as he is walking with his agent in the gentrified and once-former warehouse district that is now a refurbished railroad track transformed into a park-amphitheater where pedestrians view the surrounding city traffic steps away from restaurants that serve gently massaged octopus, the world’s most intelligent invertebrate. 10:04 is clearly a New York story, but its themes and concerns apply to any major American city’s current problems, including my very own San Francisco.

The authorial narrator is a Kansas transplant to the big city who eschews his roots for the excitement and possibility of city life. He lives in a tiny apartment with the luxury of an in-unit washer and dryer, he invests his time and paychecks at a plethora of trendy bars imbibing artisanal cocktails and mockingly appreciating the faux historical decor. He is a member of a food coop where he works a few hours a month to take advantage of the discount prices and he self congratulates himself for allowing an Occupy Wall Street protester into his apartment for the use of his shower and laundry. This is a narrator who is amusingly conflicted with anxiety about his recent diagnosis of a rare but seemingly benign heart condition while his unemployed best friend repeatedly asks him to contribute sperm as a surrogate father all while he begins dating a woman who has developed a scheme to collect damaged art from insurance agencies.

This is clearly a voice of the current modern city life and I found myself frequently chuckling along throughout my reading at the ridiculous reflection of reality on these pages. Even though the story is distinctly New York in its setting and characters, the themes that poke fun at trendy foodie haunts and gentrified neighborhoods are spoken from a voice that is clearly of this age and one that needs to be told and read as a presentation of current day city life. For instance, reflect on this passage about the collective over reliance on smart phones as an alienating experience:

“As I read I experienced what was becoming a familiar sensation: the world was rearranging itself around me while processing words from a liquid-crystal display. So much of the most important news I’d received in the last several years had come to me by the smartphone while I was abroad in the the city I could plot on a map, and could represent spatially, the major events, such as as they were.” (31-33)

The title itself, 10:04, is an allusion to the relationship of significant pop-culture references to personal identity. 10:04 is the time in 1955 that Marty McFly and Doc harnessed the energy of the lightening to achieve time travel in the narrator’s favorite movie, Back to the Future. The movie represents an opportunity for the narrator, an author within the narrative of this book, to explore the themes of time, circumstance, and repetition. He ruminates on the moment in Back to the Future when Marty’s family fades from the Polaroid photograph, indicating that small moments in history have impact on the outcome of the future.

The reflections on this theatrical moment provide an opportunity for the narrator to reflect on the many moments of his own life and inspire him to write a short story wherein “everything will be as it is now, just a little different.” His short story is about a neurotic author who has recently been diagnosed with a benign brain tumor and who lives pretty much the same life as himself. The first chapter of the book 10:04 ends with the narrator exploring this proposal and the second chapter begins anew, with the exact proposal being lived out in a new story. I found this transition artfully pleasing since I read a lot of magical realism style writing: the transition from narrator describing a possible story that was a twist on real life opened a potentially labyrinthian cornucopia of stories within stories. This narrative pleasure was further enhanced by the following passage that depicts the short story narrator’s rumination on memory and its relationship to writing:

“Would you know what he meant if the author said he never really saw her face, that faces were fictions he increasingly could not read, a reductive way of bundling features in the memory , even if that memory was not projected into the present, onto the area between the forehead and chin? … And sometimes these features did briefly integrate into a higher order unity as letters integrate into words, words into a sentence. But like words dissolving into sentences, sentences into paragraphs and plots, combining these elements into a face required forgetting them, letting them dematerialize into an effect.” (68)

Moments such as the passage above within 10:04 portray the great potential of this book. However, as I had alluded to in my opening to this review, 10:04 was unique to my typical warm up to a writer’s style and unfortunately the promising start that excited me in the early pages quickly dissipated. I was tongue in cheek amused by the transition from chapter 1 to chapter 2 as a playful exploration of the magical with authorial relationship to the world within the world of text, but the movement towards chapter 3 failed to take the conceit further.

The third and all subsequent chapters returned to the world of the first chapter and illuminated that the second chapter wasn’t an exercise of magical realism but rather a conceited opportunity to reprint Ben Lerner’s short story previously printed in the New Yorker magazine. Although I had enjoyed that story, I felt that I had been duped. There was so much opportunity for whimsical playfulness with the ideas of a world that is as it is now, just a little different but Lerner failed to explore that playfulness and decided to return to the original ideas grounded in the conflicted realities of the world of gentrification and reliance on technology. Perhaps I read too much translated literature that successfully and artistically experiments with the potentials of literary potential, because as I continued on with the book I kept telling myself how unimaginatively American this story was.

As much as I had found myself identifying and enjoying the company of the narrator of 10:04 early on in the book in the later chapters I found myself increasingly annoyed with the persona and choices of the same narrator. What’s more is that the narrator frequently confessed to lack of depth to this novel in an indirect way by repeatedly complaining about his own lack of authenticity in the novel within the novel that he was working on. He meets with his agent to pitch the idea of a book that is a slightly altered version of his own life and his agent tells him that the idea of the book will be easier to sell than the actual book. When he finally commits to becoming the surrogate father with his best friend, he is forced to break off his relationship with his sometime girlfriend and he is startled by her lack of commitment towards him. I wasn’t surprised by her lack of interest or emotional connection to him because he had failed to present her as an emotionally engaging person worth caring for. That interaction between the girlfriend not caring about the breakup highlights the core emptiness of this book: much of the action depicted in 10:04 is really just conversation between the narrator and the people around him. The only real events that occur are actually retellings of a passing character’s past experiences and other than donating his sperm for surrogate fatherhood, the narrator hardly does anything substantial for anyone other than himself. It is as if everyone around him is less a person and more an opportunity to be exploited through written retelling of their verbal stories.

There is a great emptiness that is revealed in this book and perhaps the only redeeming value to the novel of 10:04 is that it does authentically capture the inauthenticity and alienating nature of modern living in a world of increasingly disconnected over-sharing and throw-away relationships. There isn’t much here and perhaps that is the point.

Aside from the potential thematic intent that this book is an accurate reflection and portrayal of modern life, I found myself extremely let down by 10:04. There were a few redeeming moments, including a comical depiction of the narrator’s over anxious experience while donating sperm at the clinic, but the majority of the latter half of the book was filled with annoyance and disappointment. As the narrator travels to Texas on a retreat to teach and write he gets caught up with a very New York crowd at a debaucherous party while having nothing to do with the Texans that surround him. And as the story began to wane on my interest I found myself becoming easily annoyed at Lerner’s thesaurus inspired word choices such as the overly academic overuse of “lacrimal event” to describe moments of crying and repeated use of the word “dissect” in a context that failed to meet any common dictionary reference of that word’s meaning.

This book was greatly celebrated and if one only reads the first 80 pages the celebration is justly deserved. However it is apparent that this book was a semi-autobiographical idea that started great and unfortunately had no where to go but inward. This is really a short story idea that was unfortunately dragged indefinitely on into the realm of the novel format and would have been better off if it let the good ideas remain as they were  without attempting to portray them as they are but slightly different.

 

 

 

Please ignore the silly ads below this post. They do not reflect my opinion or the content of this post.

Posted in Fiction | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Annihilation

download

Jeff Vandermeer, 2014

A mysterious Area X exists secluded from the civilized world. Inside its known borders are a lighthouse, a camp, and an unmapped tunnel that resembles an inverted tower reaching into the depths of the earth. Other than these few remote signs of human habitation the area is populated with diverse wildlife and a blend of coexisting ecosystems that would not exist alongside each other in the known natural world.

The Area X has been researched by a succession of missions occupied by hypnotized, nameless specialists from the Southern Reach, an agency as mysterious as the Area X. Eleven prior missions were met with disaster with its explorers succumbing to mutiny, murder, and even suicide. Annihilation is the story of the twelfth expedition led by an all woman team comprising of a psychologist, a surveyor, an anthropologist, and a biologist. In their training they’ve forgotten their names and have undergone hypnosis managed by the psychologist in order to remain focused on their mission within the border of Area X.

This is the basic premise of the Acclaimed and celebrated Annihilation by Jeff Vendermeer and I found it vaguely similar to a J.J. Abrams spinoff from the cliff-hanging addictive series Lost. Annihilation reads with the same level of empty promise wait-until-next-week disappointment as that frustrating series. I wanted to find something good to say about this book, but Annihilation failed to captivate or interest me. I don’t quite understand the buzz or, maybe I do, because I’m just not the type of reader that falls for these serialized cliff-hanging formulaic style books.

The book is set up in a present-form telling of the chaos in the mysterious world with moments of flash-back visions designed to provide backstory and character development, just like the Lost storyline was structured. This is basic formulaic entertainment writing. On finishing the book I found what I had read was hardly memorable. I wish that there was some beauty to the language, or something that captivated me, but there just wasn’t anything there.

The first person narrator, the biologist, was totally lifeless and uninteresting. She doesn’t ever refer to herself as anything but ‘the biologist,’ and she is so proud of this identity that for some reason she is intent on trying really hard to convince the reader over and over again that she is a biologist as she recounts all of her past work studying tide pools or her childhood interest in her backyard pool overrun by a population of frogs and lilly pads and the like. As an actual biologist she seems inept. The examples of her ineptitude are multitudinous: she inhales the spores of a fungus early in her mission, she is unable to distinguish the difference between a “thin layer of moss or lichen” (171) and she never once refers to any scientific names for any of the organisms she describes. Her inability to refer to actual scientific terms really irked me, especially when she boastfully called out this observation referencing “a tough little squid I nicknamed Saint Pugnacious, eschewing its scientific name,” (107). The constant reminder that she was biologist felt like sloppy character study on the part of Vandermeer; it is as though he read about things that biologists do without every having talked to one to find out how they actually talk or how they see the world.

The narrator also drones on and on about her tenuous relationship with nameless husband. In recalling her relationship to her husband the narrator describes herself in a self-deprecating way, revealing her lifeless personality: “I wasn’t in the habit of engaging in small talk, nor in broad talk, as I liked to call it. I didn’t care about politics except in how politics impinged on the environment. I wasn’t religious. All of my hobbies were bound up in my work”(109). She goes on and on like this throughout the book, describing her lack of personality with so little flavor or interest that the only thing she actually reveals about herself is that she is a boring narrator.

In addition to my problems with the frustrating narration style I found the plot less than exhilarating. Despite having been highly trained by a top secret agency, the four women on this mission seemed totally inept since their mission fell apart on the very first night. The psychologist’s ability to hypnotize with simple word suggestions was unbelievable and the focus on the tunnel/tower and words written on the walls by a glowing fungus failed to intrigue me. I won’t give away the plot, but I will point out that there is some sort of mysterious creature that the Biologist nicknames the Crawler. Is it alien, is it some sort of nuclear mutant, is it the reincarnated smoke-monster from Lost? I don’t really care to find out.

I’m certain that some who champion this book and the Southern Reach Trilogy will argue that I have to read Authority and Acceptance to appreciate the ‘genius’ that they see in Annihilation. I’m not interested. I’m sure that there is some major twist and purpose to the lifeless, droning of the narrator of Annihilation. Perhaps her entire memory of herself is all planted as part of her training and she is really an entirely different person from what her words depict her as. I’m not intrigued. Annihilation needed more substance to hook me along for the rest of the trilogy. If the writing had some unique beauty to it, or if I felt some empathy or compassion for the narrator, or if I believed in the words spewing out of the narrator’s mouth: maybe if it had just one of those elements I’d follow along to explore more of the mystery of Area X. Annihilation had none of those necessary elements to captivate me for more. Thankfully this was a short book and it was worth a try to explore something different on my reading shelf. I won’t say it was horrible, just not to my interests or tastes. If you’d like to read a book about a mysterious land with intrigue that is written with captivating language, I’d suggest you give The Vorrh a chance.

 

 

Please ignore the silly ads below this post. They do not reflect my opinion or the content of this post.

Posted in Books I hated, Fiction, Science Fiction | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

My Struggle Book Two: A Man in Love

downloadKarl Ove Knausgård, 2009
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett, 2013

“We might believe that our world embraced everything, we might do our thing down here on the beach, drive around in our cars, phone each other and chat, visit one another, eat and drive and sit indoors imbibing the faces and opinions and fates of those appearing on the TV screen in this strange, semi-artificial symbiosis we inhabited and lull ourselves for longer and longer, year upon year, into thinking that it was all there was, but if on the odd occasion we were to raise our gaze to this, the only possible thought was one of incomprehension and impotence, for in fact how small and trivial was the world we allowed ourselves to be lured by? Yes, of course, the dramas we saw were magnificent, the images we internalized sublime and sometimes also apocalyptic, but be honest, slaves, what part did we play in them? None.” (435)

Knausgård’s prosaic musings tap into an elemental conflict of 21st century life. The post-religious concerns of identity and relationship to community plague the introspective thoughts of this profoundly sensitive narrator. The words, ideas, hopes, and complaints are universal although the voice that shares these universal concerns is purely characteristic and individual.

The prose in these pages is both mundane and profound. As a deeply detailed depiction of everyday life, it has a unique ability to both captivate and bore the reader at the same time. Minor details of wind blowing, the turn of light in a mirror, the temperature of a cup of coffee are catalogued alongside personal inner thoughts and conversational musings. Is that not life presented in prosaic form?

This, the second book in Knausgård’s six volume autobiographical novel, My Struggle, is truly something special. I was completely absorbed in my reading of the first volume over a year ago, and this second volume drew me in with the same captivating allure. This second volume subtitled, A Man in Love, focuses on his life as a young father and spoke to me as though written from a friend speaking words of wisdom toward my own future of fatherhood. Knausgård shares deeply personal musings about the love and frustration he carries for his children and his wife. His ability to to focus on the unique personalities of his children and recognize  how their personalities both mirror and refract his own personality is beautifully told with a sorrowful wisdom:

“Her smile was shy but happy, and that made me glad, too, yet a shadow hung over my happiness, for was it not alarmingly early for others’ thoughts and opinions to mean so much to her? Wasn’t it best for everything to come from her, to be rooted in herself?…This way of thinking, putting others’ reactions before your own, I recognized from myself, and as we walked towards Folkets Park in the rain I wondered about how she had picked that up. Was it just there, around her, invisible, but present like the air she breathed? Or was it genetic?” (53)

Knausgård’s personal reflections are coupled with universal thoughts about the evolution of one’s life from childhood to adulthood and the loss of innocence that comes with experience and forgetting:

“From my own childhood I remember only a handful of incidents, all of which I regarded as momentous, but which I now understand were a few events among many, which completely expunges their meaning, for how can I know that those particular episodes that lodged themselves in my mind were decisive and not all the others of which I remember nothing?” (21)

However, this book isn’t simply the story of Knausgård’s relationship to his children. The struggle presented here is Knausgård’s struggle to connect with those around him. As is presented in these pages, he is a deeply sensitive and introspective person, and in reading his cataloged thoughts the reader is engaged in the conflict of a man who lives disconnected amongst his peers, even those he is most devoted to. He is an internal man, one who lives most fully through creative writing, not verbal, a perspective I can connect and identify with.

“When I was with other people I was bound to them, the nearness I felt was immense, the empathy great. Indeed, so great that their well-being was always more important than my own…But the moment I was alone others meant nothing to me. It wasn’t that I disliked them, or nurtured feelings of loathing for them, on the contrary, I liked most of them, and the ones I didn’t actually like I could always see some worth in, some attribute I could identify with, or at least find interesting, something that could occupy my mind for the moment. But liking them was not the same as caring about them. It was the social situation that bound me, the people within it did not.” (68-9)

In reading this book I found myself empathizing with Knausgård’s introverted perspective. At times I found him to be overly negative, overly whining, and at times I found him to be deeply personal and profound, and at all times I was touched by his deep honesty. Profoundly, as I was reading this book, reading of Knausgård’s struggles with the wife he loves and her tantrums with his disconnected aloofness, especially during her highly sensitive pregnancy, my wife and I have been faced with our own conflict during her own pregnancy. My quiet nature, the anti-loquacious quality that defines me has become a matter of contention and I found in Knausgård a brotherhood of understanding, an appreciation for the need to explore the potential of the inner self, yet at the same time I found a disgust for this human need. We are social creatures, yet we are so alone. Is this not the 21st century conflict?

“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 say is untrue. It is a zero point and the place from which the zero value begins to spread. However, it is not a dead point, not for literature either, for literature is not just words, literature is what words can evoke in the reader…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.” (128-9)

Knausgård’s book has the ability to open up in the reader a reflection toward the self and ask what is the point of all this reading? Perhaps the point is that we are more than ourselves. The written word offers a reflection to this potential truth. Simply living without expressing oneself through the written word invites an internal conflict of identity. The world has become one of increasing demand, demand for attention and importance, demand for efficiency and purpose, demand for fulfillment of an idealization that is beyond comprehension. In reading the written word, the reader takes a step away from the expectations of the realities that surround and offers an opportunity to reflect upon the struggles required to live in a post-religious world that functions beyond the ideals offered by the simplistic visions of salvation within religion. It is from this perspective, that Knausgård draws upon his inspiration for his second novel, A Time for Everything, an exploration of the lives of angels.  In conversation with one his authorial friends, Geir, detailed in Book Two of My Struggle, Knausgård is presented with the conflict of religion in a modern life:

“The saint image. No modern person wants to be a saint. What is a saintly life? Suffering, sacrifice, and death. Who the hell would want a great inner life if they don’t have an outer life? People only think of what introversion can give them in terms of external life and success. What is the modern view of a prayer? There is only one kind of prayer for modern people and that is an expression of desire. You don’t pray unless there is something you want.” (464)

Knausgård has the ability to explore the complexities of modern life while acknowledging the mundane. Alongside convictions of concern towards the meaning of philosophy, writing, and religion, he catalogues the annoyances of neighbors that play music too loud, the awkwardness of making small talk with parents at a child’s birthday party, and the anxiety of discovering that his mother-in-law is secretly sneaking sips of alcohol while watching the grandchildren. He paints a dystopian reality that is frighteningly real and spoken with an engaging and captivating voice that has been educated on the importance of the simple necessities of modern living.

“The flat landscape, the sun rising, the stillness outside, the sleeping passengers, reinforced by a happiness that was so strong I remembered it twenty five years later. But this happiness hadn’t had a shadow, it had been pure, undiluted, unadulterated. The life lay at my feet. Anything could happen. Anything was possible. It wasn’t like that any longer. A lot had happened, and what had happened laid the groundwork for what could happen. Not only where the opportunities fewer, the emotions I experienced were weaker. Life was less intense. And I knew I was halfway, perhaps more than halfway.” (528)

 

 

Please ignore the silly ads below this post. They do not reflect my opinion or the content of this post.

Posted in Fiction, Memoir, Translations | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment