Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Knausgaard vs. "speculative fiction"

FOR ADMIRERS OF genre fiction, I often have occasion to notice, it is not enough that their favorite reading sells by the truckload and is readily available at airports, drugstores, and such. No, they are not satisfied with mere popularity; they envy literary fiction's prestige, reduced to rags though it is.

Case in point, Marcel Theroux's review of Michel Faber's The Book of Strange New Things in the November 2 New York Times Book Review,  which after several hyperbolic paragraphs ends so: "Defiantly unclassifiable, 'The Book of Strange New Things' is, among other things, a rebuke to the credo of literary seriousness for which there is no higher art than a Norwegian man taking pains  to describe his breakfast cereal."

Oh, is it, now? It will take more than big scoops of praise for Jules Verne's latest descendant for me to feel rebuked, I can tell you that, especially since the praise admits--e.g., in the phrase "taking a standard science fiction premise and unfolding it with the patience and focus of a tai chi master"--that the work in question squats squarely within the familiar tropes of its genre.

Obviously, The Book of Strange New Things is another instance of the kind of thing one likes  if one likes this kind of thing--not that strange and not that new, certainly not as strange and new as a writer persuading you, for the first time in your life, to be mindful of your breakfast cereal.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Karl Ove Knausgaard, _My Struggle_, vol. 1

OKAY, GO AHEAD, say it--"Theobald's been drinking the Kool-Aid again!" Any time any writer starts getting plenty of buzz, I line up like the sucker I am, plunk down my $16 (in the present instance), and start at page one like a good little sheep...

...thing is, the buzz sometimes gets it right. The buzz led me to David Foster Wallace in the 1990s, and thereafter I bought every books the week it came out. In the oh-ties, the buzz led me to Roberto Bolaño, and no, I have not read them all, but I've read six, and they were all worthwhile. Thomas Bernhard, W. G. Sebald, James McCourt?  Buzz, buzz, and buzz. Believe me, you can do a sight worse than lend an ear to the buzz.

Take Knausgaard. Is My Struggle as compelling as the somewhat baffled reviewers keep telling us it is? Well...in a word, and somewhat to my surprise, yes. The comparison to Proust does not strike me as quite just, even though they both can describe the baldest, most ordinary event with the same extraordinary infinite patience; Proust's sentences seem symphonic to me, Knausgaard's like a drunk man's tour of the neighborhood. Knausgaard seems to me more like Wallace, the later Wallace of The Pale King, made ill by the society of the spectacle but unable to look away, the big wooly sentences with their demotic clumps, the unwillingness to dismiss anything as not worth mentioning.

My increasingly Ranciére-ified sense of things has been leading me to think of the history of the novel as the history of attention, the ever-extending, ever-broadening search to find the poetry and tragedy in lives, places, and events that had been previously written off as beneath literature's notice. Defoe, Sterne, Austen, Flaubert, Eliot (G.), Joyce, Proust, Woolf...they all opened up territory by daring to bring into the novel material that the novel up to their time had deemed insignificant. This is why, for me, Nicholson Baker is an important contemporary writer, but John Irving or Jonathan Franzen, not so much.

Knausgaard may not be in Proust's class, exactly, but a writer who can keep you interested in a teenager's attempt to score beer for a party or in the elbow-busting effort to clean the squalor of a dead father's house--the novel has not been here before, and here we are, silent, upon a peak in Darien.

And that account of his teenage band's first gig at that shopping mall...damn near perfect. I almost feel I was in that band.  God knows I was in several all too similar to it....