Right up front, let me admit that I love the writing of Karl Ove Knausgaard. Lots of people do but there are also lots of people who loathe his writing and, in his Sunday NY Times Magazine story on March 1, he gave the the haters an awful lot of ammunition.
If you’re totally unfamiliar with his work, Knausgaard is a Norwegian writer who’s written a six-book memoir labeled as a novel of his life from boyhood into his 40s titled “My Struggle.” The books became a sensation in Norway and Europe and won Knausgaard the kind of reviews writers don’t have the balls to dream of. “Sensation” may be too mild a word in this case. He was compared favorably to Proust and his books so dominated the conversation in Norway that newspapers declared “Knausgaard-free” days where Norwegians were encouraged to talk about something else for at least 24 hours. Four of his books have been translated into English; I’ve read 2 1/2 and plan to read all six.
Knausgaard has been hailed by American reviewers and editors which is why The Times Magazine editors handed him the assignment of flying to Newfoundland and drive to Minnesota. The idea was to loosely follow the path of the Vikings, his ancestors, lo those many years ago.
That was the assignment. What Knausgaard produced is something else. To begin with, he lands in Newfoundland with a suspended license so cannot not drive anywhere. He sits in his hotel room until his innkeeper convinces her husband to drive Knausgaard to a tourist attraction which holds remnants of one of those original Viking trips. Knausgaard goes there, takes a look at the few bumps along the frozen earth, smokes a cigarette and ruminates about Vikings, and gets back in the car.
Most of the magazine article is Knausgaard beating himself up for being a major fuckup. He knows he should have gotten his license renewed before flying to America to complete an assignment where the point was to drive but….he just couldn’t get around to it. Oh well, he makes the best of a bad situation. He goes to Pizza Delight and another restaurant where he notices that Americans are fat, he smokes a lot of cigarettes in his room and elsewhere and, in the piece’s most talked about section, he describes a “significant” dump he takes that clogs up the room’s toilet.
Instead of the water disappearing with a slurping noise before the bowl filled up again, it started to rise. I watched it for a long time.
Riveting stuff, right? Then this famous writer, who is dripping in royalties, decides he’s too mortified to tell the innkeeper and instead describes how he covers his arm in plastic bags and sticks it into the toilet to try to unclog the unsightly mess. He can’t do it and so it sits. He takes a nap and, when he awakes, the toilet is miraculously unclogged.
I think it’s fair to say that the Times editors who handed Knausgaard this assignment and who no doubt paid him quite a bit of money for it, did not envision getting a story about how his shit clogged up a toilet. But here’s the big joke — the editors put it on the cover of the magazine anyway and labeled it Part 1. Part 2 is coming!!
That’s the article’s most memorable scene. Nothing much else happens — Knausgaard finally gets a ride from a Times photographer and they smoke and drink too much, go bowling and look around the ruins of Detroit at night. It’s not much.
But it’s really classic Knausgaard. Why do I enjoy reading him? Because it’s like looking into someone’s brain and I would rather an honest account of his failures than to read another writer’s bullshit bravado of being larger than life. Knausgaard doesn’t do that. Instead, he wallows in failures and thoughts that most of us would never utter to a friend, much less put into a book. Some friends who I admire think Knausgaard’s writing is one big waste of time but I don’t see it that way — I love reading someone’s inner thoughts and feelings whatever they are. To me, they make him more human. Knausgaad’s genius is to be unvarnished unlike 99 % of the writers out there. I enjoy reading about his adventures — big, small and smelly — but I understand if you don’t.
As for that big dump, well just after I finished his magazine article, I picked up Knausgaard’s third book called “Boyhood” and I was up to the section where he and another childhood friend go into the woods to take dumps and examine the contents! All I could do was laugh because the joke after all is on the New York Times editors. If any other writer had handed in this piece of shit assignment, you can bet anything it would have been rejected. But Knausgaard took a shit and they put it on the cover of the magazine with a photo of him smoking a cigarette no less. In these PC times, that alone is an achievement.
I say bravo, Karl Ove, you’ve struck a blow for all the writers whose work has been rejected by magazine editors throughout time. This time, you made them eat it and for that, I thank you.