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Stuff I’ve Been Reading: February 2014

by Nick Hornby
Illustration by Charles Burns

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: February 2014

Nick Hornby
9 Snaps

BOOKS BOUGHT:

  • A Man in Love—Karl Ove Knausgaard
  • The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America—George Packer
  • The Signature of All Things—Elizabeth Gilbert
  • Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football—Rich Cohen

BOOKS READ:

  • Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief—Lawrence Wright
  • A Death in the Family—Karl Ove Knausgaard

Last month I expressed a fear that I might be turning into the fiction-hating Noel Gallagher, who recently told us that “novels are just a waste of fucking time” and, on top of that, not true. And though my reading diet this month was only one-half fiction, that half consisted of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s extraordinary A Death in the Family, the first volume in the six-book sequence My Struggle. If you run with the word diet and picture the books as food—and I feel I know you well enough by now to understand that you have nothing better to do—then My Struggle is a great big T-bone steak of a novel. It might seem to occupy the same space as the accompanying vegetables if you’re looking down on my reading plate from above—and again, why wouldn’t you?—but from up there, you can’t see the weight and the caloric content. You have to plough your way through My Struggle to understand just how filling it is. (I avoided the word meaty. You can see how meaty a piece of steak is without having to eat it.)

This is not the month, however, to discuss with any clarity the merits of fiction versus nonfiction, nor to come to a conclusion with any finality. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s novel is about a writer named Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose autobiography is indistinguishable from that of the man who “created” him. My Struggle (and if the title sounds familiar, it’s Min Kamp in the original Norwegian) describes, in extraordinary detail, the first four decades or so of Knausgaard’s life; the eponymous death in the first book is of Knausgaard’s father, who died in squalor at his mother’s house after years of alcohol abuse. Compare and contrast to one of the nonfiction books I read this month, Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear. Wright’s book is in part about a man called L. Ron Hubbard, whose relationship to his own history, according to Wright, was a lot more complicated than Knausgaard’s. Hubbard’s wartime record, for example, is almost impossible to describe with any accuracy, such is the puzzling gulf between his own account and the official records. He told the author Robert Heinlein that he’d been “sunk four times and wounded again and again.” He wrote that he’d been “blinded with injured optic nerves and lame with physical injuries to hip and back.” And he said that after the USS Edsall was sunk, off the north coast of Java, he survived by swimming to the shore, hiding in the jungle, and sailing a raft to Australia. There is documentary evidence that he suffered from ulcers, and that he caught gonorrhea in Miami, and both conditions sound painful and uncomfortable. But Wright can find no record of any injuries sustained during combat, nor can he verify the derring-do of the jungle hideaway and the raft escape.

Hubbard is not the author of Going Clear, though, and there is no tired irony in his possibly fanciful autobiographical claims appearing in a work of nonfiction. He is, however, quite an extraordinary man, even if we exclude those parts of his life that must remain obscure, and there are great swaths of this book that are as lurid and fast-moving as a comic strip. We know that he was a pulp-fiction writer who produced an incredible number of words—one hundred thousand a month between 1934 and 1936, according to the Church of Scientology, and we have no reason to doubt the estimate. We know that he produced a self-help book, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, that sold millions of copies in the 1950s. We know that when interest in Dianetics dried up, Hubbard founded a religion, and formed a small navy consisting of three large ships crewed by converts. (Some of this crew were pubescent girls who were always referred to as “sir.”) We know, too, that this flotilla sailed around the Mediterranean for great chunks of the 1960s, sometimes stopping along the way to look for treasure that Hubbard had buried himself during a past life. We know that when one becomes a Scientologist, one signs up for a billion years, although presumably this contract, like any other, can be extended as it approaches its expiry date. You can open Going Clear at almost any page and read something so extraordinary—so completely contrary to everything you understand about psychology, science, nature, logic, history, and human beings—that, on finishing it, you are almost guaranteed to run straight into the arms of the nearest novelist. Novelists have to care about those things and take them all seriously, otherwise nobody will believe them.

I should point out that Going Clear, which was nominated for the National Book Award, is not available for sale in the UK, apparently because of our libel laws. The libel laws in the US seem much easier to circumvent: Wright’s book is peppered with scores of disclamatory footnotes, the cumulative effect of which produces a sort of giddy hysteria in the reader: “Cruise’s attorney says that this conversation never took place.” “Cruise’s attorney notes, ‘Mr. Cruise has never expressed anything but support and respect for the work on Battlefield Earth.’” “Cruise’s attorney says that no Scientology executives set him up with girlfriends.” I suspect that this was not an easy book to write, and that Lawrence Wright’s life has almost certainly been complicated since he wrote it, which makes Going Clear a very brave book about a powerful, rich, and litigious organization. However, when you read Wright’s account of how the Church of Scientology took on the IRS—private investigators employed to dig up the dirt on IRS employees, phony news bureaus set up to report on the results of these investigations, literally thousands of lawsuits filed by the church and its parishioners—then you will understand when I say that it’s also an unnecessary and wrong-headed book, too. We at the cowardly and impoverished Believer are respectful of all world religions, and we therefore encourage our readers to sign up for a billion years or even longer, if you think you can spare the time. Maybe we can even do some kind of tie-in promotion.

In the final paragraph of A Death in the Family, Karl Ove Knausgaard, viewing his father’s body, describes what he has come to understand as the banality of death: “There was no longer any difference between what once had been my father and the table he was lying on, or the floor on which the table stood, or the wall socket beneath the window, or the cable running to the table lamp beside him.” Scientologists believe, as far as I can work out, that when we die, the thetan, or immortal soul that is trapped inside us, zooms off to travel different universes and can even create its own universe if it gets bored enough. (There is a suggestion here, I suppose, that a billion years can seem like a long time if you’re not filling your days to the brim.) I was more consoled by Knausgaard’s version.Wright’s book most closely resembles a novel in this way: the mood that it creates is oppressive and disturbing, even though the events and beliefs it describes do not and cannot affect my own life, and the malignities of Scientology are easily avoided. It took me a while to shake it all off; I felt as though I’d read a piece of dystopian fiction.

There are those who would argue that I haven’t read any fiction at all this month, given Knausgaard’s obsessive commitment to the details of his own life, so let’s put it this way: I haven’t read any fiction, but maybe I have read a novel. Does that make sense? There are many troubling things about My Struggle, and one of the most trivial is this problem of terminology. If I am interested, it’s because I have spent twenty years correcting people when they call my first book, Fever Pitch, a novel. In my opinion, it’s a memoir. I was talking to my friend and colleague Cheryl Strayed about this, and she has had the same experience with her book Wild. I’m now beginning to wonder whether the distinction means anything, or is worth anything. (In Norway, A Death in the Family was a novel, but when the book was published in the United States, there was no categorization.) A Death in the Family reads like a novel—get this—in part because the narrator is so excruciatingly truthful, by turns cruel, afraid, disengaged, emotional, cold, self-absorbed, wise, sharp, dreamy. In a memoir, we are so accustomed to hearing the autobiographical voice the author wants us to hear that when we come across a voice as apparently and artfully careless as Knausgaard’s is, it seems like a fictional construct. And of course we’re used to a consistency of tone, too—our memoirs are written from a single mental vantage point, a place we’ve arrived at after we feel we have understood something about ourselves. But Knausgaard’s narrator Knausgaard—and that feels safer than saying simply “Knausgaard,” so let’s call him KNK from now on—is so real that the book doesn’t feel like a literary memoir. (Knausgaard’s uncle made him change some of the names, and the author admits that the project has altered the nature of his marriage, if you need to know exactly how thin this ice is.)

Another thing that separates A Death in the Family from a lot of literary memoir is that neither K nor KNK is afraid to flirt with extreme boredom. There are stories in here, and they certainly add up to something, but they are occasionally told at an excruciating pace. Most of the first hundred pages of the book are taken up with a description of a disappointing New Year’s Eve that KNK endured when he was a teenager, recalled almost minute by minute; in much of the last hundred pages, KNK cleans his grandmother’s befouled house after his father’s death.

“I filled the bucket with water, took a bottle of Klorin, a bottle of green soap and a bottle of Jif scouring cream and started on the banisters, which could not have been washed for a good five years. There were all sorts of filth between the stair rods, disintegrated leaves, pebbles, dried-up insects, old spiderwebs. The banisters themselves were completely black, here and there, sticky. I sprayed Jif, wrung the cloth and scrubbed every centimeter thoroughly,” begins one long paragraph, on page 321 of my edition. It turns out that once you focus on what gets stuck between the stair rods, a hundred pages of housecleaning get filled up in no time. (I read a lot of A Death in the Family on my Kindle, where books are measured in percentages rather than pages, and sometimes the numbers took so long to change that I went back to my paperback version, where at least I could understand my rate of progress.)

“The digressiveness of Sebald or Proust is transposed into direct, unmetaphorical language, pushing the novel almost to the edge of unreadability, where it turns out to be addictive and hypnotic,” said the Paris Review in its introduction to an interview with K, but I think it’s only fair to point out that the addiction and hypnosis might prove elusive, and you may just end up mystified. This is a warning frequently omitted, for obvious reasons, from a lot of writing about experimental or difficult art. Critics use words like addictive and hypnotic, and the implication is that if you end up merely mystified or bored rigid, then your cultural boundaries need resetting. The truth is, there are plenty of other long books to read, and it may well be that you plump for Bleak House, which contains no long paragraphs about household cleaners, over Knausgaard. That is an entirely understandable choice, and I’m sure the author would forgive you.

But the first thing I did on finishing A Death in the Family was buy A Man in Love, the second volume. There were indeed addiction and hypnosis, as well as frustration and impatience, so, despite all appearances to the contrary, my cultural boundaries are fine just where they are, although I suspect that it is sheer nosiness that is going to compel me to read on rather than my devotion to postmodern fiction. I need to hear more, just as you need to hear more of a private phone conversation you probably shouldn’t be listening to. I haven’t read anything quite like this, and I seriously doubt whether there is anything else quite like this. And if nothing else, Karl Ove Knausgaard has written perhaps the definitive novel for future scholars of the early twenty-first century. That may still not persuade you, given that you are probably not a future social historian, but it’s no mean feat. In my opinion, we are not thetans, and we do not live for billions of years in other universes; in my opinion, we smoke and drink and listen to rock music and, yes, clean between stair rods occasionally, and moan and grieve and die. If, however, this opinion is not to the liking of the Church of Scientology, then I’m happy to look at it again.

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