Karl Ove Knausgaard Will Not Read This Interview

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I’m a major admirer of Karl Ove Knausgaard. His memoir, My Struggle, of course, 3000-plus pages spread out across six books, each of which has its own unique character (Private ranking: 4, 2, 1, 5, 6, 3.) But I also love his short “season” books, especially Autumn and Spring, and his novel A Time for Everything, which reinvents stories from the Bible and places them against a Norwegian backdrop.

I recently spoke with Knausgaard via Zoom about his new novel, The Morning Star, a multi-perspective first-person story set in Norway in which a giant star appears in the sky and earth’s beings seem to stop dying. The novel features nine different narrators. Several appear relatively briefly, but the leads are Egil, who is writing an essay on death that appears toward the end of the book; Kathrine, a priest struggling with her marriage; Jonnstein, a nasty reporter trying to get his crime beat back; and Arne, whose bipolar wife is suffering from a mania, wandering their property at all hours of the night, and painting disturbing images. These characters each have their own dramas—but all the while the world is changing in the light of the new star, with murders, monsters, brutality against animals, and ever-rising heat.

The Morning Star is Knausgaard’s first work of pure fiction in over a decade. He was in London and I was in Brooklyn during the interview, with the sun setting as he spoke until he was in near-total darkness

The Millions: You’ve said that writing a novel is like setting a goal, then walking there in your sleep. When you were in New York a couple of years ago, you told me that you were 40 pages into a multi-perspective novel. Was that The Morning Star?

Karl Ove Knausgaard: Yeah, it was incredibly slow in the beginning until some things fell in place. Then I wrote it very rapidly, mostly during the first spring of the pandemic, from Christmas until May, I think. But before that, it was a long period where I just had it lying around and didn’t work on it.

TM: I saw inklings of the pandemic all over the book. Did you find that it impacted your process?

KOK: I didn’t think about that at the time, but I could see clearly afterwards when it was published that, yeah, very much so, I think. Because the kind of intense feeling I had and probably everybody had in the beginning was of the intimacy of the family, all of a sudden, coming together and spending much more time together. Then you have that threat outside which was really horrible, at least here in London, with all the deaths and the ambulances. Same as in New York, of course. Yeah, it must have somehow snaked its way into the novel. I had four hours a day to write, and then I had to deal with all the other stuff because we were all there. We were nine people in the house, you know?

TM: Oh my gosh.

KOK: But that was good, too. It was a good experience. You had to give it all of those four hours. I couldn’t hesitate. I had to just write whatever came into my mind.

TM: There are nine narrators in The Morning Star, so it’s interesting that there were nine people in your house.

KOK: Oh, I never thought about that.

TM: These characters have their own concerns, and they’re very much private ones. A new baby. A problem at work. Seeing a teacher you don’t want to see in the grocery store. Though it’s getting hot, and animals are acting strangely, and there’s a new star in the sky, it seems like the characters stay focused on the granular, day to day stuff.

KOK: Definitely.

TM: That did remind me of the pandemic. This idea of disaster out the window, but then at home, what are we going to eat, I’m fighting with my partner, whatever.

KOK: I think so. It wasn’t like I thought that was how I wanted to make it. I just wanted to find these people and to be in their life, and then this star appears, and I didn’t know how they would react. So, I think it was kind of—yeah, it was probably also related to what happened, really, and that very particular experience, because the funny thing is, you couldn’t share it with anyone because everybody had the same experience, you know? Couldn’t write about it, couldn’t talk about it, couldn’t call friends and say, “Do you know what’s happening here?” I never experienced anything like it. Never saw something so general in history. But this isn’t a pandemic novel at all.

TM: I was thinking about the idea of the big story, that Tolstoyan concept of the war going on in the backdrop of peace. Or the whale being off-camera for most of Moby-Dick. It’s hard, as a reader, to even picture, exactly, what the morning star is. I was wondering what it’s like to write with something on the periphery of a novel that is so giant, yet moves away right when a reader might most want to look at it?

KOK: Well, I started out and I had this idea about The Morning Star, and I wanted to have nine narrators. That was basically what I had, and then I started to tell the story and I realized, I had just started, it’s going to be more books. The Morning Star is going to be more scrutinized. I think what I struggled with the most was, and it’s probably very understandable, was credibility. That the characters could believe in the star. That’s the only thing I’m really working hard with, trying to get that star up there and make an impact on people.

TM: Have you started, I hate this kind of question, but are you writing the next part?

KOK: Yeah, yeah, I’m actually finishing it. I have a deadline for it on the first of September, so I’m really at the very end of it.

TM: Oh, great.

KOK: You have to write so much. I’ve written a lot today, for instance. I was almost done.

TM: This is a pattern book, but then you break the pattern in many ways. There’s two characters that you only spend a bit of time with, the one watching the baby and the one who was kissed by her brother-in-law

KOK: Yeah, and I felt like I’m starting a novel each time, you know? Just stop them and go onto the next. I will pick them up and go further, but I have no idea what’s going to happen, really.

TM: A technique you use in My Struggle and here is suspension. You see a big thing, you pause, and in this book, sometimes you go 200 pages before you come back to whatever the moment of suspense is. I’m curious how you juggle these moments.

KOK: I have no idea. I’m sorry, it’s very intuitive. It’s a lot about pacing, really, and what you can allow. Suspense allows you to dwell with something and to write about other stuff, and it makes it possible to get to, for me at least, everyday life. Somehow get the sense of intensity to it. For me, writing a novel is a way of creating a room or a space where I can say something that might otherwise have been incredibly banal, or not worth it all. But I never think about those terms in a technical way. Suspense doesn’t mean anything to me, really. It’s just writing.

TM: When we last spoke, you were preoccupied with making the characters feel different. You said that was the biggest challenge you were setting for yourself with this project.

KOK: Yeah, that was something I also discussed with my editor throughout, because every person is written the same way, thinking the same way. It’s like—how to create different characters in the same language?—and I didn’t want to pretend I’m going to other languages, or other ways of writing. I also didn’t want the third person, which could have been a solution, so that was something I thought about all the way through. My editor said to me, “Just write about these people and it becomes an illusion.” I mean, everybody knows you’ve written it. But I set some different parameters in the beginning, and that makes them different in a way.

TM: When you switch back and forth, are the characters waiting for you? Or do you have to write your way back into them?

KOK: No, I can just go into them, but the whole goal was to establish them, because I didn’t know anything about any of them, so I just started the situation and kind of found my way. Then something opened up, and then more, and then there was a life there. For instance, the priest, all I knew was that she would come in on an airplane, and that she had been on a conference for translation of the Bible, which I was part of. I knew this was at least authentic, in a way. That was all I had about her, I had no idea that she didn’t want to go home, that she had these troubles. It was the same with all of them, and that’s the fun of writing fiction.

TM: There’s so many moments in writing, I’m thinking of Stendhal maybe, where you have characters that seem separated by wide gulfs, and then suddenly you learn that they’re linked. For me, finding out that Egil (an important character) went to school with the priest was the kind of moment in writing that makes your heart beat a little bit.

KOK: Yeah. I had great fun with this, and there are going to be more link ups to come.

TM: I found a quote of yours in your Munch book about The Scream, I’ll just read it, because it made me think of what we’re talking about:
What is shocking about the picture…is that the entire space is subsumed into the face and the state of mind it expresses… The space is recognizable, it is Oslo with the Oslo fjord, probably seen from the ridge of Ekebergåsen, but it is greatly distorted…the perspective has been moved into a single person, and the work’s main concern is the place from which the world is viewed, reality as experienced by this single individual is the world. Everything seen is coloured by emotions and moods, which are continually changing.
KOK: Yeah, I think that’s just the way I looked at everything, really. Art, literature, and writing. Yeah. I haven’t specifically thought about that, but of course I’ve thought about the view of the world and of different worlds a lot, and that’s also an opportunity. It’s exactly that, sure. Exactly that, that you could see the same world and it’s completely different. That could be a relation. I wanted this book to exist also in between the characters, not like my previous book My Struggle, which is just one person, nothing else.

TM: I wanted to ask about the character Jostein—I’m sure he was fun.

KOK: He was fun to write, yeah.

TM: Peeing himself, drinking, hitting on girls, ignoring his son’s very clear psychiatric crisis. But then he gets this transcendent journey through a Dantean purgatory. He would have been the least likely character for me to say, “I want to see what he thinks about the river Styx.” How did that sequence come into it?

KOK: He was just this idea of journalists writing about culture while hating culture. Which I know for sure exists, and I wondered why that is, you know? I really hate it, I mean, really, really hate it, and so I had to write about it. Then I just riffed on him through the novel. And he was the obvious choice for that scene, really. I never thought of anyone else. Also, I don’t really know, but I really like it that in that scene everything has to be simplified, simplified, and simplified. He actually doesn’t remember anything. That whole trip to the other world was also very late stage in the novel, and came when I was very in the book, and he was there.

TM: The way the language shifts into something primordial when he drinks from the river was a pleasure.

KOK: Yeah, it was fun, actually, to do.

TM: Another thing that was fun was the essay at the end of the book that you show Egil writing earlier, with that little capsule story of him on the train. And I know your answer is going to be it happened organically while you were writing it, so I’m not going to ask you that question again.

KOK: Sorry.

TM: No, it’s good! I’m the same way. But the use of research and these theoretical opinings on death in a novel about people who can’t die—I do think is worth asking about.

KOK: It was stuff I was reading for the book, mainly, throughout the writing. I read, I do the same thing now, I have not a lot of time to read, so I read before I go to bed, and I have like half an hour, an hour, and that was the stuff I was reading. I knew it was going to be an essay, I wanted an essay in there. We discussed if it should be the start of the next one or the end of this one, but then I started to write it and I realized that the level of abstraction is very high when you are writing romantically about death or whatever. And death is not like that, that’s the thing. It’s not abstract, it’s not something you can really think of. It’s absolutely horrible, as everybody knows.

I needed to move that essay into a real expression, and then I remembered when I must have been 24 or something, I took a train from Oslo and there was this medical doctor. He was an anesthetic doctor. It was only him and me. We started to drink, and he started to confess from his life. Never seen him before, never seen him later. This is now 30 years ago, so I think I’m pretty safe. He just told me everything about his life, and he said, “I know I’m not going to see you again,” and then he told me about an experience he had about being on an ambulance helicopter and actually seeing people who weren’t there. I’ve always thought “I have to use this,” and there it was. Then I just expanded the story and invented a funeral, his anger and sorrow, and the death of his child. Basically, that’s how it works with fiction, you have an experience and then make use of it in an entirely different way. It was very important to end the essay in reality somehow, even though it’s an invented reality in the novel.

TM: In Fight Club, single serving friends, I think is what they call it.

KOK: I see, yeah. It was very powerful, actually.

TM: Sounds like it.

KOK: Yeah. I was very young, too.

TM: Toward the end of the novel, you write that death has been taken out of darkness, with mythological ideas of death turning into scientific processes. And I couldn’t stop thinking about your brain surgery essay about Dr. Marsh, when you’re looking at the brain through the microscope and you see this gorgeous thing. That’s a human being, but at the same time it’s science. What do you think science is doing to our understanding of death?

KOK: That’s a very good question. I’m actually reading a lot about that for the book I’m writing now, which is a very different perspective. And I don’t really want to talk about what I’m doing now, but I think there are several traits about death and about the body and about life that are very fixed in a way; they belong to each other’s department. The interesting thing, for instance, is that the idea of resurrection has always been in religion. It’s been the center of Christianity, but in a way, that idea has been impossible now, because religion has become more rational, so they can’t make it work in an old fashioned, biological, flesh and blood way. We don’t believe in it, but they did. Instead, it’s just moved into science, where it pops up in the most amazing ways. I just read, what is his name, the singularity man, who starts to think it’s possible to defy death and to beat aging. All through science, all through molecules and biology and computers. That’s doing something very weird, because for me, body is earth. Body is animal, body is primal, somehow, and very, very old.

Then you’ve got this kind of modern body, but the body is the same. We are the same. That is what I’m trying to write about again and again, the pull from the earth versus the enlightenment and the brand-new world we’re living in. When death comes, it just smashes all of that and destroys it. You face something completely different.

There’s this wonderful novel I just read, a Russian novel, by Chinghiz Aitmatov. Have you read it?

TM: No.

KOK: The Day as Long as a Century, it’s called.

TM: Oh, wow. Great title.

KOK: Absolutely wonderful. It has a very silly science fiction part, but it works, and it has an incredibly good part down on earth. It’s about a man in the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan in the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s, burying a friend. Going on a camel to bury him, and he kind of relives his life. Then there is a completely weird presence of rockets and the combination of those worlds side by side is absolutely brilliant.

I do have the same feeling when I read those crazy futurist American people, that really freaks me out somehow, but still it is very interesting. If you read them, you think yeah, it is possible. We are basically numbers. The scary thing is maybe this is where the hard science is going. That’s very much part of what I’m writing. It’s very existential, but also very much now. You know?

TM: Very much.

KOK: The very simple thought that death is something archaic, is something that kind of sets the rules, and it does something to us. It’s the thing I’m exploring in the first book. And the feeling I have is the same as I had in the beginning of My Struggle: it was my father’s death. It’s something you have to relate to, and it is everywhere, especially now with so many people dying around us. Dr. Marsh said—I asked him if he believed in something after death—and he said, “No, it’s over. It’s nothing. It’s just death. It’s like blowing a fuse.”

He’s seen many people die, so he knows what he’s talking about.

TM: I trust him more than me on that. When you were speaking, I was also thinking of the fundamentalist speaking-in-tongues American beliefs that still have a more spiritual approach to death.

KOK: Yeah. I was intrigued by all of them, all of that, the whole tradition you’re talking about. And Shamanism is incredibly interesting, just as a phenomenon. What it does to your view of the world, which is what I’m interested in. I’m not so interested in if it is true. It’s what it makes the world into. Turns it into something else. That’s what I want to do with this book. In a very, very mundane world, of course.

TM: A Time for Everything is one of my favorite books. You place mythological stories, Cain and Abel, Abraham, in familiar Norwegian environments. Woods that are very much like the woods in My Struggle, figures that we see again in My Struggle. In The Morning Star, too, I was having fun Googling the restaurants you were mentioning in the book and seeing the interiors you described. So, you have this surreal landscape, but it’s very, very strongly mapped onto a real place.

KOK: Yeah. I hadn’t written about many landscapes, and the lesson in my second novel, A Time for Everything, was that when I tried to write those stories, I had set them in vivid landscapes, and it was impossible, because I didn’t have the knowledge or the insight, and if you’re a bit insecure, it’s impossible to be free.

It was a bit the same in The Morning Star with writing from the perspective of women. In the beginning I wasn’t free, and didn’t know anything, so I really wrote badly because of that.

What I did in A Time for Everything was to move it to Norway. I knew the Norwegian landscape, so then I could just be free. I gave those people some traits from my grandparents and so on, as you know. When I was writing The Morning Star, I was in London, but the memories and images of where I grew up were very strong, and it gave an extra dimension.

Because to me, it is real because I was there, but it isn’t here, so I have to make it up anyway. If I have something realistic, then it’s much, much better to let something extraordinary or fantastic happen. To be free in something, I have to know it really well. I do also like a concrete, real world combined with fiction. It’s always something that I appreciate with many of the novels I like. If you read Tolstoy, for instance, you know those places exist somehow, and it’s grounded in the information of the world.

TM: How did you start to feel more comfortable writing the female characters?

KOK: I had to say, “I can’t do this,” because I was being so respectful. I asked myself, “Can a woman think this? Would a woman do this?” Then you’re fucked, because there’s no creativity, it’s just restrictions. I had to let go of all of that, and just write and be completely free, never think about if a woman could think that, would do that. Then the novel in itself started to come alive, because the first person I wrote was the nurse.

TM: One thing I was intrigued by with her was that In the Land of the Cyclops has an essay that’s partially about you working in a place that’s very similar to the place she works, a home for the mentally ill. Were you giving bits of yourself to different characters?

KOK: Yeah, yeah. That’s all over the place, really, because you need something that is true, and it doesn’t have to be true in any direct sense, but there has to be an experience of something you know. I have to have that when I’m writing, so there’s a lot of that spread out and I just use whatever comes in hand. That goes for all of the characters,

TM: You’ve written that having a family member with bipolar disorder changes the you and the I, and creates questions about what is essential to an individual’s identity. I wanted to ask about that astonishing moment where the bipolar character Turid’s painting contains a truth that no other character sees.

KOK: The thing with her is that she is psychotic. Or she is getting psychotic, meaning she is seeing something. Because it’s like a dream, but you are in the real world, and you can’t believe everything. You have the ecstasy with the shamans, and that’s also the same way, that you see something that might not be there. Or you have experiences with mushrooms or whatever, you always see something. It’s just an interesting place to be, I think, if you are in the world with everyone but you see something else. Not that that should be real, or not real, or whatever. It’s a position, and the outer world is completely dissolved.

TM: This book has strong elements of horror. The being in the woods, violence against cats. I wanted to ask about your decision to use fear in this book.

KOK: I set out to. One of my favorite books is Dracula by Bram Stoker. I think I was 14 the first time I read it, and I read it many times. I really, really loved it. I remember playing Echo and the Bunnymen when I read it, so every time I hear Echo and the Bunnymen again, I remember. I wanted to go, the gothic and the grotesque and all of that, those are places I wanted to go. And of course, The Morning Star has many elements, especially cliffhangers and supernatural stuff.

TM: And Dracula can’t die in a normal way.

KOK: That’s true, yeah. Never thought about that.

TM: I was reading your essay on Cindy Sherman’s pig person, and thinking about non-humanness as something that is really frightening as well.

KOK: Yeah. It’s just a fascination I have. We have all of these other living creatures and we’re not afraid of them. They are not us, they’re different, and we accept them and don’t think too much about them, even though it’s very weird to have other creatures that experience the world completely differently. But then think about meeting the devil, not in any fictitious way, but in a real way. If you try to think about non-human creatures like that, or a divine creature, or whatever that people have been seeing throughout history, how immensely scary that is. It’s the same with robots.

TM: I would love to ask about The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air, the Kierkegaard text. Egil, the character, writes about how strongly it impacted him, like it was seeing something for the first time. I was wondering if that follows your own journey of reading?

KOK: I actually read it in New York, and I read it English the first time because I bought it in a bookshop there. I was just blown away by it, really. I think the immediate appeal was the repetitions, the poetry. It was like I was transfixed. There is a complete impossible idea that it brings forth which I was intrigued by. I didn’t think I should use it in any way, but I did. I think it’s the common knowledge of living now, the radicality of it and Kierkegaard makes you see it, like you said, for the first time. You see the radicality in it. In The Morning Star, there are two different types of Christianity going on. The priest, Katrina, she’s very much about the social reality, very much about mercy. Then you have Egil, which is completely the opposite, which is Kierkegaard, turning away from the social and looking into the abyss, which Kierkegaard was very good at doing. And then I also did, like Egil, I bought the complete series of all of Kierkegaard’s work in Danish, which I have here on my shelves. Then I read an incredibly good biography about him. He was such a fun character as a person.

TM: Did you find that going back to fiction, was it fun, was it different, did it feel liberating?

KOK: It was fun, but it was in a way also much harder, and I also felt that I took a risk, really doing this. You know? That was part of the fun, and I really enjoyed it.

TM: When I talked to you about My Struggle, sometimes I felt a little awkward because I was asking questions about the character you to the writer you. Is this a different sort of interview for you?

KOK: Yeah, much harder to talk about fiction because with My Struggle, we can just talk about myself, you know? It’s fine, I don’t have to think. With this book, I have to find a way of talking about it and there’s so much I don’t know. I did write it very fast, really. And I haven’t talked much about it because there was a pandemic, so I did like three interviews in Norway, three in Sweden, one in Denmark, and that was it. Which is great.

TM: You don’t read anything written about you, right?

KOK: No, I don’t.

TM: So, I can do whatever I want with this.

KOK: Yeah.

TM: Is it easy to avoid pieces about yourself?

KOK: It’s easy, but sometimes there is a headline, often reviews come out like two weeks before the book, and I’m not prepared. Then I know, okay, it’s a shit review or whatever. But I don’t feel curious anymore. It’s very, very good not to read it. Even the good stuff is terrible. It’s such a good thing to do, not to read about yourself.

Bonus Links:
A Complete Visual Map of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘My Struggle’
You’re Not a Real Writer Until You Have Enemies: The Millions Interviews Karl Ove Knausgaard
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Seasons Quartet Is a Raw Journey through the Writing Process
Karl Ove Knausgaard Shows You What Makes Life Worth Living
Devoutly to Be Wished: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Consummation

A Year in Reading: Adam Dalva

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There was a
before, I think, and back then I read well. I read on subways and trains. I
read in bars while I waited for blessedly late friends. I read without monitoring
the faces of people around me, without constantly assessing the implications of
every cleared throat.

I started the year with Cleanness by Garth Greenwell, which set a high bar. Cleanness looks like a short story collection but functions as a novel, accumulating tension as it goes. The radiant core of the book, a cycle titled “Loving R,” is especially marvelous. I followed it up with a little contemporary French novel called Exposed by Jean-Philippe Blondel. Is it weird that I often try to find a little contemporary French book after I read something I love? Exposed is an especially good one—an aging high school English teacher is asked to pose for one of his former students, a famous painter, and the heat of the situation gets slowly turned up until you’re in the boil.

I also read new books by two brilliant writers. Fox by Dubravka Ugrešić, a hybrid work of essays and short stories that examines tricksters through time, is possibly my favorite of hers yet, up on the plinth with The Museum of Unconditional Surrender and Fording the Stream of Consciousness. I also enjoyed Karen Tei Yamashita’s Sansei and Sensibility, a career-spanning collection that shows off the talent established by her masterpiece I Hotel, especially in the short story “Bombay Gin.”

At some point, in retrospect, I began misreading. The horizon loomed dangerous, but I ducked my head and embarked on Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy, an odd mix of the researched approach of the Neapolitan Novels and the self-contained, à La Minute vibe of the Rabbit books. It was Mishima’s final work—his bizarre suicide occurred right after he finished. The first book, Spring Snow, the story of a 19 year old boy who experiences turbulent love, is juicy. Then things get weird—a supporting character becomes the lead, and the action jumps from 1912 to the 1930’s for the remarkable Runaway Horses, whose highlight is a long sequence of deaths that reminded me of “The Part about the Crimes” from Bolano’s 2666.

But somewhere in the middle of Runaway Horses—you know the exact day, I’m sure—I switched to reading statistics and preliminary case studies and terrifying Twitter threads. I read the panicked eyes of my beloved New Yorkers. I read and re-read my emails to my parents begging them to follow procedures that we didn’t yet understand. I read the direction of sirens. I read a sign in my local hardware store that hand sanitizer now cost thirty dollars. I read more than ever and I remember barely any of it, and when I try to read my journal from that month there’s only shaky, sideways handwriting, blue spiders of fear.

Eventually, though, I came back to Mishima. I wanted to see it through. Unfortunately, the third book, The Temple of Dawn, is bizarre: half philosophy text, half weird lecherous cliché-of-Philip-Roth-(because-Roth-is-actually-good). Pot-committed, I pressed on into the fourth volume, The Decay of The Angel, which surprised me with some meta-turns but didn’t reclaim the heights of Runaway Horses.

Free and clear, my days filled with wiping down groceries and leaving them to bake in the sun, I finally read Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, which started off slowly and had an unfortunately timed plague subplot, but somehow, stuck the landing. Then I finally could read Thomas Cromwell’s Wikipedia page, after avoiding it since Wolf Hall came out in 2009.

Then there was a bit of bad reading luck. Persuasion turned out to be my least-favorite book by Jane Austen and to get out of that I floundered into a galley of The End of Me by my beloved Alfred Hayes and it was my least-favorite by him and to get out of that I stumbled into The Italian Girl by Iris Murdoch, which was—you get it. (The Murdoch, in particular, was a tough loss because I’m rationing myself to one a year so I can have a new Iris Murdoch until I’m 57 and now I have to wait.)

I soared out of the funk with Deborah Levy. Oh goodness, what a blessing it is to discover Deborah Levy! I loved her most recent novel, The Man Who Saw Everything, which folds into itself in surreal fashion, but I even more loved her two brilliant non-fictions, Things I Don’t Want to Know and The Cost of Living.

Then there were days in this long, upsetting summer of American suffering when poetry was the only thing—I started writing it, for the first time in my life (“It is even in prose, I am a real poet.”) Some special collections that helped get me through the year: Charif Shanahan’s Into Each Room We Enter Without Knowing; Ben Purkert’s For The Love of Endings; Nick Laird’s Feel Free. Morgan Parker’s Magical Negro, Lizzie Harris’s Stop Wanting, Monica Youn’s Ignatz, Garous Abolmalekian’s Lean Against This Late Hour, Jenny Xie’s Eye Level, Solmaz Sharif’s Look, and Madeline Barnes’s You Do Not Have To Be Good.

Time marched on, impossibly. I read that my wedding would be canceled. I read that my family’s antique business would have to end. I read new age in my forehead, under my eyes, in my hair. I read contempt in people’s unmasked expressions when I walked in the street to avoid their sidewalk. I read a lot of subtitles on a lot of Truffaut movies—I liked Day for Night best. I read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, and was most moved by the beginning, when he lists the people in his life for whom he is grateful, and then I read Zadie Smith’s brilliant Intimations, which, serendipitously, establishes a dialogue with Marcus Aurelius and cascades closed with a montage of people in Smith’s life.

All the while, I kept up my online reading group with the author Rick Moody—we’d been crawling our way through The Aeneid for the whole year, and (dare I spoil the end of the Aeneid? It’s 2040 years old) the last stanza is one of the weirdest things I’ve read—a shockingly abrupt close that indicts the character of Aeneas and baptizes Rome in blood. We’ve since started Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, which is hilarious, especially with the antics of Merlin, who seems to know the exact plot of the book he’s in.

In August, I prepared for my semester of teaching by rereading three favorites: Long Live The Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden offers a glimpse at the hybrid future of books;  Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash is an absurdly brilliant book, I still don’t know how he sustained the stunted yet florid prose for hundreds of pages; Jaroslav Kalfar’s Spaceman of Bohemia, is an evocative, trippy journey through outer space and the Czech Republic that somehow balances its two sides with a generous, warm spirit. Somewhere in there I also inhaled Ferrante’s Lying Life of Adults in a single sleepless night.

I then made a private self-joke by reading Yasunari Kawabata’s Master of Go alongside Stefan Zweig’s Chess Story. Both are great—so different, yet strangely similar. Kawabata’s is an actual work of reportage-cum-fiction on a style-clashing Go match he’d reported on thirteen years earlier, Zweig invents a style-clashing chess match on a cruise-ship with his absolutely charming Zweigian tic in which Stefan Zweig has to appear as a character in his own work to hear the story and relay it to us.

I also read The Bluest Eye, which floored me. Why is it that the great books, the ones you hear about, are always so much weirder than one expects? Moby Dick is like that, and The Magic Mountain, and Mrs. Dalloway. So too with Toni Morrison. The strange multi-perspective voice, the haunting child-text refracting through the book, and the heartbreak of Pecola lurking at the margins of every chapter, inevitably suffering.

Can I propose something for our next year in reading? It was impossible for new books to get a fair shake during this annus horriblis, so I hope we spend 2021 by celebrating the first birthdays of the class of 2020 with the gusto we usually reserve for newcomers. What a group! I inhaled Luster by Raven Leilani, which is incredibly smart and encapsulates the challenge of art-making and has a great “Hey Arnold” reference, and I remain astounded by Being Lolita by Alisson Wood, which is a harrowing, gorgeously written memoir, and The Helios Disaster by Linda Boström Knausgaard somehow lived up to her great Welcome to America, and The Exhibition of Persephone Q by Jessi Jezewska Stevens is an incisive look at doubling and self-recognition, and Catherine Lacey’s Pew does a totally incredible text-shattering ending out of William Gass, and Temporary by Hilary Leichter has this crazy recursive middle section that I can’t get over, and Brandon Taylor’s Real Life let me meet glorious lonely Wallace, and All My Mothers’s Lovers by Ilana Masad boasts a structural conceit that I remain jealous of, and Rebecca Dinerstein Knight’s Hex is pure voice, and A Burning by Megha Majumdar is upsetting in the best sense of the word, and Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain is a miracle of time travel, and Braised Pork by An Yu is disorienting from the start, and I loved the quirkiness of Sarah Kasbeer’s A Woman, A Plan, An Outline of a Man, and Scholastique Mukasonga is a master whose Igifu is a haunted collection full of paradoxical love, and Queen of Tuesday by Darin Strauss—the best book yet by one of our best writers—is an innovative collage of memoir, Lucille Ball biography, and good-old-fiction.

In October, of
course, I read the maps. Weeks and weeks of maps. Maps red-shifting, and then,
after sleepless nights, slowly blue-shifting again. County-by-county maps of
Georgia and Pennsylvania to read even when I closed my eyes. And then, on a
beautiful Saturday, I read the chyron on the bottom of CNN’s screen.

Most recently, I loved Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, which is weird and wild, brilliantly anticipatory of later modernism, intensely neurotic and full of ghosts figurative and literal, with uncanny beats like Malte seeing his own hand under a desk. I also read two books that are coming out next year: Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler is a bold, funny look at projected personalities online and Alex McElroy’s The Atmospherians is a keen examination of mob-think and conceptions of masculinity, and it’s funny too!

When I think of next year, most of all, I think that maybe, just maybe, there’ll be a day where I don’t feel like I have to read anything at all.

But when I
think of this impossible year in reading, the pieces that meant the most to me
were the ones by my students in creative writing classes at Rutgers University and
Marymount Manhattan College. Unbelievably, I’ve taught 94 of them in 2020—in
spring they handled the pivot to online learning with an ease that’s
characteristic of their generation, and in fall they showed up on the Zoom
screen ready to write, read, and share their lives. When I think of all that they’ve
lost, I’m astounded by the communities they forged, the kindnesses they showed
one another, and the caliber of their work. Anyone who teaches creative writing
knows that our students bring us to the most implausible worlds—in one class,
you might experience a sword fight on Mars, a break-up in a college dorm, and an
admission that changes an identity forever. In an impossible time, my students
used their creativity to get me out. They saved me, this year, because they
reminded me what reading alone can do.

More from A Year in Reading 2020

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An Evening of Immersive Theater with the Dead and Dying

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My experience of The Dead, 1904, Paul Muldoon and Jean Hanff Korelitz’s immersive theater adaptation of James Joyce’s short story, was unremarkable until an audience member fainted. I had been invited to the show as a last-minute fill-in—tickets run an outrageous $300—and I accepted because it was a snowy evening in New York, reminiscent of that long-ago Dublin night. I was one of 55 attendees gathered in The American Irish Historical Society, a lovely townhouse on Fifth Avenue, as “guests” of the Misses Morkan’s annual dance.

The audience milled about during the first act, drinking bourbon and port while lightly interacting with the actors, who were moving through their pre-scripted motions like characters in a videogame. I first experienced concern when Lily, the housekeeper, said that she was “run off my feet,” a verbalization of the first line of the story. It seemed like we were going to suffer a long evening of expository dialogue. I worried that the play wouldn’t be able to render the crucial moment when the protagonist, Gabriel Conroy, experiences lust for his wife, Gretta, during their post-party walk. However (this might have been the bourbon and the port), I began enjoying myself. The musicians were talented, the dancing was lively, and the surreality was unobtrusive. There was that usual jolt of something beloved shifting solid. Conroy, who I’ve always pictured as young, was a middle-aged man with a mustache. How upsetting that the next time I read the story, I’ll see the depressive actor, Rufus Collins, instead of my forever vanished image of the lead.

Eventually, we proceeded into the dining room and ate a meal in the round. I noted a slight Medieval Times vibe. There were two kinds of meat (no ham!), a thick gravy, a popover, more wine. D’Arcy, the reluctant tenor, spoke with the fatuous Mr. Browne. A bearded Irish man to my right kept offering me figs that I didn’t want and inquiring after my national origins. It was sweltering. I started to get too into the play. I laughed at all of Mr. Browne’s off-color jokes, then thrilled at Conroy’s toast to his aunts and niece. As the dinner wound down, there was a lull, and my dining companion surreptitiously pulled out his phone. D’Arcy scolded him merrily: “What is that device?”

The speech we had just heard anticipates this sort of incident. “A new generation is growing up in our midst,” says Conroy. “…sometimes I fear that this new generation, educated or hypereducated as it is, will lack those qualities of humanity…which belonged to an older day.” In bemoaning those who are soon to leave us, Conroy concludes that “we shall still speak of them with pride and affection, still cherish in our hearts the memory of those dead and gone great ones whose fame the world will not willingly let die.”

Then, an elderly woman collapsed. The actors immediately entered semi-reality. “Does anyone have one of those devices with which we could call 911?” yelled Conroy in a bizarre compromise. “This gentleman does,” replied D’Arcy, pointing to my now mortified friend. Two of the supporting actors and several guests had crowded around the woman, but despite the gravity of the situation, there was an unwillingness among the audience to release the illusion that the actors were still propagating. My peers seemed almost childlike, as if they were holding onto a dream from which they didn’t want to wake. Experiential theater is fragile. The creation of the physical environment allows for shallow role play, yes, but in that capacity to make decisions, we remain thoroughly ourselves.

“Call the doctor,” someone yelled needlessly.

“Call the priest,” shouted the man who offered figs.

As we waited, I spoke with D’Arcy. The grumpy character faded away. He showed off the stitching of his vest, then dropped his convincing brogue and began cycling through several European accents from recent roles. At last, I’d found the ham. One of the aunts, staunchly in character, offered us more wine in something of a rebuke to my ebullient tenor. A tall paramedic with a ponytail looked around, a bit confused.

Another actor approached. I now understood that this was going to be an essay and had my notebook out. He told me that he didn’t much care for the play. I kept saying “on the record!” and he just continued to reveal things—apparently multiple people have fainted in the showings. The food, the drink, the average age, and the heat is a wicked combination. Eventually, the woman revived and the action resumed with D’Arcy singing “The Lass of Aughrim.”

It was time for Gabriel’s much-beloved snowy walk, when “moments of their secret life together burst like stars upon his memory.” Instead, the Conroys simply went upstairs to a bedroom. Across the street, a worker at the Met was sweeping the American Wing. The audience (including the miraculously recovered woman who had fainted!) watched the thwarting of Gabriel’s desire when Gretta experiences a ghostly memory, conjured by D’Arcy’s song.

The Dead is about this sort of fragile in-betweenness, how the dead are both the ghosts from our past that we can’t let go of and those who are soon to die. “Poor aunt Julia!” thinks Conroy, “She too would soon be a shade.” My experience that night was of the characters in the play briefly dropping their artifice, then experiencing a renewal, losing one sort of life to gain another, before returning to the legendary characters who the world would not willingly let die. When the actors had resumed acting, it was as if their actual “identity was fading out into a gray impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time rendered and lived in was dissolving and dwindling.” This temporary confusion was so Joycean that it represented “The Dead” better than The Dead, 1904 had.

The story ends with a marvelous line: “his soul swooned softly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” Muldoon chose to turn this sequence into a long monologue, and though there was still electricity in the room, the concept didn’t work. Our thoughts can be paused—when we experience one that really hits, it echoes. That allows literature to accomplish the illusion of epiphany. We so badly want to pause over the line: “He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love.” We need that extra beat to understand that Conroy never loved his wife. But instead, it passed in a relentless squall of words.

One hundred ten years ago, Joyce wrote: “A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight.” And at the end of my night with his characters, the producers made another odd decision. They were projecting fake, electric snow onto a window, behind which real snow was still falling thick.

My Not-So-Secret History

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Like so many this fall, I read The Goldfinch at one of those sleepless-night clips: the light sighing back on, the pillow rotated 90 degrees, that despairing look at the clock. But it wasn’t just in admiration of, as Janice Clark puts it, the “unfakeable depth and luster of long gestation,” nor was I aping Stephen King and reading “with a mixture of terror and excitement.” No — I was up late because Donna Tartt, a Mississippi-reared 49 year old woman, has apparently been following me around with her notebook in hand for the last 14 years. Her lead character, Theo Decker, is pretty much me.

Now, in matters of age, locale, race, and sex, there is little wonder to that. Theo and I are both 27 year old white guys from New York, and there are a lot of us — too many, probably. The first real attention-grabbing coincidence came when 13 year-old Theo’s building on 57th street off Sutton turned out to be the same as my own. I greedily accumulated evidence: it has to be on the odd-numbered side since at one point Theo walks south down Sutton and turns onto 57th before crossing; it’s not the building on the corner, but the doormen walk away from oncoming traffic to hail cabs, something you would only do when particularly close to their careening turns. Put this together and it’s most likely the second canopy down: 447.

Now, this was all nice and Prousty, but there’s nothing essay-worthy here. It’s a pretty, doublewide block and the other Sutton place streets have narrative complications (bridge traffic; lack of light). Fine. I tweeted: “Protagonist of #thegoldfinch is my exact age and grew up on the same block as me. What a likable guy!” and got a favorite from a stranger who didn’t subsequently follow me.

But then things started to get weird. 27-year-old Theo is a 18th and 19th century British antique dealer; I’m a 18th and 19th century French antique dealer. He spends 90 percent of his time working front of house and 10 percent in the restoration shop downstairs — same as me. We both sort through veneers, use ammonia on bronzes, join chairs with wacky old clamps, and match wood-grains. In fact, when I took an unauthorized Goldfinch break from practicing shellac application on ancient wood strips, Theo was sorting through the exact same set.

And it’s strange: the aspects of my job that have always seemed mundane are rendered delightful in Tartt’s capable hands. It’s all there, from the way we mark our catalogues with pencil (have I been picturesque all this time?) to the way we identify symmetrically dinged-up gilding as problematic (does everyone know to look for uneven wear?). Although, I have to say that Tartt’s trick of not vacuuming objects to make collectors think they’re finding overlooked gems doesn’t really work. Clients just glaze right on by.

The indulgence with which the author treats my profession might be the product of research vs. actuality. (How I flinched in the King review when he wrote, “There’s a lot more about furniture restoration than I needed.” Story of my life, S.K.) When you’re studying something there is such joy in discovery. Every flourish feels necessary. Tartt’s realization that cabinet doors shift over time must have been a eureka moment instead of part of an unbroken chain of osmosis. As I was reading the book, I’d walk around the store and see my work as literary instead of mere lunchbreak impediments.

There are even nods at French furniture. Hobie the loveable old well-read British furniture restorer (as opposed to Mark, the loveable old well-read Russian furniture restorer in our shop) may claim early on that it’s not his “bailiwick,” but toward the end Theo points out “inlaid French cabinets and tables in the French court style with garlanded carvings and veneer work that would have made Hobie gasp in admiration.”

Now, we don’t do the alchemy in the book, that piecing together of broken-down old classics to create borderline unimpeachable Frankenstein monsters of furniture. But I know who did. The source material is beyond a doubt the Dickensian-named “Buggins scandal” — an anecdote I will no longer be able to tell during pauses at dinner parties. As a reader, my tension leaked away the second I saw Hobie (a name, that I would argue is related to Hobbs, the dealer behind l’affaire Buggins) melding two pieces. The whole crucial subplot got shorted out by inevitability — it was like reading The Art of Fielding after having endured the Chuck Knoblauch era. (I never believe Yankees fans who say they loved that book. It’s too soon to get any sort of pleasure out of the yips; it’s like being shocked by 3rd act Kryptonite.)

The minor accumulation of my own personal facts just didn’t stop — Popchik, the charming Maltese in the book? Meet ZoZo, the charming Maltese I had from (drumroll) ages 13-27. The pleasantly horrific Subway Inn, where Theo’s dad sneaks a drink? My own exact high school sneakaway. Not all the incidental details are perfect. I went to school on the Upper East Side, not the Upper West; Theo grew up in 7C, but I was parked in 8B.

Tartt somehow even hacked into my private empathetic experiences. Not to make too big a thing of it, but there was an uncanny feel in reading about a teenager taking a scary midday walk from the Upper East Side to a 57th and Sutton apartment on the day of a terrorist attack. I saw again the way the cops that remained uptown looked; I remembered that the demographics of people walking in each direction were so much more mixed then normal. This was subliminal stuff — I hadn’t thought about it in such specificity since the day of.

(Although, then, the book takes care to note that this attack is not a substitute for 9/11. In fact, it’s not quite clear when the book actually takes place — Theo shoplifts XBOX games at one point, and there is an iPod, and those were the hottest devices of 2002 (I know this because I remember being around Theo’s age and desperately wanting an XBOX and an iPod), but then, somewhat shockingly, Jet Li’s Unleashed (2005) is mentioned. This means the “contemporary” action of the book happens in 2019. Future Fiction! Future Fiction with our exact smart phone technology and without drone package delivery or the singularity! Was this a move to get it further away from 9/11? Or is it just when the movie will come out? (This will be a killer movie if they gussie up the Amsterdam stuff a bit.)

Is The Goldfinch good? I don’t know. A friend hated it and I was totally unable to mount a defense. It was like someone attacking my own biography. How could she have thought Theo was an unsympathetic, cynically drawn lead? Is this why people sometimes ignore my Facebook messages? I’ve started wondering how many other people have had this happen to them. Was there a brave civil rights lawyer who just shook his head when Atticus gets all that food? A woman in a tool-filled kimono who started crying the second Seymour pulled out the gun? Willowy chivalry fetishists cursing in 17th Century Spanish?

Or did these people also feel the other side of things — the strange validation of this massive coincidence? Never before have I have been confident enough to talk at parties about how shellac is made (pro-tip: you really want to DIY with the flakes, that store-bought stuff loses its pop). Maybe clients won’t find it disingenuous if I talk about how a piece perfectly fits their aesthetic. Perhaps, King be damned, I can throw a description of this really killer Italian 18th century console table into my novel. And my childhood street might not be as boring as I’ve always thought.

Oh, and speaking of that inevitable movie? I’ll be hitting the gym double time, because I’m pretty sure I’d be the perfect Theo Decker.