In 2008, Anheuser-Busch ran a series of perplexing ads extolling Bud Light’s “drinkability.” What could it mean to say that a beer is able to be drunk? That it won’t kill you? That it does not taste completely terrible? That it is liquid, and so will run down your throat so long as you remain at least vaguely upright? “Bud Light keeps it coming.” Under most conceivable interpretations, “drinkable” seems insulting: this beer is not good, merely drinkable. It’ll do, I guess. The ads seemed premade for mockery, almost as if an agency staffed by craft-beer lovers had snuck a self-negating pitch past their clients. Unsurprisingly, the campaign was widely chalked up as a failure. One of Budweiser’s 2015 Super Bowl ads, which openly mocked craft beer — “proudly a macro beer,” “not brewed to be fussed over” — seemed comparatively savvy: if your product can’t be confused for good, then play the populist card and deride the good as elitist. (And sell Goose Island, and now Camden Town, with your other hand.) Seemingly this must have been the aim of the “drinkability” ads as well, even if they were too tin-eared to achieve it. “Easy to drink,” “won’t fill you up,” the ads also said. “Drinkable” must mean: doesn’t have too much taste, too distinctive of a flavor, won’t slow you down, offers nothing in need of savoring.
I have been reminded of these Bud Light ads repeatedly since when perusing, of all things, book reviews, where “readable” has risen to become the preeminent adjective of praise. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch: “brilliantly readable.” Jonathan Franzen’s Purity: “Superbly readable.” The Girl on the Train, Room, The Martian, Gone Girl: “compulsively readable” (too many hyperlinks to include). A micro-history of cultural gatekeeping: once told by the censors what we may read, then by critics what we should, we are now told merely what we can read. What could it mean to say that a novel is able to be read? Composed of words that you can pass your eyes over one after another and comprehend? “Readable,” like “drinkable,” seems almost an insult: this book isn’t good, but you’ll be able to finish it. Readable books are full of familiar characters, familiar plots, and most especially familiar sentences. They are built up out of constituent commonplaces and clichés that one only has to skim in order to process. Nothing slows you down, gives you pause, forces you to think or savor. Not too much description, or abstraction, or style. A little bit literary, perhaps, but not too literary. To praise a book as readable is really just to say that you won’t have to add it your shelf with the bookmark having migrated only halfway through its leaves, won’t find yourself secretly glad to have to return it to the library, only half finished, when your two weeks are up. A readable book holds out the promise that you’ll be able to resist putting it down to check your email, or to look for updates on Slate or ESPN, or to turn on the television, or to give in to Netflix. (“Compulsively readable” means “the screen rights have already been sold,” I’m pretty sure.)
“Readable” has become the chosen term of praise in our times precisely because so many of us find ourselves unable to concentrate as we once could or still aspire to. But to praise readability is to embrace the vicious feedback loop that our culture now finds itself in. Short on concentration, we give ourselves over to streams of content that further atrophy our reserves of attention. Soon a 1,000-word polemic seems too long to drag oneself through, and we resort to skimming. So websites post yet shorter articles, even warn you how many minutes they will take to read (rarely double digits; will they soon warn us how long one takes to skim?). Editors pre-empt their own taste, choosing not what they like, or think is actually good, but what they think they can sell. Teachers, even professors, shy away from assigning long or difficult books.
It might seem that “readable” is most at home as a term of praise of thrillers and beach reads. But this is definitional: an unreadable thriller isn’t a thriller at all. “Readable” is quintessentially a term of praise for the middlebrow: fiction that aspires to the literary, but doesn’t make its reader try too hard. Fiction that you read to console yourself that you can still read a real book, or at least an approximation of one. Maybe you’re with me so far — in the abstract, that is to say. But now it’s time to name names. The last year alone brought new books from many of our most celebrated middlebrow authors, which is to say our most celebrated authors: Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and Jonathan Safran Foer. All eminently readable, all more (Chabon, Foer) or less (Smith, Lethem) diverting, all completely forgettable. None of these books would reward being reread, studied, taught. A provisional definition of literature: that which does.
It is no coincidence that even the literary sensations of our times sit, readably, at the margins of the middlebrow. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels: “compulsively readable.” You will be propelled through the text, unable to attend to anything else until finished. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: “intensely, irresistibly readable.” Zadie Smith says she “needs the next volume like crack.” Though seemingly meant as praise, Smith’s blurb actually captures well my own ambivalent feelings toward Knausgaard’s saga: after reading each new novel in a two-day binge I wonder why I had, if I took anything away from their style-less prose. (My own backhanded blurb for Knausgaard: great airplane reading.) Ferrante’s and Knausgaard’s projects are perhaps the most praised of our times, and this is so not despite, but because, they are not too literary. For all their wonderful insight into female relationships, the Neopolitan novels are essentially a soap opera, their plotting determined by one love triangle after another. The thousands of pages in Knausgaard’s My Struggle, though this wouldn’t seem possible, include remarkably little self-reflection, favoring the flat narration of events instead. But both projects are eminently readable, neither requiring nor inviting the reader to ever pause and think, easy enough to finish, but long enough to feel like an accomplishment. Any more style than this, and “readable” is needed to soften the potential intimidation. Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers: “unique in its style, yet immensely readable.” “Yet:” style and readability as contraries.
What novels are not readable? Finnegans Wake, Beckett’s trilogy, a still cut-up and unrestored William S. Burroughs? (Those are some books I’ve not only not finished, but never really been able to even start.) Here’s the rub: the unreadable is simply whatever the reader hasn’t been able to finish. William Gaddis’s second masterpiece JR becomes unreadable to even a self-styled curmudgeonly elitist like Jonathan Franzen simply because he couldn’t make his way through it. Franzen’s own novels, by contrast, are quintessentially readable. I read Purity, and before it Freedom, in two days; at no point did either invite me to pause and think. After being propelled through The Goldfinch, my only reaction was to wonder why I had wasted three days of my life on it. These are the definition of “readable” books: long, and thus in need of that consoling word, but unchallenging and middlebrow, false trophies.
Readable fiction is not the problem; rather, “readable” as a — especially as our highest — term of praise is. Readability tells one precisely nothing about the quality of a novel. There are good and bad readable books; high, low, and most definitely middlebrow ones. Given the tenor of our times, it is perhaps readable books that we need least, however. It is books that slow us down and teach us to concentrate again that we need. Books that force us to attend to language, and ideas, and the forgotten weirdness of the world. Don DeLillo, master of the gnomic, aphoristic sentence, each one calling for your attention, has said that he doesn’t think his first novel, Americana, would be published today, that any editor would have given up before making it through 50 pages. A great but strange book like Tom McCarthy’s Remainder was rejected by mainstream presses and only found life, slowly, through the art world. But these are the sorts of books we need. To embrace a literary culture of Tartts and Franzens, even Ferrentes and Knausgaards, may not be to settle for Budweiser. But it is to limit oneself to lager and pilsner when there are porters and stouts, black, white, and session IPAs, even sours and wilds to be had. It is to drink Stella and Bass when Dogfish Head, Lefthand, Nighshift, and countless others are readily available. The beer critic who claims that Budweiser, or even Yuengling, is actually worth your time is either trolling you, or a corporate shill. So too the literati if the best they can recommend is the latest readable bestseller. So: critics, reviewers, blurbers, tell us not what we are able to read, but what we should. It is no accident that The Underground Railroad, rather than the far superior Intuitionist or John Henry Days, finally allowed Colson Whitehead to break through, but, if you’re only now hearing of him, read those earlier books instead, or too. Read anything by Dana Spiotta, or Ben Marcus, or Lydia Davis, or Steven Millhauser. Read Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s hilarious and thoughtful Inherited Disorders. Read any of the novels recovered and republished each year by NYRB Classics. Read Teju Cole’s Open City, and Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory. Read the beautiful alliterative sentences of William Gass. Read Dexter Palmer’s Version Control, rather than the 102 more popular time travel books ahead of it on Amazon. Some of these books are readable, others less so, some awarded, others ignored, but it hardly matters. What matters is that they resist commonplace and cliché, that they slow you down, reward attention and concentration, transfigure language and, through it, the world. They have new ideas, and images, and phrases. What matters is that they are good. You should read them, whether or not you, or I, think you can.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
A footnote alerted me to the existence of Douglas Porpora’s How Holocausts Happens: The United States in Central America, which I will be rerereading for years. Porpora demonstrates how easy it is for citizens to shirk responsibility for horrendous acts enacted by their government and asks whether the United States became a party to a genocide-like event in Central America (the answer is yes).
Everything that is happening to us in Central America, Óscar Martínez writes in A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America, is tangled up with the United States. In this collection, Martinez, a journalist whose acerbic prose enlivens its dire subjects, covers stories that illuminate why so many Central Americans are willing to risk their lives to cross the border to the United States (and why, instead of calling them illegal or undocumented, we should be calling them refugees).
I’ve been reading Tony Tulathimutte and Karan Mahajan for years, and like any decent fan, I’ve been waiting for the so-called general public to catch on. Tony’s a prose stylist who, because he does not have (to paraphrase from a Latin American saying) hairs on his tongue, gleefully pierces through the varieties of American hypocrisy, as he does in Private Citizens, his first novel, although he isn’t after satire, but after character, which of course could be described as a summation of hypocrisies.
When I think of Karan I think of Saul Bellow, and when I think of Karan’s The Association of Small Bombs I think of the richness of his moment by moment narration, as in, for instance, the sequence of disorientation of Mansoor, who, after surviving a detonation, flees the bomb scene (his friends were dead in any case), runs away from someone who offers to help (what if he’s a kidnapper!), and chides himself for not asking a woman for help instead (safer).
In Seeing Red, Lina Meruane’s propulsive prose doesn’t just pursue her rage against the onset of her blindness, but its undercurrents as well. I’m being devoured by a delicate, carnivorous flower, she says. I’ve come to tell you that I need you, she says, and I don’t want to need you ever again.
A Nobel Prize winner doesn’t need my shoutout, but Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time, an oral history of Russia after the end of communism, which contains sections that resemble the ensemble of voices in JR by William Gaddis, is so extraordinary that it made me want to spend the next 10 years recording monologues by my fellow Americans.
Another master of other people’s monologues is Rachel Cusk. In Outline and Transit, the first two novels of her trilogy, a narrator who has been astonished into silence by the loss that comes with adult relationships explores the confounding landscape of being alone/not alone through the monologues of acquaintances, former lovers, people in planes, students. One day literature professors will map out the intricate interconnectedness of her monologues.
I’ll conclude my incomplete 2016 list (where’s The Last Wolf by László Krasznahorkai? I’ll Sell You a Dog by Juan Pablo Villalobos?) with a random passage from Transit: “I had started to desire power, because what I now realized was that other people had it all along, and that what I called fate was merely the reverberation of their will.”
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.
“If we had the same dream every night,” Nietzsche wrote in 1873, “we would be as preoccupied with it as by the things we see every day.” The premise is simple: reality, at least what we perceive it to be, is a matter of continuity. But say you devote yourself to a single work of fiction, a single imagining, day after day for the majority of your life. What becomes of the real? When are you inside, and when are you out?
Earlier this summer, Richard Linklater’s nostalgia project Boyhood premiered after 12 years in production. For a few days every year since 2002, Linklater assembled the same cast, centered on a young boy Mason Junior, and shot what Linklater has called a “document of time.” The marvel of Boyhood is that the plain spectacle of the aging cast allows Linklater to subvert the dramatic impulses of traditional cinema. The film repeatedly upsets the conventional setup-payoff paradigm of narrative filmmaking to achieve a nuanced, meandering, and quiet chronicle of the boy’s coming-of-age. Boyhood challenges viewers’ recourse to narrative by honing in on the unsorted miscellanea of growing up: doing the dishes, finding a dead animal in the yard, Mom and Dad arguing mutedly on the other side of a windowpane, irritant siblings redeeming themselves in small ways when it counts. As Linklater explains, “You see how life just accumulates.”
Linklater’s 12-year shoot was motivated by an aesthetic persuasion about what time could afford. The magic of film editing or makeup or 12 lookalike Mason Juniors would have been inadequate to the purposes of Linklater’s sprawling yet understated film epic. Part of the production’s interest was accommodating and incorporating the real-life maturation of its cast: how adolescent postures endure into adulthood, how intonations and vocabularies evolve, how a body transforms slowly, and then all at once. All these personal transformations were then framed within the cultural narrative of the early 2000’s. Consider the film’s soundtrack: a year-by-year survey of American pop culture since 2002, beginning with Britney Spears. A document of time, then, is always also a curation of culture. What Boyhood proves is that sometimes “putting off” work is really a conviction about the opportunities and insights that come with taking one’s time. Call it an investment.
Now, an artist’s apologia can get very slippery, very quickly. Artists are savvy at masking their excuses. Plenty are just plain lazy or too indecisive or too timid to dig in and confront the Beast. So what is the difference, or what is the threshold, between an artist who procrastinates for years and a prudent auteur, such as Linklater, who has a plan? These ambitious, bloated, and sometimes staggering ventures raise important questions about how a work’s scope determines its mode of production. How much time should be spent on a single work of art? Or inversely, how will the amount of time spent on a work ultimately shape what that work will become and what it will mean to the creator? What it will mean to us? I see Ahab on the quarterdeck lamenting to Starbuck: “For forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful lands, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep…what a forty years’ fool — fool — old fool, has old Ahab been!” Maybe the more urgent question is at what point has a work grown too much for its own good, taken on too much meaning? Why do our creative ambitions swell up and run out on us? Why, as Ahab poses, “Why this strife of the chase?”
In 1956, shortly after publishing The Recognitions, William Gaddis sent a registered letter to himself outlining the premise of his second novel: “a young boy, ten or eleven or so years of age, ‘goes into business’ and makes a business fortune.” The purpose of Gaddis’s letter was to safeguard his idea from copyright infringement, a fitting launch for a book “projected as essentially a satire on business and money matters as they occur and are handled here in American today.” One provisional title was JR.
JR consumed Gaddis for the next two decades until its publication in 1975, devouring almost everybody close to him: two marriages, two children, and a swarm of agents and publishers in between. In a 1974 letter to American novelist and film producer Warren Kiefer, Gaddis described day-to-day work on the novel “like living with an invalid,” a sentiment articulated in the text of JR itself when writer and physics teacher Jack Gibbs laments his own project of 16 years, a novel that shares its title with Gaddis’s last published work, Agapē Agape: “Sixteen years like living with a God damned invalid sixteen years every time you come in sitting there waiting just like you left him…God damned friends asking how he’s coming along all expect him out any day don’t want bad news no news rather hear lies, big smile out any day now.”
Gibbs’s authorial melancholy and much of Gaddis’s own strife in completing JR were first figured in a character named Stanley from The Recognitions. Stanley, the novel’s holy fool, is an organ composer struggling to finish a requiem dedicated to his mother. At one point, he explains his dilemma: “It’s as though this one thing must contain it all, all in one piece of work, because, well it’s as though finishing it strikes it dead, do you understand?” Stanley’s qualm is a reiteration of Wyatt Gwyon’s insight earlier in The Recognitions: “There’s something about a…an unfinished piece of work, a…thing like this where…do you see? Where perfection is still possible?”
Literary critic Morris Dickstein has identified this totalizing, perfecting ambition of American authors as the Moby-Dick or One Big Book syndrome. The syndrome stems from an effort to culminate and consolidate “the whole meaning of the national experience” — hence the systems or encyclopedic novel. But a designation more appropriate to Gaddis’s JR and to a distinct set of experimental postwar American texts would be the mega-novel, a form elaborated by critic Frederick Karl in his essay “American Fictions: The Mega-Novel” as robust, multifarious fiction that strives to expropriate and counteract the cultural value attached to “mega.” Think MegaBucks or Mega Rich. The mega-novel subverts the dominative logic of late capitalism by turning capitalism’s multiplicities, apparatuses, and vocabularies back on themselves. Thus, in Gaddis’s words, “by developing and following through the basically very simple procedures needed to assemble extensive financial interests,” 11-year-old JR Vansant ruptures those very procedures of the financial infrastructure. Recognizing this inside-out ploy of the mega-novel, what is really a type of deconstruction, is critical to understanding the scope of JR and other oceanic postwar efforts.
Unlike The Recognitions, JR has no chapter breaks, no epigraphs. It is composed almost entirely of unmarked dialogue. The text reels — a continuous discord of voices and noise: money rustling, traffic, people up and down the street, in and out of office buildings, radio broadcasts, telephone calls, trash disposal, septic cacophony, “somewhere a urinal flushed,” the incessant moan and drone and oversaturation of metropolis. The novel documents the runaway qualities of cybernetic capitalism — a barrage of unfiltered data and meaning, a cultural logic bent on the endless reproduction and circulation of signs — and a child’s ability to exploit and undermine that system.
Franzen famously denounced the novel as a haywire, nonsensical literature of emergency. And then a cast of forefront experimental authors denounced Franzen as a populist pundit. That is not the concern here. The question here is why JR took so long to write.
In the 20-year span that Gaddis was working on JR, the U.S. experienced radical economic, technological, and cultural shifts. The maturation of war bonds and the confluence of corporate power brought about a postwar prosperity and consolidation of capital that completely altered the country’s economic landscape, not to mention hugely symbolic fiscal gestures under the Nixon administration such as the suspension of the gold standard in 1971. Telecommunication, information, and banking technologies boomed: the first operating system, videotapes, integrated circuits, magnetic stripe cards, satellites, cordless phones, personal computers, email, electronic payment networks, the first ATMs. Academia was recruited and incorporated by an immense military-industrial complex that was infiltrating universities in Cambridge and northern California. A war waged halfway around the world in Indochina. Color televisions flooded the market. Family sitcoms were replaced by soap operas, newscasts, variety shows, and daytime game shows. Capital was no longer anchored to anything real and culture was reproducing itself at a mile a minute, all while radars painted the coasts, sweeping for backscatter off something huge and unknowable. People were left to carve lives out of the maelstrom of signs: swipe, go, click, take, look, laugh, lock, switch, cut, ring, watch, wait, are you ready —
And then all of it came crashing down in 1973.
Gaddis, meanwhile, was “being dragged by the heels into the 20th century:” fighting against the nerve-wracking hum of electric typewriters; failing to revert the copyright for The Recognitions, which was being printed unedited in paperback editions without his knowledge; freelancing for media companies; teaching; vying for reviews; calls to Western Union ringing on the phone in the next room — “it’s almost always for Western Union whose number is 1 digit off ours;” and constantly strapped for cash — “Will this tight rope walking ever end?”
Was Gaddis continuously working on his novel day and night for 20 years? No. He was sidetracked by freelance writing projects and teaching positions to make ends meet, gigs that seemed to support his writing in paradoxical ways: “My work on [JR] this spring will be sporadically interrupted by a part-time teaching invitation which I had accepted in order to continue work on the book.” And even when he was able to work on the novel fulltime, Gaddis’s daily reports capture the writer’s infinite means of procrastination:
2:11 got notes for present sequence in book beside typewriter
2:13 suddenly realized I had better get cat food before stores closed
Gaddis recorded about 12 hours of these minute-by-minute escapes. He too was suffering from the onslaught of postwar noise, a ceaseless stream of information designed, it seemed, to prevent anyone from working on a long novel that could expose such a system.
The problem, ultimately, was distraction — distraction from the Task — a danger later elucidated by William Kohler, the narrator and monomaniacal digger of the ne plus ultra of long haul mega-novels, The Tunnel, William Gass’s 1995 doorstop that was 30 years in the making. “The secret of life is paying absolute attention to what is going on,” Kohler asserts. “The enemy of life is distraction.” If Gaddis’s novel was conditioned by the blur of postwar meanings, then The Tunnel’s resolve was a revamped Protestant work ethic: persistent and monastic focus meant to mitigate the barrage of cultural noise and offer some sort of coherence in the “day-to-day wake-to-work regimen.”
William Kohler appears diametrically opposite from Gaddis’s romping 11-year-old JR. Kohler is a ruminative midwestern history professor (with Nietzschean indigestion no less) struggling to write the introduction to his academic magnum opus, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany. Holed up in his basement, his wife upstairs, Kohler begins tunneling out behind the furnace and interposes into his masterpiece his staggered attempts at the introduction: “I slide these sheets between the sheets of G&I and wonder when I’ll run out of history to hide in.” Gass, notorious for overwhelming publishers with ideals about formal experimentation, initially wanted The Tunnel to be published unbound. “I knew I would never get my way,” he ultimately admitted. What becomes clear though is that The Tunnel, in its very conception, was a failed loose-leaf attempt, the detritus of a supposedly greater, more focused work.
The conviction of Gass’s tome, however, is that the detritus of life is what ends up becoming central to our understanding and recollection of it. Shards of thought, flashes of memory, fragments of creation — these are the leftovers and miscellanea that amount to a life, just as in Boyhood, except in The Tunnel, these things for William Kohler do not culminate in the Right Life, not the one he imagined for himself.
Whereas Gaddis’s concerns in JR were the technologies of capital and information, Gass’s interest in The Tunnel was historical process, specifically, the inside of history. In an interview with Michael Silverblatt, Gass elaborated the dark interior of objective histories: “The things that get left out of history are the very things that tend to undermine it, among other things, the first thing, is the historian himself, his nature.” Just as JR folded the procedures of capital markets back on themselves, The Tunnel breaks down the crystalline structure of historical process and deconstructs the inside-outside binaries we often use to describe historical formations. Thus Kohler anguishes, “Why must one bring the world into the tunnel, when the tunnel is supposed to be the way out?”
Kohler finds himself depositing the dug-up dirt in empty desk drawers. He becomes surrounded by debris, digging his way out and his way in all at once, collapsing the distinction between escape and extraction. As Gass has explained, “Tunnels are not always escape tunnels or hiding tunnels…you dig for ore, you dig for gold.” Gass’s clarification offers a profound analogue for the author’s process. The work always takes you closer and further away at the same time, in the same stroke. Every sentence, every shovel-full becomes as self-dissociating as it is self-constituting, and by the same turns. Rather than digging out or digging in, you may just be digging for the sake of digging itself. Ahab coined an expression for this: madness maddened. The metaphor of the tunnel seems perfectly prefigured by Kafka’s unfinished short story, “The Burrow,” in which a nameless narrator manically digs a complex network of tunnels and eventually realizes, “[He] and the burrow belong so indissolubly together.” The stakes are clear: the work consumes you.
Recognizing this wager, the sheer exhaustiveness of the Task, Gass once explained that, for him, The Tunnel “functioned as an avoidance book. Its unpleasant presence made [him] write other books in order to avoid writing it.” The scope of large works becomes overwhelming, unmanageable. Subject matter is demanding, then intimidating, and finally unapproachable. But these tomes are also slowed by more mundane matters of process. The ambitious scales are often counterpointed by the almost logistic labor of line-by-line editing, which, of course, is what any author bargains for. “One thing that takes so much time with JR,” Gaddis once explained, “seems to be that since it’s almost all in dialogue I’m constantly listening, write a line and then have to stop and listen.” In the same vein, Gass’s prose in The Tunnel was haunted by an absolute drive toward meter, rhythm, and precision. He admitted, somewhat resigned, “Who has time to wait between two syllables for just a little literary revelation?” But Gass was nostalgic for a prose style written for the ear, and in a 1976 interview with The Paris Review, in the midst of working on The Tunnel, he waxed, “One used to read Henry James aloud. It’s the only way to read him.”
Are these works, then, merely the outsized products of minute compulsions?
One can’t really talk about obsession, the long haul, and moving dirt without mentioning Michael Heizer, a renegade artist who turned his back on the New York City art scene in the 1960’s for the American desert. In 1972, Heizer began his magnum opus of earthworks, “City,” an immense, stadium sized, minimalist land art installation in the middle of Nevada that is still under construction. Heizer pursues the same type of cultural investigation as Gaddis and Gass. “Part of my art,” Heizer explained in an interview with The New York Times Magazine, “is based on an awareness that we live in a nuclear era.” And in the same way that JR charted the rise of American corporate capitalism and The Tunnel observed the entire narrative of the Cold War, the development of Heizer’s bunker-like environment has not only been contemporaneous with, but geographically adjacent to the postwar saga of the National Academy of Science’s struggle to dispose of nuclear waste underneath Yucca Mountain.
As the U.S. Department of Energy attempts to project the radioactive decay of depleted plutonium and uranium in the waste repository, Michael Heizer and his construction crews sculpt, grain by grain, a massive installation intended to last hundreds, if not thousands of years. Heizer challenges the techniques of military and industrial technology by way of a postmodern acropolis designed to endure alongside and even outlast U.S. materiel waste and the facilities it’s housed in. Better yet, Heizer is monitoring the government’s encroachment on “City,” ready, if the Department of Energy proceeds with a nuclear waste rail line within view of his sculpture, to blow his work sky high. In a state that is 83 percent owned by the federal government, a man and his city resist.
“City,” when it is eventually open to the public, will be monumental. Rather than an installation within an environment, “City” will be an environment unto itself, one that raises questions about bleak military structures and vast urban developments in the middle of nowhere.
Heizer’s project carries the same meticulousness of a compulsive prose stylist. “Mike wanted everything within a sixteenth of an inch,” one construction worker commented, “even on a concrete slab that was 78 feet by 240 feet.” The worker couldn’t quite articulate the concept behind “City,” but he was able to appreciate its scope, which might very well be its meaning: “At the beginning I was lost…was this a stadium?…But gradually I got the idea. I can’t say exactly what it means now, but I know it has to do with history and with making something that will last.”
It has to do with history. A sprawling work inevitably encapsulates its own history, the process of its own creation and the cultural narratives that run alongside it. This was Linklater’s prudence with Boyhood, and this is what happened with Gaddis’s JR. The novel contains and performs its own making, just as The Tunnel embodies the arc of its own development and “City” simulates the gradual rise of a desert metropolis. In composing The Tunnel, Gass recognized that, more than anything else, his primary working material was time: “The narrator moves steadily into the past as the novel proceeds, and there is an increasing sensitivity to what he remembers.” Time folds back on itself: “The past becomes more complete, is more real than the present.” What was true for Kohler was true for Gass:
My mother was an alcoholic and my father was crippled by arthritis and his own character. I just fled. It was a cowardly thing to do, but I simply would not have survived…What is perhaps psychologically hopeful is that in The Tunnel I am turning back to inspect directly that situation, and that means I haven’t entirely rejected it.
The long haul offers a regimen that skirts more stagnate, immediate vocabularies, those kneejerk interpretations that would reject or reduce the past. A novel, while remaining an ongoing task, repeatedly returns writers to the material of the past — old pages, old iterations, the rituals of memory — and the text becomes an experiment in deconstructing the linearity of time, in resisting the organizing powers of historical process. Writing sidesteps the obliterating force of the present, the barrage of the Now. The 30-year creation of The Tunnel took to heart a maxim articulated by Kohler near the end of the novel: “Writing is hiding from history.”
This November will mark the 13th annual National Novel Writing Month, an internet movement launched to discipline writers and spur them into production. NaNoWriMo will bring to mind the many great works that were completed in a sprint, such as On the Road, which Kerouac penned in only three weeks, or Fahrenheit 451, which Ray Bradbury drafted in a basement library typing room in just nine days. It could be argued that rather than evading history, these feverish texts confronted it. Bradbury’s blaze may have been prompted by a fear of the midcentury book burnings in Nazi Germany. Or take Faulkner, who, the day after the stock market panic in 1929, pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket and scrawled a title in the right-hand corner — As I Lay Dying. He would complete the manuscript in a mere six weeks during his graveyard shifts at a power plant: “I had invented a table out of a wheelbarrow in the coal bunker, just beyond a wall from where the dynamo ran.”
But Kerouac was accumulating writing on the road for years before stitching together his final manuscript. And Fahrenheit 451 was the culmination of five short stories that Bradbury had been working on for three years. Faulkner’s chronicle of Addie Bundren and her coffin was an extension of Yoknapatawpha County, an apocryphal world Faulkner had shaped previously in Sartoris and The Sound and the Fury. As I Lay Dying was not only a title that Faulkner had tried twice before for earlier works, but the story itself was arguably an outgrowth of an unfinished manuscript, Father Abraham, that Faulkner abandoned in 1927. Fast-forward to 1996, and you’ll see that in his introduction to Infinite Jest, Dave Eggers asserted that Wallace wrote his masterpiece in only three years. Wallace did have an inspired spurt in Boston in the early ’90s, but the truth about Infinite Jest was that DFW had been reworking fragments from way back in 1986.
You see what I’m getting at.
It’s difficult to say where a work of art comes from, to mark precisely when a novel is conceived or to chart the time during which it is made. But juxtaposing works that were supposedly produced in a panic with some of the long haul endeavors exposes the complex circumstances that surround all artistic creations and the ways that process, be it short or long, can be romanticized and mythologized. Artists procrastinate. They also persist. What is certain is that we carry ideas around for longer than we know, and part of the artistic venture is unearthing the source. “It’s almost hard to remember the impulses at the beginning,” DFW admitted. “It’s something you live with for years and years rather than something you just have an idea or a feeling and you just do.” Or as Gass explained of The Tunnel, “To the degree that this is an escape tunnel, you have to hide the entrance. And so the entrance to this book is hidden.” The problem, always, is finding one’s way back out again.
During the difficult stretches, Gaddis may have considered his manuscript the invalid in the next room. But in his correspondence, it is evident that when Gaddis was able to fully engage his writing, he experienced complete affinity with the novel. As the book was finally verging on publication, Gaddis consoled his son Matthew: “I guess the house will gradually drain of strange (I mean unfamiliar not fully looking) faces,” speaking of young JR Vansant and the novel’s cast. After finishing the novel, Gaddis mused, “Maybe I can learn to talk like an intelligent adult again.” Gaddis had not spent the prior 20 years with an old man, nor had he turned into one. He had spent them with an 11-year-old boy, which is precisely why his novel was able to challenge the stultified adult vocabularies about money markets, educational bureaucracies, and publishing monopolies. It is a sentiment captured perfectly in an interview some years later when Gaddis explained that of all his work thus far, he cared most for his novel JR, because he was “awfully fond of the boy himself.”
Does the long haul pay off? Maybe. Probably not. Part of the pursuit is learning to reexamine and shrug off these vocabularies — ideas about investing, spending, and wasting one’s time, figuring out if it’s worth it, measuring output and productivity, taking stock of oneself, reevaluating oneself, earning respect — vocabularies deployed to commodify and valuate our efforts, all in the interest of reducing us to that most basic currency: human capital. Maybe there is no real redemption, but redemption is an old gospel that has been repurposed by slot machines and a culturally constructed nostalgia telling you to Redeem your cash-voucher…Redeem your past. It has to be about something else now.
The operative claim in The Tunnel, which appears early on in the novel, is that, “It is the dream of all men to re-create Time.” That dream, Gass proved, is fulfilled in the exhaustive process of creating a work of art that reformulates and overcomes the technologies of time in modern culture, technologies that would rather have us distracted, defeated, and subject to the slot machine “sleep-to-dream routine” of an over-simulated, over-stimulating network world. It takes figuring out what Time can mean in the first place, before it is dispensed to us, defined for us.
When I write fiction, where am I? More importantly, when am I?
Joshua Cohen, who completed his own mega-novel Witz a few years ago, once explained to me that, “The page has access to all of time.” Gass, it seems, and his ilk — Linklater, Gaddis, Heizer, all of them — discovered for themselves an interstice where every next day they could venture deeper into their own pasts, the underworlds of their own histories. They found that place where time does not flow in one direction, where memories and imaginings fold on to one another, where past, present, and future all become equally accessible.
Illustration: Austen Claire Clements
Having recently regained dry land after four weeks adrift in the first thousand pages of Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s pelagic six-volume My Struggle (only to find myself confronted with a note-strewn desk and two large books bristling with the polychromic sticky tabs it now occurs to me I might have wanted to devise a reasonably consistent system for deploying), I’m troubled by the sense that if there’s ever been a literary project best left to speak for itself, My Struggle might be it. It’s also likely that the many liberties its author takes — with conventional narrative structure, with any readily discernible logic dictating some passages’ tortuous paths of thought, with grammatical norms, and even with the ordinarily sacrosanct writer’s mandate to eschew cliché — have overwhelmed the sector of my brain that transacts in sentences, paragraphs, rhetorical touch, and so forth, to the extent that I’m in for my own considerable struggle here as I try to transform the notes I scribbled down with seeming indiscrimination in several different notebooks, Book 2’s margins, on Post-its and the back of a gas bill that it looks like still needs to be paid into an orderly account of what it’s like to read Knausgaard. Nevertheless, some thoughts:
The first thing I should emphasize is that I found myself consumed by My Struggle, swallowed whole in a way that recalled for me the experience of reading similarly mammoth works like Moby-Dick, JR, Crime and Punishment, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, 2666 — Big Books that temporarily assume an autocrat’s control over their readers’ inner lives. And then since my ostensible focus here is Book Two: A Man in Love, I should also single out for praise this second volume while conceding that it’s in many ways merely an amplification of the first, and that this is both a merit and demerit. Which is to say that if you found yourself unable to put Book One down even during some of its most water-treadingly indulgent-seeming passages of plotless drift precisely because you were compelled by the minutiae of Knausgaard’s “struggle,” then you will find a lot to keep you reading through A Man In Love’s near-600 pages. If, on the other hand, you found the former book frequently irritating, disagreed with its author’s aggressive indifference to poetic niceties; if you considered it an unconscionably navel-gazing sprawl, the dull and the mundane speciously elevated to metaphysical heights the actual text rarely managed to reach…you may not make it through Book Two.
I’m in the former camp: read both books hungrily and find myself already missing Knausgaard just a few days after turning A Man in Love’s last page, searching the Web for inexpensive crash courses in Norwegian, mostly just wishing Volume Three were available in English now. (At roughly five hundred pages per installment, the last four are presumably intruding nightly on heroic translator Don Bartlett’s sleep). Some readers will be put off by the prospect of a prose work of Proustian length written in sentences that lack Proust’s style, elegance, and grace; I, too, had a hard time with some of the silly all-caps interjections (“FUCK, SHIT, FUCK!”) along with the frequent, blithe lapses into rank cliché — “The time was ripe,” “It was now or never,” “She was clearly cut from the same cloth as me,” and so on. The writing is purportedly ungainly in its original Norwegian, too. And yet the coarse phrasing serves Knausgaard’s overarching purpose oddly well. While there’s very little polish at phrase-level, sentences are syntactically complex — circuitous, recursive, serpentine in the way bar-stool disquisitions on points of intense personal interest can be — and if consistently guilty of the serial-comma-splice, then also a reflection of the almost desperate speed with which Knausgaard seems determined to track every insight, notion, thought-line, argument, reflection through the labyrinthine warrens of whatever burrowing creature’s hole it’s drawn him down.
Here he is, for instance, having just returned with his nursery-school-age daughter from a classmate’s birthday party:
I returned the glass to the table and stubbed out my cigarette. There was nothing left of my feelings for those I had just spent several hours with. The whole crowd of them could have burned in hell for all I cared. This was a role in my life. 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. I subordinated myself, almost to the verge of self-effacement; some uncontrollable internal mechanism caused me to put their thoughts and opinions before mine. 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. Between these two perspectives there was no halfway point. There was just the small, self-effacing one and the large, distance-creating one. And in between them was where my daily life lay. Perhaps that was why I had such a hard time living it. Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or that made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change diapers but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts.
What was the problem?
On the other hand, it would be unfair if the ratio of thought to action here left readers with the false impression that this is a 573-page book in which nothing happens. In passages that volley back and forth through time we see young Karl Ove decamp for Stockholm; sever ties with almost all of his old life in Norway, (which program includes leaving his first wife); fall in love again; remarry; fight to sustain (and then, once it’s begun to slip away, recover) the elation of those first few months of courtship as the new couple settles into everyday routine; witness his second wife Linda’s pregnancy and the subsequent birth of their first daughter; give listless interviews and lectures on his books and ambivalence towards literary fame; discourse with friends and enemies on being, art, morality — but the sections I liked best, the ones that make the books worth reading, retreat from these episodes and trek into the underground of consciousness, where Knausgaard’s unchecked and frequently volatile reflections are no longer bound by the normative limits of decent speech and behavior in respectable company.
Some of these sentences and paragraphs are long, but they operate in a way very much unlike those of some other writers one tends to class as either maximalist or longwinded, depending on one’s feelings about length in prose: Thomas Bernhard, David Foster Wallace, or László Krasznahorkai. Bernhard’s read almost like parodies of manic, rabid, raving thought — they are very much internal monologues. And while they are unhinged at times, what seems like madness is really an insane deference to logic: a logic that will pursue the necessary consequences of first premises far beyond the boundaries of bourgeois comfort, into the truth that lies beneath and must be left to lie there unlooked-at if life will be lived, if family, colleagues, social circles are to be engaged — basically, if anything is to be done.
Bernhard, like Beckett, is in this way very funny. His narrators’ better tirades follow their merciless logic to conclusions that are shocking or at least discomfiting not only because we can’t believe somebody’s saying this, but because of the disquieting sense that they might actually be true. Here is a representative passage from Concrete, in the midst of a mostly book-spanning “digression” from the narrator’s stated purpose, which is to write a definitive study of composer Mendelssohn Bartholdy:
My preparations have now been going on for years, for more than a decade, as I have said. Perhaps, it occurs to me, I ought not to have interrupted them by doing other things, perhaps I shouldn’t have begun anything on Schonberg or Reger, or even contemplated the Nietzsche sketch: all these diversions, instead of preparing me for Mendelssohn, simply took me further and further from him. […] All these attempts […] had basically been merely distractions from my main subject; moreover, they had all been failures, a fact which could only weaken my morale. It’s a good thing I destroyed them all […] But I’ve always had a sound instinct about what should be published and what should not, having always believed that publishing is senseless, if not an intellectual crime, or rather a capital offence against the intellect. […] Had I published my essay on Schonberg I shouldn’t dare to be seen in the street any longer; the same would be true if I’d published my work on Nietzsche, although that was not a complete failure. To publish anything is folly and evidence of a certain defect of character. […] And what about my work on Mendelssohn Bartholdy? […] Naturally I intend to publish it, whatever the consequences. For I actually believe that this work will be my most successful, or rather my least unsuccessful. I certainly am thinking of publishing it! But before I can publish it I have to write it, I thought, and at this thought I burst into a fit of laughter, of what I call self-laughter, to which I have become prone over the years through being constantly alone.
The reason Concrete’s narrator can’t begin the monumental work to which he has devoted this phase of his life is that he foresees, correctly, that no matter how far he manages to go it won’t be far enough. Anything he writes will fall short of his vision, and while this insight is common enough to be a cliché, it’s a cliché that the artist who aspires to make art has to disregard if he’s ever to make anything. In other words, the productive artist necessarily suppresses his integrity, proceeds as if it weren’t true that anything he ultimately brings into the world will be, beside its incorporeal Platonic vision, a disappointment. What’s simultaneously terrifying and hilarious in Bernhard is his narrators’ integrity, their refusal to compromise, to deceive themselves or allow themselves to be deceived into acceptance of the subtle deviations from the truth that are what enable us to go about our lives.
Meanwhile, Krasznahorkai’s long sentences read to me much more like speech transcribed: musings, sermons, lectures, disquisitions, diatribes, and, above all, stories. They’re less internal than Bernhard’s; even when tracing a character’s unspoken thoughts they’re more like a figure talking to himself than a lunatic frantically looping along Bernhardian nightmare theme park rides, hurtling towards madness and death. Here, the former composer who has not only retired from creative life but sealed himself off from the depressed Hungarian small town in which The Melancholy of Resistance takes place has had (while hammering nails) a Saul-of-Tarsus-style revelation:
It was indeed a sudden awakening, but, like all such awakenings, not wholly unheralded, for before he set out on his tour he had been aware only of the plainly laughable nature of his efforts, the chief of which was to prevent his left hand being battered to pieces, a piffling task to which he applied the whole might of his considerable intellect [that] […]laughable as it was, […] [intimated that] there was a deeper, more complex issue at stake, the nature of which was to allow him to master the art of banging in nails. He recalled various stages in his frantic efforts and the fact that even then […] he had suspected that any eventual resolution would not be due entirely to taking rational thought in the matter, a suspicion that had in the meantime become a certainty, for […]this apparently insignificant task had been resolved by a […] flexible attitude to permutations, the passage from ‘missing the point’ to ‘hitting the nail on the head’ so to speak, owing nothing, absolutely nothing, to concentrated logic and everything to improvisation […]
He had arrived at the decisive moment of resignation, the happy little glimmer on the head of the nail conjured nothing more or less than a mysterious, unforgettable sensation that had surprised him on his way home, that despite the apparently insufferable condition of the town, he was glad simply to be alive […]
Knausgaard, in contrast with Krasznahorkai and Bernhard, neither transposes creative-impotence-induced nerve-trauma nor conjures weirdly dialectic soliloquies. Instead, the image his prose—and even his subject—frequently calls to this reader’s mind is an author bent over his keypad, typing at very high-gear velocity:
I began to work, sat in my new office on Dalagatan writing every day while Linda was at home with Vanja and came to see me for lunch, often worried about something but also happy, she was closer to the child and what was happening than me, for I was writing what had started out as a long essay [but] slowly but surely was growing into a novel, it soon reached a point where it was everything and writing was all I did, I moved into the office, wrote day and night, sleeping an hour here and there. I was filled with an absolutely fantastic feeling, a kind of light burnt within me, not hot and consuming but cold and clear and shining. At night I took a cup of coffee with me and sat down on the bench outside the hospital to smoke, the streets around me were quiet, and I could hardly sit still, so great was my happiness. Everything was possible. Everything made sense.
Knausgaard’s purpose in My Struggle, explicit in its title, is to simultaneously depict, scrutinize and enact the process of writing the very work that narrates the story of its author writing himself through and ultimately out of his consuming need to write. It’s an impressive trick. If Bernhard’s books are often long uninhibited screeds “about” inhibited artists and writers, then Knausgaard’s first two volumes are “about” a man’s struggle to surmount the mundane impediments to his being present at his desk, feverishly cataloguing and endlessly carping about these same impediments to his being there. The most substantial narrative arc in these two volumes traces the composition of the memoir as it’s being composed — which means, since by default nearly every non-writing activity, obligation, interaction, and relationship constitutes a kind of roadblock in this composition’s path, antagonists abound:
A few weeks after the novel was finished life began as a house husband, and the plan was it would last until next spring while Linda did the last year of her training at the Dramatiska Institutet. The novel writing had taken its toll on our relationship, I slept in the office for six weeks, barely seeing Linda and our five-month-old daughter, and when at last it was over she was relieved and happy, and I owed it to her to be there, not just in the same room, physically, but also with all my attention and participation. I couldn’t do it. For several months I felt a sorrow at not being where I had been, in the cold, clear environment, and my yearning to return was stronger than my pleasure at the life we lived. The fact that the novel was doing well didn’t matter. After every good review I put a cross in the book and waited for the next, after every conversation with the agent at the publisher’s when a foreign company had shown some interest or made an offer, I put a cross in the book and waited for the next, and I wasn’t very interested when it was eventually nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize, for if there was one thing I had learned over the last six months it was that what all writing was about was writing.
It’s true that if this were all Knausgaard had to offer his readers, few would be inclined to indulge him for 3,000 pages (and furthermore provokes contemplation of how, for instance, a 3,000-page counter-memoir composed by Linda about her struggle to put up with her husband’s duty-shirking on the home front during their matrimony’s embryonic phase might read); but intricately textured, almost Altman-like social episodes compel a mesmeric attention that’s at times tough to account for rationally. At birthday parties, literary conferences, a christening, a funeral, in bookstores, flats, supermarkets, bars, a restless Knausgaard interacts with the whole rolling cast of people intimately or peripherally involved in his professional and private life. Much of the readerly fun to be found in these transcriptions of the interpersonal mundane inheres in the persistent dissonance between Knausgaard’s mild outward manner and the frank, often punishing perlustrations to which he subsequently subjects both his interlocutors and himself. An interview that on the surface seems to come off fairly well gets angrily dismissed as ersatz-High Culture fluff — vapid onanism Knausgaard validates by placidly agreeing to take part:
The problem is what surrounds all these authorships, the flattery that mediocre writers thrive on and, as a consequence of their false self-image, everything they are emboldened to say to the press and TV.
I know what I’m talking about. I’m one of them myself.
Oh, I could cut off my head with the bitterness and shame that I have allowed myself to be lured, not just once but time after time. If I have learned one thing over these years, which seems to me immensely important, particularly in an era such as ours, overflowing with such mediocrity, it is the following:
Don’t believe you are anybody.
Do not fucking believe you are somebody.
Because you are not. You’re just a smug, mediocre little shit.
Do not believe that you’re anything special. Do not believe that you’re worth anything, because you aren’t. You’re just a little shit.
So keep your head down and work, you little shit. Then at least, you’ll get something out of it. Shut your mouth, keep your head down, work and know that you’re not worth a shit.
I also found it difficult to part ways with many characters. Knausgaard’s daughters, in particular, benefit from the filterless, unembellished presentation, probably because small children tend to do amusing, irritating, infuriating, and endearing things. Meanwhile, his friend and confidante, Geir, an academic equipped with copious wit and opinion, gets many of the book’s most entertaining lines, but also often makes both Knausgaard and the reader pause to think. Here he is with Karl Ove, Geir first:
“I think it’s Sigurd Slembe. The time to act. To act or not to act. It’s classic Hamlet. To be an actor in your own life or a spectator.”
“And you are?”
A silence arose. Then he said:
“I’m probably a spectator, with elements of choreographed action. But I don’t really know. I think there’s a lot inside me that I can’t see. And so it doesn’t exist. And you?”
“But you’re here. And yesterday you were in Bergen.”
“Yes. But this is not the result of any decision. It was forced.”
“That’s perhaps another way of making a decision, hm? Letting whatever happens do it for you?”
“That’s strange,” he said. “The more unreflective you are, the more active you are. You know, the boxers I wrote about had an incredible presence. But that meant they weren’t spectators of themselves, so they didn’t remember anything. Not a thing! Share the moment with me here and now. That was their offer. And of course that works for them, they always have to enter the ring again, and if you’ve been given a pounding in the previous fight it’s best if you don’t remember it too well, otherwise you’ve had it. But their presence was absolutely amazing. It filled everything. Vita contemplativa or vita activa, I supposed they’re the two forms, aren’t they? It’s an old problem, of course. Besets all spectators. But not actors. It’s a typical spectator problem . . .”
Behind us, Christina stuck her head through the door.
“Would you two like some coffee?”
“Please,” I said.
Book One’s critical event — the death of Knausgaard’s father — serves as a backdrop for the real story: Knausgaard’s breakthrough decision to build the first volume of his memoir around it; similarly, the less harrowing but no less felt drama of his grudging entrée into love and domestic life anchors A Man in Love’s story of a man fighting to reconcile that love with his almost inhuman artistic designs.
No surprise that not all of the individuals who came across versions of themselves in these pages were pleased with their portrayals. (The threat of legal action on the part of certain relatives resulted in Knausgaard and his Norwegian publisher agreeing to change a few names.) But in light of Knausgaard’s overall intent, they’re probably depicted accurately — not as a Dickensian cast of characters acting out one grandly shared humanist drama but rather as figures who on occasion drop by to complicate Knausgaard’s ongoing struggle to write something great. These aren’t quite people in the ordinary sense but a near-endless series of person-shaped impressions — shadows flitting across the beam of the author’s incandescently projected vision. If anyone is conscious of just how cold this frequently can make him seem, it’s certainly Knausgaard himself, who throughout both volumes lapses into long handwringing fits of self-loathing and -condemnation, agonized by his sense that he’s letting down everyone he ought to love.
I call this sometimes-sociopathic-seeming tendency to reduce in their representation real people to sources of personal annoyance “accurate” because, with astounding single-mindedness (or monomania, if you prefer), Knausgaard conceives of and then executes the writing project that both consumes him and sequesters him from life. He’s Ahab, only with the final volume’s publication — which reportedly concludes with whatever the Norwegian is for “I am no longer an author” — he’s gone and caught the whale.
One interpretation of a literary quest to kill its own author might be that it’s perverse: in seeking to extinguish the artistic impulse, the author aims to annihilate not only the ambition that has driven him throughout his adult life, but an identity built up and burnished over decades. If Knausgaard is no longer an author, what is he? What will he be?
And then, from a career-lensed perspective, killing the whale is suicide. I’ve often wondered whether Wallace unintentionally terminated the novelist in himself with Infinite Jest; certainly the title of his final short-fiction collection, as well as that volume’s persistently bleak takes on the value of an individual’s drive to achieve anything, suggests a despair of ever returning from the wasteland that a book of near precedent-less critical approbation can exile its author to: after you’ve done it, what are you supposed to do? Just as Joyce could not in the ‘30s send Bloom off on another Dublin tour, so Wallace’s next novel couldn’t be I.J. Redux.
On the other hand, few, if any, authors aspiring to compose literary art that I know of start out with the intent to make anything less than what they privately conceive of as an as-yet-unshaped, but inchoate and most importantly possible Perfect Book. This is the reason they decide to write. Reality — in the form of family life, financial circumstance, the tundra of the market, self-assurance eroded by critique or, probably worse, indifference, failure, doubt, exhaustion, time — eventually intervenes. Very few people, whether they would admit as much or not, particularly in the first inferno of ambitious burn, are willing to go down with the whale. Poverty, obscurity, irrelevance, low social standing, and so forth all seem more romantic, less intolerable, more like the plot of some young person’s adventure tale, less like the despondence-inducing signatures of failure and a wasted life at eighteen than they do when you find yourself approaching middle age.
In William Gaddis’s JR, another massive meditation on ambition, art, and time, an aging, alcoholic, seemingly doomed writer is perpetually haunted by visions of windows closing, chances slipping away or already long lost to time. Since finishing my own first book, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to chart a course forward, or at least get started on some sort of new project, but have been mostly stymied by a sense that I’m just not sure what I really want to do next. I’m so much more alert to the discouraging reality that no matter what I wind up doing, committing to that work will entail an implicit decision not to try my hand at any number of other things. Granting that this might not strike your average global citizen as an existential concern on the order of the triumph of Capital, rising sea, and inequality levels, to say nothing of the looming rise of the machines, it matters to me — because I only get the handful of decades I’ve already blown through a few of, and the passage of time doesn’t seem to be bringing with it a corresponding surge in my vitality, so that the issue isn’t only that I can’t decide what kind of book I’d like to write, don’t even know how I’d like to write, I’m sick of my own sentences these days, and then I don’t know whether I should focus mainly on telling a story of sorts, and if so do I have any stories worth telling, and in this era of scattered insular intellectual and aesthetic camps, what kind of reader do I want to engage, and most of all what kind of work can I see myself committing to for the however many years it will take to complete — I can’t imagine even starting something new unless the need to carry it home takes hold of me with such force that I can’t not be working on it….
And the maybe-obvious Knausgaard link here is with the man’s sheer desperation — a desperation to emerge from all of this: the torpor, muddled thinking, indecision, and self-loathing; terror of more windows closing, fear of failure, envy, ambition so smothering it chokes off all but the most frantic exertions of will to open up the word-processing program and for Christ’s sakes just begin, the solipsism I recognized too well and have only really ever slipped free from, somewhat paradoxically, when hard at work, when the gaze is abruptly turned outward, and I’m able to see people again, see with them — perceive, if only fleetingly, that each has her own struggle, just as I do mine…in other words break out of the self’s airless solitary confinement: creative immersion as a kind of efflorescent opening out to the world at large.
My Struggle provides the reader with a portrait of an artist whose sometimes-quixotic-seeming-endeavor to narrate his struggles with life and art in their entirety consumes, possesses, captivates him, in that last verb’s literal sense, and thereby sets him free. When Knausgaard tells his wife he must leave her at home to care for their recently born daughter, must write; when he won’t compromise even after she threatens to leave him, take the kid with her, then does; and when he furthermore dispenses with every last aesthetic consideration aside from this scribomaniacal need to write, he is both chronicling and dramatizing his own refusal to abandon the pursuit…and it’s this monstrously intact integrity with which he undertakes and then completes his masterwork that answers any question about the madness of a project that, like a rocket fired straight up into the sky, takes aim at its creator and terminates in the obliteration of his authorship, his hunger to create. It’s Knausgaard’s consummation, a triumph that emancipates the husband, father, son, and friend: the author is dead, leaving what’s left of the man free to walk away from his leviathan — preserved forever now in art’s time-cheating formaldehyde — freed from the echo chamber of thwarted intent, in order to emerge, maybe for the first time, into life.
— Yes well there was just one more thing here I, that I think you might…
— That? My God, haven’t seen one in years.
— No this isn’t what I…what is it.
— Russian Imperial Bond.
— You mean it isn’t worth any, worth very…
— Mister Bast, anything is worth whatever some damn fool will pay for it, only reason somebody can make a market in Russian Imperials is because some damn, somebody like your associate will buy them.
This is the hapless Edward Bast, early in William Gaddis’s J R, trying to interest a stockbroker in the eponymous JR Vansant’s penny-stock portfolio. These Russian imperial bonds, issued in 1916 and repudiated by the Bolsheviks the following year, were real. There was a real market for them, even if it consisted of “damn fools.” I should know; I was the law clerk who drafted the 1987 opinion that extinguished all claims on them. And that is why The Letters of William Gaddis contains five letters addressed to me.
It’s a pity that Mr. Gaddis never met Charles L. Brieant, Chief Judge of the District Court for the Southern District of New York — a large, rotund man with a fluffy walrus mustache and a bow tie, who never dropped character and who loved nothing better than to be compared to Theodore Roosevelt.
It’s a pity, too, that Bast never visited Carl Marks & Co. This brokerage had cornered the market on Russian Imperials and had sued the Soviet Union to collect. Judge Brieant, who had the case, was vexed; a Son of the American Revolution with the paperweight to prove it, he would gladly have written against the USSR at length but had been warned by the State Department that this would cause an international incident. He was inclined to issue a simple opinion flatly denying Carl Marks’s claims.
But I had already decided that a case called Carl Marks v. USSR was too good to pass up. The clincher was my coming across the Russian Imperial Bonds passage in J R, which I was reading on my commute to the Judge’s White Plains courthouse. I worked surreptitiously, finally presenting the Judge with a 68-page fait accompli that used the Bast quote as a headnote. After he signed off on the opinion, I sent it to Mr. Gaddis. Why go to all that effort and not tell him? I never expected his response: the first letter reproduced in the book (January 10, 1988), inviting me to lunch and telling me of his “novel in the form of a network of lawsuits of every variety” — the book that would become A Frolic of His Own.
I don’t remember much from that visit, apart from Mr. Gaddis’s graciousness and his indignation at what he considered the vulgar display of a Francis Bacon triptych by “the evil Saul Steinberg” (the corporate raider, not Mr. Gaddis’s friend the cartoonist). But he had a request for me. Would I be so kind as to review a mock judicial opinion meant to form part of that “network of lawsuits”? You bet I would!
I took home a draft of the opinion that appears in A Frolic of His Own, pages 399-416. The draft made essential use of an opinion entitled Murray v. National Broadcasting Corporation, in which the plaintiff claimed that NBC had plagiarized his idea when it created The Bill Cosby Show. I found that Mr. Gaddis had misunderstood the case and that this vitiated the whole fictional opinion, literary tour de force though it otherwise was.
I pointed this out, among other things, as tactfully as I could. Mr. Gaddis’s January 5, 1990 reply, beginning “Dear Jim: Do not panic!” accompanied an outline of the maze of lawsuits as revised in response to my letter. After reading my “meticulous informed & delightful dissection,” he wrote, “I went into a blue funk, from which my struggles to emerge have now got me as far as the brown study down the hall.” I don’t have any record of a written reply to the four-and-a-half-page outline, so we may have discussed it in person as he suggests in the letter — mortified as I was by the thought that I might have had something to do with making the writing even more difficult.
Other letters in the collection confirm that Mr. Gaddis was having serious problems with the book and his life, but the one he wrote me on September 22, 1990 remains almost unbearably moving: “Unproductive months, a bleak and grey winter spent out here [in Wainscott, Long Island] alone largely, each day starting Now I shall get to it, ending Perhaps tomorrow, then.” Mr. Gaddis always professed not to appreciate or even understand Beckett, but this little passage sounds Beckett’s register.
In November, Mr. Gaddis was back at work, sending me the opinion that appeared in A Frolic, pages 285-293. There was then a long gap in our correspondence. The loss of my Wall Street law firm job and attendant personal disasters plunged me into depression; as other letters reveal, Mr. Gaddis also had to struggle with wrenching emotional issues while he continued to work on the book. It’s a relief to turn to his last letter to me, from May 21, 1993, announcing that A Frolic of His Own was finished. (He got me the set of galleys he promised, though it is the hardcover, inscribed “you will recognize your own contributions for which I am eternally grateful,” that I treasure).
“What is it they want from a man that they didn’t get from his work?” Mr. Gaddis would ask, quoting his character Wyatt Gwyon from The Recognitions. I wanted Mr. Gaddis to know how grateful I was for the work. Thanks to him, I have a (very) small place in legal and literary history. Only later did I fully understand what an extraordinary privilege he had offered me. I can but hope that I proved worthy of it in his eyes.