Proxies: Essays Near Knowing

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A Year in Reading: Carmen Maria Machado


I’ve read some stunning short story collections in 2017: Bennett Sims’s cerebral, unsettling White Dialogues; Jenny Zhang’s lush and visceral Sour Heart; Lesley Nneka Arimah’s liminal, searing What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky; and Amy Parker’s beautiful and devastating Beasts and Children. The novels that took off the top of my head were Andrea Lawlor’s sexy, picaresque Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl: Alissa Nutting’s hilarious Made for Love; Kathryn Davis’s uncategorizable Duplex; and Jeff VanderMeer’s inventive, disconcerting Borne. I didn’t have a lot of bandwidth for nonfiction, but when I did, I was unmade by Roxane Gay’s heartbreaking memoir Hunger; Samantha Irby’s tremendously funny essay collection We Are Never Meeting in Real Life; and Brian Blanchfield’s brilliant, singular Proxies.

I’ve also gotten a sneak peek at a couple of unreleased books I can’t wait for: Rebekah Frumkin’s The Comedown, Mark Mayer’s Aerialists, and Mallory Ortberg’s The Merry Spinster. 2018 can’t come soon enough.

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Karl Ove Knausgaard Shows You What Makes Life Worth Living

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“I have tried and I have capitulated. My capitulation is the books I have published,” writes Karl Ove Knausgaard, who has 3,600 pages of capitulation behind him in the My Struggle series alone. That capitulation, he writes in his new work, Autumn, was to his inability to describe in satisfying terms the “pull” that the colors red and green exert upon him. We move past this odd admission.

Red and green reappear throughout Autumn, as does the season itself, but the point of this spare collection of essays addressed to his unborn daughter is not to finally be able to talk about color, exactly. What is most interesting to this reader about Autumn, and possibly most interesting to Knausgaard himself, is how the acts of seeing and distilling might work together. Here, the writer is considering the sights and objects that staff his current life, not his past. Here, no 40-page reminiscences of the time young Karl Ove almost had a worthwhile New Year’s Eve. No endless narrative rivers swelling with ache and boredom. Instead, Knausgaard attempts a feat of concision with Autumn—the first of a “seasonal” series—by corralling those things that he wants to precisely regard, and that he wants his daughter to one day regard for herself. Three letters directly addressed to his child tether the true substance of the work—60 meditations on topics such as beekeeping, petrol, war, vomit, Vincent van Gogh, chewing gum, and, of course, eyes, an ongoing topic of interest for this author since the first book of My Struggle. Autumn feels like a gift in the hand.

An early essay titled “Frames” contains a key to understanding this latest endeavor. As most of the essays in the collection do, “Frames” starts with a simple description of the title subject—so simple, in fact, that it can infuriate as easily as it can endear (during a spat [about Knausgaard?], someone once cruelly parroted Knausgaard, knowing it would enrage me: “I felt the snow. The snow was cold.”):
Frames form the edges of a picture and mark the boundary between what is in the picture and what is not.
In the My Struggle series, we encountered this type of plain, expository language all the time. It worked to string moments of sorrow, hubris, and mundanity together. It worked to collapse distance, to give these moments the same weight they might have in their actual occurrence. And it wasn’t the only type of language; Knausgaard also went on beautiful, lyrical flights—he had the space. But here, in Autumn, the writer is not working to churn out 20 pages a day, but rather, two or three.

One ostensible reason for the overt simplicity of language in Autumn is the book’s own framing device, the way it repeatedly addresses the writer’s unborn daughter as it introduces the material stuff of Knausgaard’s existence. Indeed, several of these essays read in their first few lines like entries in a kind of “A Is for Apple” book. (On apples, in fact the first entry in Autumn, Knausgaard writes that he enjoys them for the lack of work, the lack of secret that they hold, unlike oranges, which you have to peel. There was an unforgettable scene in My Struggle when Karl Ove’s father forced him to consume apples until he vomited. That goes untouched here.) But often, and thankfully, Knausgaard moves from identifying things and toward what is “beyond the picture.” From “Frames:”
For to be human is to categorize, subdivide, identify and define, to limit and to frame…It is true of our reality, what we call the world, which we subdivide into objects, groups of objects, phenomena and groups of phenomena, which we conceive of in how they differ from other objects and phenomena.
Urges to break free from the frame, writes Knausgaard, are just a “longing for authenticity, for the real…or in other words, a life, an existence, a world unframed.” An essay on badgers doesn’t really go anywhere new (“What is the badger really like?”). But there are essays whose edges blur, whose final images Knausgaard allows to glow. There are essays where he scratches lightly at the past as his mind moves over it, rather than worrying at it endlessly; he is not asking us to “live his life with him,” as Zadie Smith characterized the My Struggle project, but rather to enjoy the endlessness of the everyday, the associations, past or present, that the visual can provoke. An essay on beekeeping shimmers in its last words, for beekeeping, writes Knausgaard, involves a “slow, peculiar dance which shows human beings at their most subservient and perhaps also at their most beautiful.”

Throughout Autumn, Knausgaard returns to the idea of the frame and these whittled meditations on gum, on adders, on twilight begin to accrete and, surprisingly, to feel rather urgent. His daughter gestates. Knausgaard writes an essay most days. A fever allows “horizontal liasons with the objects surrounding it” and also a “vertical axis, cutting down into the past.” A car allows a space in which, as landscape hurtles by, Knausgaard’s children can say anything to him. The fixation on boundaries swells. He wonders as always how he might transmit a totality of experience to a reader. How he might transmit his own answer to “what makes life worth living” to his daughter.

These are old questions. Similar ones frustrated the writer James Agee, who built a monster of an answer with Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, cataloguing the belongings of Alabama sharecroppers in an attempt at totality, at erasing the frame for richer readers. Leslie Jamison has beautifully categorized that book as an act of empathy. With Autumn, Knausgaard might have contemporaries in Brian Blanchfield (Proxies) and Mary Ruefle (My Private Property), who both straddle poetry and essay and who both favor brief mental excursions from the tangible to the less-so, often trekking into emotionally unexpected territory. The title essay of Ruefle’s collection succeeds in no small part because of the visible research and erudition, but also because of the deftness of her associations, the rapidity with which she is “transcribing the book of my head as I write.” She assumes control of her observations, moving from shrunken head to head-as-book to Belgian colonialism to mother to youth and afterlife, with many things in between.

Ruefle’s associative leaps are wider than Knausgaard’s, and weirder, too. They are transfixing. But Knausgaard, meanwhile, is transfixed. In Autumn, he reminds me most of Michel de Montaigne, endlessly cited as the father of the essai, the attempt (a word that makes room for probable failure). For Montaigne, too, holing up in his ancestral estate, regarded the everyday in quick but well-considered meditations like “On Thumbs,” “On Liars,” and “On Drunkenness,” although he expounded, too, on less immediate subjects, which often made for better titles: “Our Feelings Reach Out Beyond Us,” “We Taste Nothing Pure.” He let his mind roam through pastures, up against fences, through the barbed wire. He regarded himself.

The best essays in Autumn move towards ideas beyond the frame of the observed quotidian. In “Loneliness,” Knausgaard considers his father, whose rage and alcoholism often gave My Struggle a nearly unbearable emotional weight. He moves in the space of a few sentences from his father’s diary to a shattering rumination:
If everything that stirs between people made a sound, it would be like a chorus, a great murmur of voices would rise from even the faintest glimmer in the eyes. Surely he too must have felt this? Perhaps more powerfully than I do? For he started drinking, and drinking muffles this chorus and makes it possible to be with other people without hearing it. For the sentence he ended that diary with, I never could have written. He wrote, ‘In brief, what I have just now so clumsily tried to express is that I have always been a lonely man.’ Or, the thought strikes me now with horror, maybe it was the other way round? Maybe he simply didn’t hear this chorus, didn’t know it existed and therefore didn’t become bound by it, but remained forever standing on the outside, observing how all the others were bound by something he didn’t understand?
Later, Knausgaard will write on faces that “whatever is human is changeable, is mobile, is unfathomable.” He doesn’t write here to understand, but to associate—to get close to truths larger than himself. Paradoxically, Knausgaard regards his own face, he realizes he looks “almost exactly” like his father.

All of this said, to me, after a few dips in and out of Autumn—and dipping is what you are likely to do with this book, for the short essays can start to feel cast from a single mold of definition, then rumination, then final poetic image—I wondered about the younger version of myself that loved My Struggle, that lived by and with My Struggle, toting it through public places, Karl Ove’s wild eyes burning from the cover and frightening strangers who glanced. It seemed to me at the time that the series slowed people down, reminded us through the force of memory dredged and resurrected and set in real time that what composed reality were the small items. Autumn seems to try to enforce the point that Knausgaard’s previous “capitulation” worked so hard, and so engrossingly, to prove. Is Autumn necessary? Not really. Is it new? Not entirely. But, capitulation or not, it glows.

A Year in Reading: Chloe Caldwell

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If you liked Valencia by Michelle Tea, you’ll love Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover by Mila Jaroniec.

If you liked The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, you’ll love Abandon Me by Melissa Febos.

If you liked Nevada by Imogen Binnie, you’ll love Zipper Mouth by Laurie Weeks.

If you liked Eight by Amy Fusselman, you’ll love Mickey by Chelsea Martin.

If you liked Summer Sisters by Judy Blume, you’ll love Marlena by Julie Buntin.

If you liked Proxies by Brian Blanchfield, you’ll love When the Sick Rule the World by Dodie Bellamy.

If you liked Bukowski in a Sundress by Kim Addonizio, you’ll love Violation by Sallie Tisdale.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

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.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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