Mark Athitakis Newsletter #2

Knausgaard, Kingsolver, the "intellectual dark web," and more

Front Matter

Did you hear that Karl Ove Knausgaard hates dogs? Or thinks that writers shouldn't have dogs? Or that dogs turn good writers into bad writers? Something mean about dogs, anyway. 

A few weeks back the New Yorker published an excerpt from Knausgaard's book Summer, in which he asked, "Has a single good author ever owned a dog?" His tongue seemed to be pretty clearly in cheek: He conceded that Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner owned dogs (even jokingly asking if Faulkner should be booted by the canon for that misstep), and acknowledged that he himself felt a kinship to dogs. Yes, a dog he adopted cut into his productivity, but his writing suffered as much from the demands of a growing family as anything else. Dogs can be a problem, but they’re not the problem. Any author who's dedicated 400 pages of a 3,500-plus page autobiographical novel to explore the othering that fueled the Third Reich probably has a decent grasp of scapegoating.


My dog, Murphy, destroyer of worlds


No matter: Asking "has a single good author ever owned a dog?" on the internet is to flash a Bat Signal to the hot-take army, who rushed to soberly consider a question nobody was seriously asking. But I don't think the internet's enthusiasm to seize on the essay was about dogs and writers per se. I'm chalking at least some of the overreaction to a phenomenon I've seen elsewhere (*cough* Franzen *cough*), to the point of becoming axiomatic: As the ambition of a much-talked-about book expands, the excuses we find not to read it become increasingly petty.

The final volume of My Struggle comes out later this month, and it's enormous: more than 1,100 pages. And that's just the sixth one! There are five more! If you haven't read the previous five, people (like me) who'll tell you it's worth your time may only encourage you to speedily find reasons to dismiss it. Oh, it's a middle-aged white guy talking about himself for a zillion pages? <eyeroll emoji> Didn't he say writers couldn't have dogs? Fuck his struggle.

I am not immune to this phenomenon. I have not read Robert Musil's three-volume novel, The Man Without Qualities. This isn't a case of regretful, "I just haven't gotten around to it" neglect. This is a deeply deliberate and yet deeply stupid form of neglect. The reason I haven't read The Man Without Qualities---the only reason---is because I read an article many years ago in which a critic said he never got to it because, hey, why would you read a long book about a man who didn't have any qualities? Good point! I told myself. My apartment was suddenly suffused with the light, sweet air of absolution. 

So, not only have I not read The Man Without Qualities, I have studiously avoided looking into the legitimacy of this without-qualities matter (asserted, I must stress, by somebody who hadn’t read the book). Essays about Musil have been resolutely skipped. Copies I've spotted on shelves have gone unexplored---indeed, untouched. It's a dumb-ass spell, but one I've resolutely refused to break.

There is too much to read and we will not get to all of it before we die. This is why critics exist, and it's why hatchet jobs have more power than raves. We want to be free to spend time with the books that will serve us best, and freed from those that will feel burdensome. And nothing feels more burdensome in fall's big-book season than a big book. We'll tell ourselves all manner of things to escape that feeling.

Concierge Desk

However! If you do want to give Knausgaard a try, a few tips.

1. Give My Struggle a hundred pages. Every book teaches you how to read it, and each author works at a different pace to establish style, theme, and so on. You can grok what James Patterson is up to within five pages, Henry James in 25, Toni Morrison in 50. I suggest giving My Struggle 100 pages not because he's more complicated than James or Morrison but because his goal is to stretch out experience, to better evoke the feeling of living in it. That means it can take a while for him to flesh out a scene, and that's the ding on him---his language is unlovely, quotidian, etc. If you love carefully crafted, gemlike sentences, he’s not your guy. He’s sawing planks, not hand-crafting armoires. But I’ve rarely found My Struggle slow or wasteful; give him the space to work and he can be one of the more powerfully immersive writers you read.

2. Those 100 pages shouldn't be the first 100 pages of Book One. The defining element of My Struggle is its avoidance of prettified, figurative language, but the series opens with Knausgaard trying to figure out how to get into his narrative, which means he leans on those old familiars, making the opening pages feel labored. Luckily, you can start pretty much anywhere with Knausgaard, because the plot is effectively the same in each book---man lives in constant fear of becoming his father. I started with Book Three, a magnificent portrait of the tweenage boydom. (Book Six might be less seductive, being in large part a kind of metacommentary on the previous five, but what might generally be called "the Hitler stuff" is worthwhile, so you do you.)

3. Try Spring instead. Knausgaard's "four seasons" books are generally easygoing observational essay collections on everything from plants to household gadgets to, yes, dogs. Spring is something of an outlier, billed as fiction and with the same kind of characterizations and style of My Struggle, addressing his concerns about being a husband and father at a smaller scale. If "My Struggle" feels like a double black diamond run, Spring is a bunny slope, but it's no less emotionally potent.

The Concierge Desk takes requests. Drop me a line with a few words about the kind of book you’re looking for at mathitak@gmail.com. Please let me know if you’d like your name used or not.

What I’m Writing

I reviewed Gary Shteyngart’s new novel, Lake Success, for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. RIYL: Satirizing the rich, hate-relitigating the 2016 presidential election.

What I'm Reading, Essay Dept.

Jessica Hopper caught up with the women who worked at Rolling Stone magazine in the 70s for a smart, revealing oral history in Vanity Fair. Heather Lanier's "In Praise of Darkness" in the latest Poets & Writers [not online] is a lovely tribute to the necessity of fumbling about to identify what it is you’re trying to say; I like her pitch-black-museum-installation metaphor better than E.L. Doctorow’s famous line about driving in a fog. And Meghan Daum's "Nuance: A Love Story" is captivating reading about how we read, what inputs we let in, and the feeling that arrives when the tribe of writers and thinkers you enjoy make the big time and get dismissed as crackpots. (See also Isaac Chotiner's Q&A with Daum on the article; Chotiner has an admirable knack for politely but stubbornly working away at the weakest parts of somebody’s argument, as a way of clarifying how deep his subject’s commitment to it runs. Not very deep in this case, which suggests a blurry line between “nuance” and “ambivalence.”)

What I'm Reading, Book Dept.

For a review, I'm catching up with Barbara Kingsolver books that I haven't gotten to yet. High Tide in Tucson, her 1995 essay collection, is a reminder that the rhetorical battles we're fighting over war, climate change, border policy, literature, and more have been fought to a draw two decades ago. Book tours were more common, though. And I'm enchanted by her 1988 debut, The Bean Trees, whose Huck-ish narrator, a young woman from Kentucky transplanted to Arizona, has a bottomless repository of folksy-but-not-hokey observations. Among my favorites: "Lou Ann's life was ruled by the fear of salmonella, to the extent that she claimed the only safe way to eat potato salad was to stick your head in the refrigerator and eat it in there."

End Notes

A few weeks back I caught Mavis Staples in concert, so I've been going through her back catalog. This, the lead track from her 2007 album, We'll Never Turn Back, has stuck with me.

Thanks for reading. Send correspondence to mathitak@gmail.com. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.