Midway through Boyhood–book three of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle–a young Karl Ove earns himself a dose of comeuppance after emphatically pointing out that a classmate cannot read. “But it’s true,” he retorts, not understanding why voicing something that everyone is already aware of could be the source of conflict. In the end, it’s Karl Ove who’s in tears, trying to understand why it is that some truths are stones better left unturned. This episode is an interesting choice for inclusion on the part of Knausgaard because, in many ways, it seems that he never learned his lesson (or, perhaps, he has simply chosen to disregard adhering to this particular nicety). After all, 1000+ pages into this epic, it’s quite clear that a key method is to attempt to write about everything, including the messes and traumas that we’ve been told should stay packed away in the closet.
I’m now at the midpoint of the six-part series, and I still find it hard to articulate why I find Knausgaard’s work so riveting. And I’m not the only one. With each appearance of a new installment in english, another bevy of critics scramble to spell out exactly why these are “good” books (or, at least, why we keep reading them so intently). But I’m starting to think that the passage above may hold some semblance of an answer. With snark and sarcasm at the core of so much of contemporary discourse, operating in the realms of unbridled expression–be it in the form of passion or honesty or hatred–without at least an equal dose of qualification and skepticism is risking being labeled an unmannered rube. In this regard, Knausgaard is quite the outlier. He doesn’t avoid cliche, he doesn’t veil his opinions (however uncouth), he doesn’t let doubt cripple his motivation, and he (seemingly) doesn’t edit, but, instead, unapologetically gushes out these big, sloppy books. Such an effort is a breath of fresh air, frankly, if for no other reason that it provides a striking alternative to our current social dialogue.
Of course, whether it’s “great” writing or not is another topic (one that I see being debated ad nauseum–“He’s Proust for Gen-X!”). I’ll leave that debate for others. Issues of craft aside, his approach is not without other consequences, too–as Knausgaard has admitted, “I feel guilt for almost everything around this book…I was saying, ‘My book is more important than your life.’” This is very valid concern and one with complex ramifications, as it’s not exclusively his life that’s being shared with the world. I’m not exactly sure where I fall on this issue, but I do think that there is something deeply moving and human in such a bold approach, and, thus, I ultimately applaud Knausgaard for his willingness to take such a risk.
Isn’t art simply mediation? A negotiation between artist, medium, and subject, often the goal is to shrink the distance between representation and represented. But can this gap ever be fully brought to a close? César Aira seems to think not, referring to this inherent and inevitable disconnect as an abyss.
If abyss sounds daunting, it is, though Aira insists that this is no cause for worry. In fact, it’s these very chasms that art is charged with bridging. When successful, divisions become blurred to such a degree that it becomes unclear–and, frankly, unimportant–which is art and which is life. As Aira eventually declares: “What the world was saying was the world.” (pp. 78)
But traversing these kinds of landscapes–in the spirit of discovery and transcendence–requires compensation on the part of the artist, often an unequal transaction in which a tremendous toll is exacted. In the case of Aira’s painter, it’s something that marks him forever–physically, emotionally, psychologically, and artistically–but it’s also what allows him to move wholly into terra incognita (both in life and in art).
So, is it worth it? That’s what Aira is asking us.
There were moments, mid-text, that I nearly forgot that this is an unfinished work. After all, Woes of the True Policeman isn’t the first of Bolaño’s works to experiment with fragmentation (in both phrase and plot), and there are also some stunningly beautiful passages. The five-page, single sentence barrage that glosses Amalfitano’s life is powerful–enough so that I got to wondering why it didn’t make the 2666 cut. But this early passage proved to be an exception. As other reviewers have noted, Woes of the True Policeman reads, by-and-large, like the literary equivalent to an outtakes album, and any close examination exposes prose that’s a bit too rough around the edges to be considered top shelf Bolaño. (To be clear, this is in no way a dig at Natasha Wimmer’s translation, which is potent and vibrant, as I’ve come to expect.)
As one who’s partaken in and enjoyed a fair bit of Bolaño’s oeuvre–and whose favorite chapter in 2666 is quite possibly “The Part About Amalfitano”–I’m appreciative of the opportunity to follow the evolution of both characters and ideas that go on to play key roles in Bolaño’s most ambitious text. But that’s about all that Woes of the True Policeman offers, and, while likely meaningful to Bolaño enthusiasts, I must ask: is this alone enough to justify publication? If, as the afterward claims, Bolaño worked on this text for upwards of thirty years but left it unpublished, and seeing as much of the text was adapted to fit into other works, I can’t help but wonder how Bolaño would feel seeing this “novel” on the shelves. I generally try to avoid spending too much time and analysis on extra-textual musings, but I can’t shake it in this case. Regardless, Woes of the True Policeman is out in the world, so you might as well dig in.
Situating Buddhism in the contemporary West is often most successful when one details their personal journey and/or de-emphasizes any esoteric rituals and traditions in favor of focusing exclusively on practicality. By dislocating Buddhism from its roots, it can be approached simply as kind of mental technology–a set of tools and techniques for guiding one’s mind and energy toward functional insight.
But what about societies that have a long history with Buddhism? India, in this case, is quite peculiar, as it’s the birthplace of Buddhism, and, yet, it’s been lacking a substantial Buddhist presence for over a millennium. What can Buddhism offer to contemporary India? It’s this question that Pankaj Mishra strives to answer in An End to Suffering, and it turns out that, while disassociation from history and tradition is impossible in a place like India, approaching Buddhism, and the life and legacy of the Buddha specifically, is perhaps best achieved by turning inward.
Part history, part cultural study, part biography, part memoir, An End to Suffering is deeply personal and, at times, quite digressive, ranging from subcontinental travelogues to analyses of Nietzsche to reveries of days spent reading and writing in the Himalayan foothills. We learn of how Mishra first grew interested in the Buddha as a young man, and how his then blurry grasp of Buddhist thought, history, and practice led him to brush it all aside in favor of more assertive and seemingly relevant thinkers, philosophies, and politics. This makes sense: for a young man craving an identity that’s not confined by the strictures of India’s complex past, the Buddha–with his philosophy of non-self and his privileging of the present over past and future–isn’t a terribly obvious choice.
Yet, it turns out it’s exactly this denial of self that Mishra needs in order relieve not just his anxieties of identity, but those that plague contemporary society as a whole. Mishra ultimately understands that following in the steps of the Buddha means living a life less reliant on ideology and releasing one’s self from the constructs of identity, class, race, and history. It’s about a freedom from the past. It’s about becoming, instead of being.
The way of the world–its violence and beauty, symmetry and chaos, drama and grace–when examined closely and without sentimentality, is almost unbelievable in its power and complexity, and J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine is one of the more successful attempts at exploring this phenomenon. A wonderfully peculiar hybrid of field guide and travelog in which observation and obsession collide, it’s a work of substance, captivation, and terror that far surpasses what one might expect from such a slim volume.
Baker’s stated purpose is to track a pair of peregrine falcons from Fall to Spring across eastern England. Patient and dogged, Baker details a vivid world that’s seemingly void of humans and in which falcons are those that set everything in motion. Baker’s kinship with the peregrines progressively deepens, eventually arriving at a point when he seems to slough off his humanness in an experience “of proximity, of identification.” (p. 138) Slowly but surely, he’s acculturated into the hawks’ terrain.
Baker’s appraisal of landscape, arguably as crucial to this work as the peregrines, is rendered in a clean, crisp, and compact prose that none-the-less possesses a high concentration of insight and import. The writing is deceptively lyrical, and, being equal parts pithy and potent, I found myself regularly revisiting passages in an effort to unpack deeper meanings and revel in Baker’s stunningly evocative descriptions and deft wielding of metaphor. In regards to this expressive treatment of nature and, particularly, terrain, Cormac McCarthy’s western landscapes may come to mind, but Baker is far more lucid and exacting, avoiding bombast and dealing instead in acuity and accuracy that, though simmering, are every bit as dramatic.
This is a book to be savored and re-explored. It’s a singular work, one that implies and implicates far more than is directly present in the text. It’s about falcons, to be sure, but it’s also about being human, being present, and being a part of something far larger than we often realize.
Toward the end of Evolving Dharma, Jay Michaelson proudly dubs himself a champion for ambivalence, claiming that it is a crucial component in remaining open to the complex and ever-changing nature of things. Contemporary Buddhism is nothing if not varied and rapidly shifting, and this dogged ambivalence of Michaelson’s—along with a large helping of smarts and enthusiasm—allows him to traverse such vast, varied, and mutable terrain. The scope of Evolving Dharma is dizzying, yet, by examining his unique and personal journey, Michaelson shows that the opportunities afforded by our access to wide ranging resources, teachings, and communities can allow us to move beyond the trappings of traditional religion.
Of course, this new world of iSpirituality comes with its own set of challenges and shortcomings, many of which Michaleson address head-on—notably commercialization and the issues that can arise when you divorce mindfulness and meditation from their Buddhist roots. Thus, the jury is still out in regards to a solid verdict for the future, but Michaelson ultimately allows his optimism to win out, arguing that mindfulness taking root in the mainstream, even if watered down, is still an unprecedented opportunity for the dharma to take root in whole new ways. This message is not only encouraging but, I think, much needed, as the potential in the present moment does appear limitless if only we are receptive and dedicated, critical but also compassionate.