Purposeful Imperfections


Month: August, 2013

The Death of Jim Loney by James Welch

“She had said he was lucky to have two sets of ancestors. In truth he had none.” (p. 102)

A fractured novel about a fragmented man, The Death of Jim Loney is a close study of identity. It’s about not belonging and the immense weight of marginalization. It’s about a personal isolation that mirrors the vast landscape of Northern Montana—a terrain that, like Welch’s prose, is barren and beautiful and devastating.

Much like Faulkner’s Joe Christmas, Jim Loney feels the pull between two worlds but is unable to wholly embrace either. This creates a tension that, for both Loney and Christmas, ultimately finds release in violence. It’s a maddening existence, but it’s the only life Loney feels able to lead. Accepting this leads to his death, and, yet, it also yields long sought insight and peace:

“And it was the right light to see the world, halfway between dark and dawn, a good way to see things, the quiet pleasure of deciding whether the things were there or not there.” (p. 167)

My Struggle: Book Two by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Accurately—albeit snidely—subtitled A Man in Love, My Struggle: Book Two pores over Knausgaard’s second marriage and the birth of his children, though this is no paean to the wonders of love and family. Knausgaard spends much of this text examining the divisions that can rupture relationships, and his fixation on the shadows that lurk behind seemingly joyous events lends a dark air throughout. So, while Book One was about death, Book Two is about love and life. It’s a ruthless examination of ardor and birth, relationships and misunderstandings that, while wholly engrossing, leaves the reader unsettled. Hot on the heels of each bit of elation—“Happiness. Everyday life, with all the new demands the little child made…” (p. 336)—is often a generous helping of dischord: “I was totally manic. I wrote all the time…the only thing that had any meaning was the novel I was writing…[Linda] said she would leave me. Go, I said. I don’t care, I have to write. And it was true.” (p. 337)

Inevitably, a work of this sort—sprawling, honest, personal, and deeply critical—is going to garner the label of naval gazing and/or self-importance; after all, by the end of A Man in Love, more than a thousand pages has been invested in Knausgaard’s life and experiences. But there’s much more going on here, as a mere memoir wouldn’t be able to sustain the pace and breadth of My Struggle. Toward the end of Book Two, a conversation between Knausgaard and his close friend Geir—whose confidence and frankness serve as necessary counterpoints to Knausgaard’s neuroses, providing the best dialog in the book—lends clarity to Knausgaard’s m.o.: “I write to recapture the world. Yes, not the world I’m in. Definitely not the social world. The wonder-rooms of the baroque age. The curiosity cabinets. And the world in [Anselm] Kiefer’s trees. That’s art. Nothing else.” (p. 534)

Jonathan Callahan, over at The Millions, fleshes this out: “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.” He’s right, and implicit in this analysis is an idea of seeking freedom. This is central to Knausgaard’s struggle and, however unattainable, something he’s compelled to strive for none-the-less: freedom from the weight of familial ties, freedom from a society of increasing homogenization, freedom from the numbing effects that can slowly consume one’s life. So, My Struggle is, indeed, about writing: writing one’s self out of these trappings and writing toward something truly meaningful. Writing as doing. Writing as freedom. Writing as living.