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.