Stuff I’ve Been Reading: September 2014

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: September 2014

Nick Hornby
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  • Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of “ The Great Gatsby—Sarah Churchwell
  • Detroit: An American Autopsy —Charlie LeDuff
  • The Fever—Megan Abbott
  • My Salinger Year—Joanna Rakoff
  • Swing Low: A Life—Miriam Toews
  • The Blue Room—Hanne Ørstavik


  • A Man in Love—Karl Ove Knausgaard
  • Traveling Sprinkler—Nicholson Baker
  • My Salinger Year—Joanna Rakoff
  • Crooked Heart—Lissa Evans

I am a father, so I know something about the pain of childbirth: it didn’t look too bad to me. Reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, however, is an act of heroism, and only those who have been through the experience are really entitled to talk about it. I bought A Man in Love, the second book in the series, pretty much the moment I’d finished the first, A Death in the Family, but after a couple of months of reading shorter, less intimidating, and, frankly, much more fictional novels—Knausgaard doesn’t make stuff up, and you know that if he spends three pages describing the peeling, cutting, and frying of an onion, that onion actually was fried, in real life—I began to wonder whether I had another Knausgaard in me.

I was lured back partly because I missed the sound of Knausgaard’s voice, and partly by the title of this second volume. I wanted to know about his marriage, partly out of prurience: how many novelists are prepared to offer up every single narrative beat of a relationship in an attempt to make sense of it? A recent piece entitled “How We End Up Marrying the Wrong People” in the Philosophers’ Mail, an online newspaper set up by the writer Alain de Botton, suggested that “a standard question on any early dinner date should be quite simply: ‘And how are you mad?’” What we normally do, of course, is reveal our own madness and discover the madness in our spouses over a period of years, by which time the information isn’t as much help to us as it might have been in the first flush of romance.

Well, nobody could accuse Knausgaard and his wife of burying their eccentricities. Karl Ove met Linda at a writers’ conference (and as Karl Ove really did meet Linda at a writers’ conference, the present tense usually employed for synopses seems inappropriate). He told her that he was attracted to her; she told him she wasn’t interested; and he went back to his room, drunk. He smashed the bathroom mirror, “took the biggest shard I could find and started cutting my face. I did it methodically, making the cuts as deep as I could, and covered my whole face. The chin, cheeks, nose, forehead, underneath the chin. At regular intervals I wiped the blood away with a towel. Kept cutting.” The next day he had to say goodbye to all the people he’d met at the conference. Linda cried when she saw the state of him. When he and Linda got together properly some time later, she told him that she had attempted suicide a couple of years before. The Philosophers’ Mail would wholeheartedly approve, although revealing pain and damage to a loved one is not the same thing as revealing it to the whole world, as Knausgaard has now done.

One worries about Linda in particular. A Man in Love tells us that she had an aura that was “dark, wild, erotic and destructive,” and we learn here that she had suffered from manic depression, and had been hospitalized because of it. She was clearly vulnerable then, and she has apparently remained vulnerable. Online interviews reveal that she had another breakdown during the furor that greeted the publication of the first few of Knausgaard’s books. The sixth book, not yet translated into English from the Norwegian, takes all this—the notoriety, the exposure, the success, the collateral damage to loved ones—as its subject. Everything is grist for the mill. Yes, I know, I know: Graham Greene said that “there is a splinter of ice in the heart” of every writer.

The trick is to stop the heart from freezing over completely.

Famously, not every page of A Man in Love is as riveting as these first confessions would suggest, however. “Even when I was bored, I was interested,” said one eminent literary critic, but those of you not blessed with that kind of patience, commitment to literature, or daring willingness to stretch— and possibly snap altogether—the meaning of words might find that when you are bored, you are bored. There were moments when I felt as though I might be the unwitting and rather pitiful victim of some kind of cultural hoax. You, dear Believer reader, are young and clever and confident, so I doubt whether you have ever stood in a contemporary art gallery, blinking nervously at an installation or a film, and wondering whether what you’re looking at is art, or is even a part of the exhibition you’ve come to see, rather than an empty frame or a fire-safety video. This has happened to me countless times. It doesn’t usually happen to me when I’m reading a novel. Fiction is the medium I work in, so most of the time I feel I have been given permission to make a judgment, at least, even if I don’t feel young and clever. But with Knausgaard, any sense of knowing what you think or even why you think it is likely to vanish at any second. What goes through my head during some of the more perplexingly dull moments are things like “Wait…” “Hold on…” “Is this actually…?” “Whoa…” “You can’t just publish…” “He’s making pasta sauce in real time…” “Oh, I’ve been to those toddlers’ music things…”

“Should I read that guy?” a friend asked me recently, when I told him I’d been wrestling with A Man in Love. “Those books sound terrible.” I didn’t know what to tell him. I felt as though he’d asked me whether he should have children. As a consequence, the only advice I could offer was that it wasn’t a decision he should take lightly. The books aren’t terrible, of course. But, like children, they are strange, upsetting, maddening, and exhausting. I’ll be back for more, but not for a while yet.

Meanwhile, Nicholson Baker has written the second volume in a series that began with The Anthologist, but there doesn’t seem to be as much interest in the Paul Chowder novels as there is in My Struggle, even though Baker covers some of the same territory as Knausgaard: literary ambition, romantic disappointment, the perennial problem of what to eat for lunch. I told you to read the first book, back in 2012, but I don’t suppose you took any notice, so now you’re behind, and you’ll have to read The Anthologist and Traveling Sprinkler back-to-back. I have no sympathy for your plight. It’s your own fault. Except the truth is that the world is an unjust place. I have read these great books and you haven’t, but what happens as a result of my superior diligence and my unfailing ability to nose out smart, funny, accessible literature? You have two treats and I have none.

Paul Chowder, the narrator and eponymous anthologist, is an unsuccessful poet with a heartache. He still has a heartache in Traveling Sprinkler: he still hasn’t gotten back together with Roz, his ex-girlfriend, despite their tender friendship, and he has hit the three F’s, “Fifty Fucking Five.” Roz pretty much owns Traveling Sprinkler. The first word of the novel is “Roz,” and she is the pronoun in the very last sentence, which I won’t quote for spoilage reasons. She’s seeing someone else now, though: a medical doctor who reads. “Last time I talked to her she said they were reading Tony Hoagland’s poetry together. What a horrible thing to imagine. I like Tony Hoagland’s poetry.” We all do, here at the Believer, and so we can understand the particular agony of Chowder’s jealousy.

In The Anthologist, Chowder told us pretty much everything he had to say on the subject of rhyme. We learned that Swinburne was the greatest rhymer in the history of literature, and that blank verse was a fascist plot. His intolerance for what he sees as modern tricksiness and pretension gets him into trouble in the new book. He goes out on a date with a very attractive woman called Polly, and “for some inexplicable reason I was moved to say not only critical things about Mark Rothko but also about Pablo Picasso.

Why, why, why? I said Picasso would be all but forgotten in a hundred years, that he was a coattail-rider and a selftrumpeter, and that his kitschy blue guitars made me want to scream with boredom and rage at the moneyed injustice of the international museum establishment.”

You may not agree with him (I mostly agree with him more than is strictly necessary for the enjoyment of the book), but if you care about the things I suspect you care about, then you will enjoy every single moment of his company. There isn’t as much poetry in Traveling Sprinkler, although Chowder’s calling is never entirely forgotten. Instead, there are digressions about the bassoon, cigars, protest songs, Quakerism, drones, Debussy’s “Sunken Cathedral,” Logic software, the scandal of recording great radio voices with mono microphones. (Don’t even get him started on that.) Oh, and about his traveling sprinkler, a neat piece of equipment that fills him with understandable pride. And it doesn’t matter how interested you are in any of those things, because Chowder’s enthusiasm, and the chatty, warm, engaged, and eccentric voice that Baker has found for him, will rivet you anyway. The Chowder novels are beginning to achieve a kind of Vonnegut-like tone of simplicity, innocence, puzzlement, and wisdom. Bassoons and cigars and war crimes are part of it all. It’s up to us to put it together in a way that makes sense.

Joanna Rakoff ’s memoir, My Salinger Year, is, like A Man in Love and Traveling Sprinkler, a book about a writer, but not the writer you might have been expecting: the possessive pronoun in the title is more significant than the proper noun. Rakoff ’s examination of the time she spent working as an assistant (“a secretary,” as her father insists on calling her) in the slightly stuffy, old-fashioned agency that represented J.D. is actually a very good, subtle, very likable book about that time in a young artist’s life when she has to work out whether she’s going to commit to misery and underemployment or give it all up and get a proper job.

Salinger is in here, too, by the way. He calls Rakoff on the phone, and they chat a little before she puts him through to her understandably jumpy boss. He even turns up in the office. And when she’s not chatting to him on the phone, she’s reading his fan mail, and unwisely attempting to answer some of it personally, rather than with the brutal standard letter she’s been told to send. Engaging with Salinger’s readers brings her only angry abuse from those who are convinced that their particular response to The Catcher in the Rye is the one that will mean the most to him.

Rakoff lives with her boyfriend, Don, in a tiny, unheated apartment in Williamsburg. They both want to write. Don is finishing a long and important novel; Rakoff is writing poems. It’s all pretty bleak, and if you have ended up taking the scary route away from conventional employment simply because you know you have no other choice, you will recognize all sorts of things in My Salinger Year: the neurosis, the unhappiness, the vague coveting of things you don’t really want, the conversation, the bad food. I have never lived in New York City, and I’ve never worked in an agency, and I’ve never even had a partner who wanted to write, and it all rang true for me.

There are no writers in Lissa Evans’s lovely novel Crooked Heart. It’s set in England during World War II, and at its crooked heart there is an odd-couple relationship, reminiscent in tone if not in substance of Moses and Addie in the film Paper Moon, between an odd, clever, and very lonely boy and a dodgy, desperate woman in early middle age. Noel, the boy, has no family and has been evacuated from London; Vee, the woman, has a work-shy son and no visible means of support. She takes Noel on because she thinks his mild disabilities will result in extra rations. Their reliance on each other is credible, touching, and funny. Evans, who wrote the equally winning Their Finest Hour and a Half, also set during the war, is carving out a distinctive niche for herself by poking into the cracks made in England by Hitler’s bombs and examining the teeming life therein.

A confession: none of these books were read in the last four weeks. I have stopped reading because, as I write, the World Cup is being staged in Brazil, and so all I do is work, watch television, and bet. Writing about Knausgaard, Nicholson Baker, Joanna Rakoff, and Lissa Evans reminds me of the life I used to have, and intimates a life that will, presumably, still be there for me once the tournament is over. It’s not as bad as I remembered. Books are longer than football matches, and you cannot (yet) bet on their outcomes. But they are never goalless, and footballers tend to simulate pain and misery much less convincingly than writers. Actually, I can’t wait for the World Cup to end: readers, not sportsmen, are the real heroes.

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