Meaning Against the Meaningless

At this late stage, two years after the English translation of the first volume of My Struggle, there’s very little to add to discussions of Karl Ove Knausgaard. A Death in the Family, A Man in Love, and now Boyhood Island have spurred so much writing of such a high calibre – by novelists like Sheila Heti and Ben Lerner and by reviewers like James Wood, Rose McLaren, and especially James Ley, whose essay in the Sydney Review remains easily the best I have read – so that it is now virtually impossible to say anything new about the man and his work. There’s one observation, though, that has made frequent appearances in responses to My Struggle and that strikes me as a bit of a sideshow to the main attraction. It’s the observation that My Struggle is compulsively readable even though its often mundane subject matter should make the reading experience somewhat like wading through treacle, and that the source of the compulsion to read on and read on is therefore shrouded in mystery. I don’t think there’s anything mysterious about this. I think that the source of the compulsion to read is right there in Knausgaard’s first ten pages.

Recalling a boyhood encounter with his father in the mid-1970s, reflecting on it now as a man who has reached the age his father was then, Knausgaard meditates on “how great the difference was between our days.” His own days at that time, he writes,

were jam-packed with meaning, when each step opened a new opportunity, and when every opportunity filled me to the brim, in a way which now is actually incomprehensible, [whereas] the meaning of [my father’s] days was not concentrated in individual events but spread over such large areas that it was not possible to comprehend them in anything other than abstract terms. ‘Family’ was one such term; ‘career’ another. Few or no unforeseen opportunities at all can have presented themselves in the course of his days.

Knausgaard’s conclusion is that his father’s life had become largely meaningless simply by virtue of his having lived so long. “Meaning requires content,” he writes, “content requires time, time requires resistance.” Knowledge, on the other hand, involves “bring[ing the world] within the scope of our senses” and “stabilis[ing] it with fixer,” and so this retreat from and stabilisation of worldly phenomena means that “knowledge is stasis and the enemy of meaning.” As an adult looking back on that day in his boyhood, then, Knausgaard comes to see his father not only as an adult authority but also as “a peer through whose life time is blowing and unremittingly sweeping large chunks of meaning along with it.”

“Knausgaard’s world,” as James Wood points out,

is one in which the adventure of the ordinary… is steadily retreating; in which things and objects and sensations are pacing toward meaninglessness. In such a world, the writer’s task is to rescue the adventure from this slow retreat: to bring meaning, color, and life back to the soccer boots and to the grass, and to cranes and trees and airports, and even to Gibson guitars and Roland amplifiers and Ajax.

And Knausgaard’s way of accomplishing this task entails, on one level, revisiting and reconstructing past events in extraordinary, exacting, and often excessive detail. Page after page of My Struggle accumulates detail in what Wood calls an “uncut abundance” and in the absence of “any clear hierarchy of interest.” Knausgaard “seems barely to adjudicate significance,” Ben Lerner agrees, and “appears to just write down everything he can recall (and he appears to recall everything).” For Wood, this amounts to an “artistic commitment to inexhaustibility… which manifests itself as a kind of tiring tirelessness. … He notices everything — too much, no doubt — but often lingers beautifully.”

Too much? Is there really too much detail in My Struggle? Or, rather, can there be too much? Wood contends that “[t]he plenitude of detail… clogs the first half of the book,” and Lerner similarly finds the book burdened by “too much lengthy digression and extremely – at times almost absurdly – detailed description,” but surely this outcome is what Knausgaard’s early remarks on the increasing meaninglessness of adult existence require of anything he might write beyond that point. As Danny Byrne recently wrote, “many critics have noted… with approval, condemnation, or bemusement… [that] My Struggle is characterized by its excessive attention to the banal details of Knausgaard’s phenomenal environment,” but “few have said much about why [this] is so central to Knausgaard’s project.” Wood and Lerner are among the many rather than the few, passing judgment on the effects of the details alone without contextualising them as the effects of Knausgaard’s disposition towards the living of his life, but Byrne explains their significance:

In his emphasis on everyday objects, Knausgaard is like a man in the dark fumbling around for physical reference points as he tries to find his way to the light switch. The flatness of his style is paradoxically infused with the very “uncontrollable longing” for the past that compels the undertaking, present in its very absence. Given the impossibility of reliable recollection, the listing of physical coordinates — kitchen utensils and clothing, the innumerable family meals whose constituent parts are so pedantically itemized — is a way of anchoring his writing in the real, minimizing the inevitable distortions and transfigurations of literary style.

If Knausgaard opens My Struggle by defining a meaningful life as one in which an habituation to the varieties of human experience has not yet occurred, then the recovery of meaning, from the perspective of one who has become habituated, invites a thorough revisitation and a maximally expansive and inclusive reconstruction of the conditions in which meaning once flourished. To some extent, then, it is impossible for My Struggle to ever be overburdened by detail, and in fact the totality of the detail it contains cannot be anything other than insufficient for Knausgaard’s purposes. He begins My Struggle by writing himself both a warrant and a demand to pack his pages full of as much detail as possible, so that even the most obscure, trivial, mundane, or boring detail obtains an epic dimension in order to service something much larger than itself — and much larger, too, than the verisimilitude that conventional literary realism achieves via the inclusion of idiosyncratic but highly selective details.

What makes My Struggle so compulsively readable, I think, is Knausgaard’s exploitation of the inherent tension between this sort of literary project and the nature of literature itself. They are entirely at odds. Every last detail in the book is a minor protest, and a futile one, against the impossibility of the very thing that Knausgaard suggests might be achieved by way of a surfeit of detail. No matter how expansive and inclusive may be the detailing of a meaningful past, the past simply cannot be retrieved and recreated and lost meaning cannot ever be restored – and least of all with building blocks as radically abstract, as divorced from concrete reality, as pages upon pages of written words. Moreover, as the details accumulate around nodes of narrativised experience – Knausgaard’s grappling with death, falling in love, and coping with the demands of parenthood – the narrative nodes break down the life as lived into manageable chunks, countervailing the very rebellion against abstraction that led to the obsessive attention to detail in the first place. Meaning thus becomes for Knausgaard exactly what it was for his father: “not concentrated in individual events but spread over such large areas that it was not possible to comprehend them in anything other than abstract terms.”

And then, of course, even as his struggle against meaninglessness leads him into concrete detail at the sentence level but abstraction at the narrative level, the work he produces is inevitably swept up in his steady drift towards meaninglessness in its most extreme form. “The moment life departs the body,” he writes, “it belongs to death,” and, in death, a human being becomes “[a]t one with lamps, suitcases, carpets, door handles, windows. Fields, marshes, streams, clouds, the sky.” The world he inhabits, as he sees it, has so little respect for human subjectivity that it makes the expression of subjective experience worth little more than mockery. Yet Knausgaard expresses, and expresses, and expresses – recalls, recreates, and revivifies his past – with words each one of which takes him a small step towards an ideal that remains unrealisable even though, because it is an ideal, he cannot do otherwise than attempt to realise it. My Struggle is one very long, very complex contradiction, a book in which not a single word is wasted even though the whole amounts to a waste of words, and it is this quality — this relentless, defiant, desperate onwardness into impossibility — that sets the pages turning almost by themselves.

Remarks on Blood and Bone

Over at the Seizure website and on her own blog, my wonderful editor, Emily Stewart, explains why she chose to work with me on publishing Blood and Bone as one of the winners of this year’s Viva La Novella Prize:

Daniel’s story stood out right from the start due to its economy and restraint. There was a confidence about it, and as I read on, the growing feeling that I was going somewhere unfamiliar, somewhere exciting.

What sort of a book is it? Is it a Gerald Murnane-Cormac McCarthy lovechild? It’s a little bit that, although it seems impolite to pigeonhole a writer in such a way; really, every author exists in his or her own beautiful orbit.

Click here to read Emily’s remarks in full.


Gerald Murnane’s A Million Windows shares space with Blood and Bone
on the recent releases shelf in Melbourne’s Paperback Bookstore.


A well-known writer of fiction in this country, once, as part of a discussion about one of his books, which could fairly be called a work of historical fiction, said or, perhaps, wrote words to the effect that he insisted on his right to imagine the past. I have often wondered at his statement. If I assume that he was not making the preposterous claim that he was somehow better qualified than other living persons to suppose what one or another person thought or felt, say, a hundred years ago, then what was he claiming? Perhaps his emphasis was on the word imagining, as though he had other means at his disposal for discovering what this or that person felt a hundred years ago but chose to use his imagination. And yet, what other means could he or anyone possibly call on for such a task?

Reader, we are all of us, whether writers or readers, surely obliged to imagine the past, although I, who dislike the word imagine, would prefer to use such an expression as speculate about.

Gerald Murnane, A Million Windows


…what occurs between the two is a stunning powerplay that exposes the limits of the human imagination. Inhabiting the speculative peripheries of the historical record, Blood and Bone is an uncompromising exploration of Australia’s dark history and its legacy today.

from the jacket copy of Blood and Bone


During the years it took Scrymgeour to assemble the Whangie, he found a place for his dependants in basic lodgings in Rockhampton. My understanding is that, in his absence, the woman spent the weeks leading up to their relocation in what was diplomatically described to me as a nervous state. I can only speculate on how her nervousness might have shown itself. I do know that she kept a robust library which she was largely forced to sell off in advance of leaving the coast for the Whangie. I imagine she confined herself to her bedroom, kept herself behind closed doors, and spent a large portion of each day immersed in her beloved words. How else to divert her thoughts from the torment of her life in this place and the dissolution of the family who might have at least made it bearable? On those rare occasions when she emerged, I imagine, she carried a book in her hand and sat in a chair by a window but soon forgot about reading as she daydreamed gazing over the lively city outside. Could her son have been walking those streets just then, trying to find his way back to her and back to the home she kept in good order in the hope of his return? She rarely spoke aloud, I imagine, and I’m sure that when she did, during her last days in the city, her words took the form of platitudes intended to bury her daughter’s anxieties under promises so idyllic that no one could possibly take them as truth. Father, mother, and daughter, she said, would all enjoy their new lives out west. They would wake each morning beside a river at the foot of a mighty mountain. The girl would be given her very own room in a house on a beautiful farm, and there they would all live simply and without worries in plenty of fresh air and sunshine.

It must have taken them about ten days to reach the Auchtermuchty Bend, or perhaps a little longer with a few days’ rest in Emerald. Mother and daughter saddled together on a single mount. Scrymgeour scouted their route up ahead, a rider in the distance, all but dragging them through a land that grew more bleak, more austere, more forbidding with every lilt of the horse. I see the animals twitch their ears and swish their tails as the swarms of flies intensify, and I hear leather satchels full of water slapping hard against their sides. They loosen their hold on the bit as they plod further into the desert, and I notice the reins, once firm, now begin to slacken. I don’t think I’m able to comprehend the tedium of the westward journey. Uncountable hours of intolerable heat, the endless muttering of flies, and the warm breath of the inland wind. The groan of saddles, the clink of bridles, the monotonous thud of hooves newly shod. I can sketch the conditions of the ordeal but words alone are, I think, too weak to evoke the experience of it. To stop and dwell on its enormity, to attempt to internalise those conditions, is to reach out to grasp a horizon that recedes with every step towards it. And how to then convey the despair that surely descended upon mother and daughter when they reached their destination and for the first time saw the Whangie? Day after day through the desert only to arrive at that lopsided shack, a speck on the limitless landscape, shrunken beneath the Auchtermuchty Escarpment. No sense of grandeur or ceremony. No sense of comfort and no sense of relief. A couple of months, at most, before the Christmas of 1888, and this after owning the property for twenty years and postponing migration because the difficulty of raising their youngest child so far from the coastal cities would have made the woman’s life torture whenever her husband was droving stock. Not that she would bear it for long even when he stayed home with her. From the moment of their arrival, she had perhaps six weeks left to live. I can’t help but wonder if she felt, then and there, the first pangs of the compulsion to escape from this place which, in time, metastasised into a compulsion to end her life.

Daniel Davis Wood, Blood and Bone

Murnane’s Manifesto

A Million Windows

It’s often said of Gerald Murnane that his mature period began with the publication of The Plains in 1982. What followed were four volumes filled with metafictional introspection and a sustained preoccupation with the act of writing that culminated in Emerald Blue in 1995. When Barley Patch appeared in 2009, ending a run of some fourteen years during which Murnane published no fiction at all, it swerved Murnane’s metafictional focus from the present tense to the present perfect: from the act of writing, here and now, to the fact of having written much over many years. In doing so, Barley Patch announced the arrival of Murnane’s late period, a period that continued through A History of Books in 2012 and continues now, this month, in A Million Windows. Of the three volumes that comprise this loose trilogy of self-reflective fictions, A Million Windows is the most lucidly written, the most conceptually successful, and the most emotionally invested. It is also what one reader described to me as “Murnane to the power of Murnane,” making it by far the least likely of all of Murnane’s books to appeal to readers not already familiar with him.

A Million Windows takes its title from Henry James’ declaration that “[t]he house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million,” and the image that dominates the book is “a house of two or, perhaps, three storeys” whose occupants are continually gazing out of its windows at the grasslands that surround it. Readers of Barley Patch and A History of Books will not be surprised to learn that these occupants are, once again, the “personages” and “image-persons” who Murnane’s eloquent yet formal narrator remains reluctant to identify as characters, but what is surprising here is who these people are and where they happen to come from. Although the origins of its title may lie in the work of Henry James, A Million Windows takes the image of the capacious house from an article about a Swedish film director who, “late in his career,” directed “a film set in a castle many a room of which was occupied by one or another chief character from one or another of the many films directed by the Swede in earlier years,” meaning that the occupants of the house are the chief characters and narrators of some of Murnane’s earlier publications. Most recognisable among them are the narrator of ‘Stone Quarry,’ arguably the finest of Murnane’s short fictions, as well as middle-aged or elderly versions of Clement Killeaton and Adrian Sherd — the protagonist of Murnane’s début, Tamarisk Row, published in 1974, and the protagonist of A Lifetime on Clouds, published in 1976. But while the appearances of these characters may make A Million Windows look like merely the most recent iteration of what Peter Craven calls Murnane’s “revisiting, with endless variegations and minute tonal shifts and dislocations and re-emergences of patterning, the apparent tiny variations of his obsessive compass,” Murnane incorporates them into the book in ways that have repercussions for re-readings of the books in which they first appeared.

As they congregate to debate the metaphysics of literature in much the same way that the plainsmen of The Plains collectively articulate the meaning of a barren landscape, the occupants of Murnane’s house give voice to various ways of approaching the activity of writing fiction. Their discussions invariably involve the close analysis of the most simple and most common elements of fiction — characterisation, point-of-view, dialogue, plot, theme, and so on — and they usually conclude with a consideration of the efficacy of a given element with reference to a particular work of fiction that they deem either successful or unreadable. Over time, then, they reach a sort of consensus on the essential elements of a work of fiction, the most important of which is what Murnane’s narrator calls a “narrative presence,” “the personage seemingly responsible for the existence of the text [who is also] seemingly approachable by way of the text or seemingly revealed through the text and [who] seem[s] to have written the text in order to impart what could never have been imparted by any other means than the writing of a fictional text.” Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum and the work of the Latin American magical realists are thus designated as fiction written in bad faith, “mere text[s that are] the seeming work of no recognisable personage,” whereas Henry James, the champion of the embodied first-person narrator, is held in special reverence. So while the house of fiction may have not one window but in fact a million, the discussions of the occupants of Murnane’s house of fiction bring about the closure of all but one of those windows while at the same time articulating many ways of appreciating the landscape onto which it opens.

What, then, of Murnane’s own work, especially his earlier work, when held to the standards articulated in this book? Neither Tamarisk Row nor A Lifetime on Clouds displays a “narrative presence” of the sort that the occupants of the house require in a work of fiction. A Million Windows therefore seems to be, on one level, an attempt on Murnane’s part to elucidate and justify the aesthetics of his mature work and so to find space within his body of work for the markedly different aesthetics of the two novels he published prior to entering his mature period. The suggestion that A Million Windows was written with this objective in view appears early on, when the narrator shares some remarks made by “a university lecturer in Islamic philosophy” who taught him during his time as a student nearly fifty years earlier:

He asked [his students] to call to mind a motor-car travelling on a road across a mostly level landscape. A person standing close beside the road and looking directly ahead would be aware for some time that the car has not yet reached him or her, then, for a brief time, that the car is present to his or her sight and then, for some time afterwards, that the car is no longer present, even if still audible. The lecturer then asked us to call to mind a person looking towards the road from an upper window of a building at some distance away. This person is aware of the car as being present to his or her sight during the whole time while it seems to be approaching, present to the sight of, and then travelling away from the person beside the road.

What the lecturer shared with his students is an image of hindsight in its most literal sense, hindsight of a spatial rather than a temporal nature. One result of the narrator’s inclusion of this image in A Million Windows is the implication that A Million Windows itself is looking out on its own author and watching him watch his own books fly past, over the course of several decades, while he remains unable to perceive them long beyond the moment of their writing or to see the place they might come to occupy in the broader landscape of his life. Yet the narrator assures his readers that he has no desire to “repudiate any fiction of mine the narrator of which has the viewpoint described above” — a viewpoint tantamount to third-person omniscience — “but I have wanted, for almost as long as I have been a writer of fiction, to secure for myself a vantage-point from which each of the events reported in a work of fiction such as this present work, and each of the personages mentioned in the work, might seem, at one and the same time, a unique and inimitable entity impossible to define or to classify but also a mere detail in an intricate scheme or design.”

While not exactly rewriting or revising Tamarisk Row and A Lifetime on Clouds, A Million Windows does attempt to incorporate their idiosyncrasies into the design of what has become the Murnane oeuvre, revisiting Clement Killeaton’s marble horse races and Adrian Sherd’s masturbation fantasies and then reconceptualising them as early manifestations of Murnane’s more recent metafictional interests. And while it does not shy away from the imagistic preoccupations of Barley Patch and A History of Books, it supplements their associative and recursive reminiscences with questions about the worth and value of fiction, with backward glances at bygone literary achievements and cold assessments of the likelihood of their longevity, which altogether involve its narrator subjecting himself to emotional risks that make A Million Windows more emotionally invested than either of its two predecessors. The result is an account of an author’s vexed ownership of all of the work that bears his name, a reconciliation of his early aesthetics with those of his more mature period, and a late attempt to unify, reconsider, and assess the lasting value of the fiction to which he has devoted his life — all without ever approaching these subjects directly or free of doubts and misgivings. A Million Windows is, in a sense, a retrospective manifesto written with an eye towards retroactive application: the last word on the work of a writer, written by the writer himself, so as to force readers to return to the first words he wrote and to cast a shadow over their readings of all the words that have appeared thereafter.