On Backwardness

When Matthew Olshan’s Marshlands was published last year, it met with a bewildering and dismaying response from reviewers. Set in an unnamed but vaguely Middle Eastern country, the novel follows a foreign doctor’s attempts to live with the pseudo-tribal inhabitants of the desert marshes — a people modelled on, but not faithfully representing, the marsh Arabs of Iraq. The lands of these “marshmen” have been occupied by a foreign power within the region and, in response to the occupation, a more distant foreign power offers military and logistical support to the insurgency of the marshmen. The marshmen are thus proxy soldiers in a war between two much larger nation states, and when that war results in the defeat of the original occupying forces, the marshmen launch an insurgency against the second-run occupiers who were once their allies.

In summary form, it’s true, Marshlands might appear to be the sort of novel that seeks to engage with current affairs or, more broadly, with the political upheavals that have plagued the Middle East over the last few decades. In fact, though, Marshlands possesses a number of unconventional qualities which altogether bend the novel towards fabulism at the expense of realism. Among these are the total absence of a specific and recognisable narrative setting, a determination to abstract rather than particularise the conflict and its participants, a detailed but necessarily speculative anthropological commentary on a fictional people, and a light dose of self-referentiality. The novel’s clearest antecedent is arguably J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, which employs the aesthetic strategies mentioned above, but it also seems to owe something to Gerald Murnane’s The Plains, whose narrator reads significance into the everyday actions of the foreigners he calls “plainsmen” in much the same way that Olshan’s protagonist can watch a marshman simply shrug his shoulders and remark that a shrug by a marshman is “a gesture with infinite subtle inflections.” In any event, although it offers implicit commentary on the follies of imperialism in a general sense, Marshlands is not a novel determined to say something perceptive or insightful about the conditions of the contemporary world.

What’s interesting about the response to Marshlands is the attention given to one of its least interesting features. After the novel sets up its story, according to the blurb on the back, “Marshlands reveals one of its many surprises: it is written in reverse. The novel leaps backward once, twice… unraveling time to reveal the doctor’s ambiguous relationship to the austerely beautiful land and its people.” But don’t think it’s something along the lines of Time’s Arrow, in which time proceeds backwards action by action, sentence by sentence. The story is simply broken into three sections, each of which depicts events that take place after the section that follows. That’s not exactly radical experimentalism, and yet that’s the feature of Marshlands to have attracted the most attention from its reviewers. “[F]or all its shocking revelations,” according to the New York Times, “the story lacks propulsion, its backward narration and withholding of information distracting us from the action and motivation.” “Mr. Olshan’s control over his story-in-reverse is impressive,” the Wall Street Journal protested, but perhaps at the cost of “adept[ness] in his uses of the past.” And even when the novel’s reverse chronology escaped criticism for its supposed shortcomings, there was a tendency to downplay its effects and undersell its success. “Fiction that moves backwards in time,” wrote Benjamin Rybeck at Three Guys One Book, “often milks the structure for irony [and] Marshlands is no exception. The reader moves into the protagonist’s past, holding knowledge of what will become of him, while he blunders onward, oblivious to the future.” That’s true, but is that all there is to it?

Irony is, without doubt, one effect of the reverse chronology of Marshlands. The doctor visiting the marshlands is a citizen of the foreign power that at first supported the insurgency of the marshmen, and he lives among the marshmen with pretensions of being apolitical but without realising that he cannot be. Whereas he sees himself as an agent of strictly humanitarian interests, over time he fails to see that his interests conflict with those of both his native country and the people of the marshlands. Although he wants nothing more than to practise his profession, to offer medical aid to the marshmen, the marshmen come to resent the ways in which his techniques and his disposition do not accommodate their cultural customs and the government of his native country comes to see him as guilty of treason. Finally, for the assistance he provides to enemies of the state, he is apprehended by representatives of his government and imprisoned for some twenty-one years. His release, however, is the event with which Marshlands opens before it takes the double plunge into the doctor’s past. Thus, as Matthew Olshan himself has written, “the reader’s sense of [the doctor] as a victim… slowly give[s] way to an awareness of his complicity in the crimes against his beloved marshmen.” That’s irony at work. Yet there’s no reason to think that this is the sole effect of the reverse chronology, nor even that it obstructs the “propulsion” of the narrative. While Olshan admits that the chronology drains Marshlands of dramatic suspense, the novel doesn’t entirely lack suspense so much as it finds suspense in exposition rather than drama. The question that draws the reader into Marshlands is not “what happens next?” but “why is what is happening, happening?” and what follows the inciting incident — the doctor’s release from prison — is simply a search for causes instead of a series of consequences.

The same could easily be said of any number of other works of literature. Half of the Sherlock Holmes stories operate on the same grounds, albeit without so starkly foregrounding the regression of narrative causality. For reviewers of Marshlands, though, it proved to be a little too much to take, too great a departure from narrative convention — which is a shame when the novel’s greater virtues lie in a series of other unconventional moves that remain overlooked.

Distance and Partitions

Ben Parker has a perceptive and contrarian take on Karl Ove Knausgaard in the Los Angeles Review of Books, perhaps the best essay yet on the fourth volume of My Struggle. Parker begins with the observation that many novels “contain a spectral double, another book trapped within their pages” — Cervantes’ parody of an illicit sequel to the first volume of Don Quixote, for instance, or Tristram’s father’s Tristrapedia in Tristram Shandy — and then considers the purposes towards which Knausgaard incorporates fragments of his father’s diaries into his own work. One of his purposes, perhaps unsurprisingly, is to sharply differentiate himself from his father, which eventually leads Parker to the assertion that My Struggle in its totality “is an attempt to create distance and partitions, to police psychic boundaries.” Parker goes on to support this assertion, more or less convincingly, by carefully and compellingly reading the novel’s aesthetic strategies as an almost necessary outgrowth of the experiences that prompted Knausgaard to write it:

The textures and devices of the book are best thought of as neutralizing tactics — in line with Knausgaard’s image of life as “a boat in a lock: life is slowly and ineluctably raised by time seeping in from all sides,” where this “enclosedness” is protective, regulating. Nicholas Dames has remarked on the “immersive” quality of the world conjured by the writing; this is right only provided we understand that immersion is a kind of threat or unwelcome outlet. Instead, writing means monitoring proximity, regulating intensity, maintaining a proper scale and distance. …

The point is never understanding; it is always distance. More precisely, a safe distance. … The much remarked-upon abundance of detail in My Struggle is not revealing, not sublime, not meaning-infused. The profuse description is only another distancing mechanism, a way the author pushes off. Knausgaard’s so-called “realism” is only the senseless, resistant substance he is hacking his way through.

All of which leads Parker back to a comparison of Knausgaard’s father’s diary with Knausgaard’s own unwieldy novel. Knausgaard’s “aesthetic program,” Parker says,

demonstrates a basic objection to his father. Namely, that [his father] tried to create distance by fiat, by detachment, and by drinking. The diary is a chronicle that holds experience at arm’s length, rendering it as compact as possible. The son’s novel also creates distance, but by the opposite means: distance cannot be merely affirmed with a sneer, and drinking is only a temporary and reversible means of producing it.

We’re at a point in the publication of My Struggle when there exists, on the one hand, a broad critical consensus on the purposes of Knausgaard’s aesthetic program, and, on the other hand, a kind of critical inoculation to its effects which has led to a largely underwhelming response to Knausgaard’s fourth volume. It’s refreshing, then, to come across a re-evaluation of Knausgaard as provocative as Parker’s — an attempt to overturn the existing consensus, and to challenge the assumptions it encourages Knausgaard’s readers to make, in order to reinvigorate our capacity to appreciate the subtleties and dynamics of My Struggle.

Linguistic Locations in Orbit

Maxwell Donnewald’s ‘The Indescribably Real’ has been on my mind for a few days now, ever since it went online at Full Stop. Essentially a lengthy review of Atticus Lish’s debut novel, Preparations for the Next Life, it pits Lish against Karl Ove Knausgaard and mounts a defense of Lish’s more conventionally realist aesthetics against certain admirers of Knausgaard who have celebrated My Struggle as an antidote to Lish’s brand of “fiction fiction, organized around characters who don’t actually exist.” What’s interesting about Donnewald’s essay, however, has less to do with the conclusions he reaches than with the path he follows in order to reach them. Donnewald basically takes William H. Gass’ stridently anti-realist, anti-humanist definition of “character” and then reads it into Preparations for the Next Life in a way that allows him to use Lish’s characters as ciphers for a narrative structure that he finds aesthetically rewarding. “A character for me,” Gass once said in conversation with John Gardner,

is any linguistic location in a book toward which a great part of the rest of the text stands as a modifier. Just as the subject of a sentence, say, is modified by the predicate, so frequently some character, Emma Bovary for instance, is regarded as a central character in the book because a lot of the language basically and ultimately goes back to modify, be about, Emma Bovary. Now the ideal book would have only one character; it would be like an absolute, idealist system. What we do have are subordinate locales of linguistic energy — other characters — which the words in a book flow toward and come out of.

Donnewald’s praise for Preparations hinges on Lish’s use of these “subordinate locales of linguistic energy” as modifiers for the “linguistic location[s]” otherwise known as his main characters. In order to describe and define Lish’s approach, Donnewald turns to the language of astronomy to appropriate the notion of the “barycenter”:

Representations of the solar system often depict a planet’s moons as though they twirl around their host like a ball around the center of a roulette wheel, conquered by the larger’s mass. The planet itself appears fixed in its steady arc, and all the smaller stuff just buzzes around. But this is a fiction. Hubble observations of Pluto in 2006, which led to its reclassification as a dwarf-planet, showed it wobbling with its moons around an empty space, the center of mass of a system of celestial objects in which it simply happens to be the largest. Despite its relative size, the gravitational center of Pluto’s trajectory is dislodged by its satellites outside its body. In truth, any object hosting the orbit of another is engaged in a dance like this, even in cases where the difference in mass is quite large. The earth too, entangled with the gravity of its moon, rotates around a barycenter, as it’s called in astronomy, a few thousand miles off-center. It’s just that, from here on land, it doesn’t look that way. In contrast to the epic formula of Knausgaard, where motives are exhaustively laid bare, such that characters surrounding the author are either entirely present or altogether absent in their influence, there is an oppositional manner of composing realities, in which even if a character is missing from a certain scene, as Auerbach notes, “the influence of his will and his feelings continues to operate.” In such a world, the trajectory of any one character, however prominent, never escapes being warped by the gravity of another. Even if, as in Preparation for the Next Life, these background figures are no longer alive. Just as marginalization cannot reduce them to zeroes, neither do destruction and disappearance — [Brandon] Skinner’s friend Sconyers, mortally injured in the same blast which leaves Skinner permanently disfigured, and Zou Lei’s father, whose life is mysteriously sacrificed in “a war to modernize” for the Chinese military, haunt the story constantly. And likewise, with this remainder of narrative mass looming in the background, no one ever quite manages to take charge of events. The weightless occasionally flicker into form, and so too are the main actors subject to sudden disappearance. Nothing can be traced independently, disentangled from its distorting factors. A continuous self, around which all events are organized, is impossible in this reality.

I’m not sure that this alone invests Preparations for the Next Life with as much aesthetic value as extraordinary as its admirers say it possesses, but it at least allows Donnewald to read the novel in a way that departs provocatively from those who have hailed Lish’s mastery of realism as sufficient grounds on which to celebrate his work.

How Works Works

Like many readers of Édouard Levé, I first came to his books when Dalkey Archive published English translations of Autoportrait (2002) and Suicide (2008) several years ago. But while Suicide was arguably the title that received the most attention from critics — in no small part because Levé actually committed suicide ten days after delivering the manuscript to his publisher — I was more taken with Autoportrait for reasons best articulated by Mark O’Connell at Slate:

To describe that book in basic terms is to risk making it sound outright unreadable. It’s a single paragraph, 112 pages long, consisting of a continuous sequence of short declarative sentences, each of which states some or other fact about its author, a relentlessly present “I”. … It’s grueling and madly propulsive at the same time; you kind of want him to stop just saying things about himself, but you also can’t stop reading these things that he just keeps saying. “My uncle’s friend taught me to laugh at things I saw on TV that were not, on the face of it, funny, for example Bobby Ewing’s hairstyle on Dallas,” he writes. “I have not signed a manifesto. If I turn around while looking in the mirror, there comes a moment when I no longer see myself. Raymond Poulidor is one of the least sexy names I know. I like salad mainly for the crunch and the vinaigrette.” It goes on like this, in this arbitrarily funny and boring and horrifying way. The more it goes on, the more facts he asserts about himself, the more the referent — the autobiographical subject, Levé himself — is displaced, defined into obscurity.

“I was as transfixed by the book’s self-possessed commitment to its formal conceit as I was by its blank and pitiless gaze on the reality of pain… [its] strange combination of formal distance and emotional immediacy,” O’Connell writes of Autoportrait — although he writes those words in his review of Levé’s latest posthumous publication, Works, in order to identify the governing aesthetic of Levé’s entire oeuvre. “[T]his is the signature of Levé’s pulverized non-narratives,” he says, “this unflappable insistence on going on like this. He’s never afraid, in other words, of being boring in the service of some larger way of being interesting.”

I agree with that, and I also broadly agree with O’Connell’s assessment of Works. “Works is one of the most nakedly formalistic pieces of writing I’ve ever come across,” he writes:

The book as a whole is usefully encapsulated in its opening sentence, which is the first of 533 descriptions of ideas for artistic projects: “1. A book describes works that the author has conceived but not brought into being.” This is precisely what the book is, except for the obvious distinction that this particular oddball project has been brought into being, as evidenced by the fact that you are now reading it, or are at any rate about to try to read it. For the most part, it’s a catalogue of unrealized creativity, which in the very extensiveness of its cataloging becomes a monstrous paradox of realized creativity. … For a work of such rigorous formal experimentalism, Works can be surprisingly funny. I found myself laughing out loud, here and there, at Levé’s poker-faced batshittery. … It is, let me reiterate, a book consisting solely of descriptions of imaginary works of conceptual art. As with all of Levé’s work, his insistence on continuing doing the one specific thing he’s doing is an ongoing source of weird perplexity for the reader, a weird perplexity that is a key aspect of the experience of reading him.

What I find most captivating about Works, however, are those moments when Levé ruptures his own relentless accumulation of descriptions of conceptual works in alternative artforms and instead casts his readers directly into the abyss of literature. Every so often, Levé punctuates his catalogue of descriptions with a description of an artwork that possesses certain qualities which could not possibly be perceptible to anyone who might actually behold it, so that the work in question is ultimately and irreducibly literary in nature as the qualities by which it is defined and constituted are inextricably bound to the page. Consider, for example, artwork number eighty-six, which is described in its entirety as follows: “A painting is painted with the artist whispering, ‘Bye-bye, bye-bye, bye-bye…'” The painting is the artwork, but the quality that defines and constitutes it as this painting and no other is a quality that cannot ever be observed by anyone other than Levé’s narratorial consciousness. The same is true of later artworks, such as number one hundred and twenty-four:

A pamphlet displays twenty-four photographs taken by an artist on a walk through the city, starting from his home. He chooses a metro stop at random. He takes the first exit. Once outside, he takes the second street on the left, the third on the right, again the second on the left, again the third on the right, and so on. If there are fewer than two or three streets, he takes the first possible turn. Every five minutes, he takes a photograph of what’s right in front of him. The walk lasts for two hours.

Since so much of the artistry of this artwork — so much of the artist’s exploitation of the particularities of his or her chosen artform — is invested in Levé’s description of the process of composition, and since so little of it is invested in the outcome of that process, the real value of the artwork resides not in the work itself but in Levé’s literary rendition of its coming into being. It is true that most of the artworks described in Works are not artworks of this sort. Most of them are works that could conceivably be brought forth in a way that does not compromise their artistic integrity. But every so often throughout Works, Levé describes something that is either imbued with aesthetic particularities or else productive of affective states that can exist only in a descriptive form, that are almost entirely constructions of language alone, and that therefore cannot escape or transcend the written word —

138. A wild animal is painted on a red background, in the middle of a round tableau, the radius of which is proportional to the distance at which the animal will choose to fight or take flight when approached by something dangerous.

264. An artist sells his works at the average price paid over the last year for works in the same medium by living artists of the same nationality.

297. A golden drill engraves a sausage.

312. The track of a giant slug — a fat and transparent viscous line — runs through an exhibition, thickening at those works before which the creature tarries.

341. Advertising photographs are reconstructed using expressionless models. The absence of slogans makes the message incomprehensible.

348. A political lobbying group aims to have zoo animals paid a monthly salary.

438. A surgeon creates invisible tattoos on the walls of internal organs.

— and it is with these sorts of descriptions that Levé invests the value of Works itself in its own literariness, in its exploitation of the aesthetic particularities of the artform of literature above any and all alternative forms.

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.