A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Book Two of Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume memoir, A Man in Loveis a bit of a puzzle. First, there is the controversy of the title. Publishers around the world have tried to find clever ways to deal with the negative associations with Mein Kampf. (The original Norwegian title is Min Kamp.)

Then, there is the question of exactly what has made the series so commercially successful in Europe. While the book seems to go on forever, and very little happens, it is nonetheless compelling.  One is drawn into the everyday rhythms of the life of this man who wants so desperately to write,  whose relationships, even when at their best, are a hindrance to the fulfillment of that desire.

Knausgaard, who says he desired to be liked since the age of seven, is often unlikable. Immediately after the birth of his first child, he disappears for two weeks to write, leaving his long suffering partner, Linda, home alone with their newborn. Later, Linda goes back to school while Knausgaard stays home with the child. Many pages are devoted to the misery of child care. He finds the situation unfair primarily because he is not a mother, but a father. For Knausgaard, the domestic duties are emasculating, symptomatic of a larger crisis in Scandinavian culture–progressive ideals that turn men into house husbands and cast a dull, polite patina over what should be politically charged conversations.

Nonetheless, his vulnerabilities are such that, at times, one finds oneself empathizing. He clearly loves his children, and there are passages in which his tenderness toward them is heartbreaking. He suffers from a burning desire to please everyone. What makes Knausgaard insufferable is also what makes the book itself compelling. You struggle through the self-absorption because there is there is so much very good and thoughtful writing here. Knausgaard writes powerfully about the desperate desire to carve out time to write, an all-consuming desire that anyone struggling to balance parenthood and writing will find familiar. All of us who juggle writing with family know the wrenching feeling of being tied to people and events and everyday activities, when all you want in the world is to be alone in a room with some books and a laptop.

At one point, when he has to give a lecture about his own work, he sits at a cafe waiting for the appointed time, considering what he will say to this roomful of eager listeners:

I was supposed to talk about the two books I had written. I couldn’t do that, so it would have to be about how the books came into being, those years of nothing until something definite began to take shape, how it slowly but surely took over, in such a way that in the end everything came by itself.

Such beauty is everywhere in this book, which is by turns graceful and maddening, wise and self-serving.

Since the publication of the first book in the series, Knausgaard has sold half a million books in Norway. In the U.S., half a million is a respectable showing (for a single book, not necessarily for multiples), but in Norway, that number means you’ve reached one in ten of the population, an unheard of feat. The series has also been a success in Europe and is garnering a good deal of attention from reviewers in the U.S.  It appears that literature has found its new golden boy, and, in keeping with the archetypal literary golden boy, Knausgaard complains frequently in this book that he hates the attention. The accolades sicken him,  the journalists and photographers who want to capture something of his spirit for an admiring audience are objects of ridicule.

The complaint does not feel quite genuine. The internet is swarming with images of Knausgaard gazing soulfully into the camera, or looking off into the distance with a cigarette in hand. It’s not that he is different from other writers in this respect; Knausgaard’s friend Geir admits that everything that Knausgaard has is exactly what Geir wants and can’t achieve. Having taken a page from the Jonathan Franzen playbook, Knausgaard doth protest too much. It’s fine to enjoy the fame. It’s hypocritical to wallow in it while pretending to despise it.

Ah, but the book. The book itself is very good, easy to put down at moments but easy to come back to. Or, perhaps I should say it calls you back. During the period that I was reading it, I kept remembering that it was there, in the other room, that I only need go in there and shut the door and I would be immersed in it again. I wanted to be immersed in it. The book itself has something. It is truly a joy to read. The endless minutia of the writer’s days has a kind of raw intensity. One might be tempted to say “honesty,” but, upon closer inspection, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The book is orchestrated, like all memoirs, to give a certain view of the speaker. Accuracy isn’t the point, perhaps. Knausgaard is a very good writer, and that is why one is so easily drawn into the book.

Incidentally, one has to question whether the exact same book by a woman would be considered high art at all, or merely another domestic memoir filled with nappies, love affairs, friends, and food porn. Knausgaard is very good at food porn. The way that My Struggle has been received seems symptomatic of the larger issue in the literary landscape: men can write about anything and be praised for creating serious art (Knausgaard’s previous book was about angels), while women who tackle the same themes, with equal talent and scope, are marginalized as “women writers” working in the realm of “domestic” fiction or memoir. This disparity has nothing to do with the quality of Knausgaard’s work, which speaks for itself, but rather with the lingering assumption among critics that women who write about certain subjects are not deserving of serious consideration, while men are.

Archipelago Books, May 2013

ISBN-13: 978-1935744825

Buy from Indiebound   Buy from Amazon   Buy from Barnes & Noble

Reviewed by Michelle Richmond

Confessions of a Sociopath by M.E. Thomas

Confessions of a Sociopath, by M.E. Thomas

Reviewed by Michelle Richmond

You probably won’t like M.E. Thomas, the pseudonymous author of Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life of Hiding in Plain Sight. That said, you may recognize some of her characteristics in people you know: an ability to turn on the charm when something is to be gained, a lack of conscience, a tendency to orchestrate relationships and to discard friends and acquaintances when they are no longer useful. You may even begin to wonder if you’re a sociopath yourself.

Thomas, a Texas law professor who also happens to teach Sunday School at her Mormon church, details her own journey to diagnosis. She grew up knowing she was different, but not understanding why. At the age of thirty, a psychiatric evaluation revealed that Thomas had “a prototypical psychopathic personality.”

What makes the book initially interesting–the author’s recitation of her own sociopathic character traits and actions–is what makes it ultimately easy to put down. Thomas contends that she, like the majority of other sociopaths, lives successfully in society, undetected. She believes that her sociopathic tendencies make her, in some ways, a more evolved human being, highly capable and very well-liked. She also finds herself to be exceptionally good-looking, stylish, and somewhat brilliant. A sympathetic reader might argue that Thomas be blamed for these narcissistic tendencies, as sociopaths by definition tend to have a very high opinion of themselves, often unsupported by the facts.

The book’s strength is that it may provide some comfort to anyone who suspects they are married to–or perhaps raising–a sociopath. While sociopaths are over-represented in prisons, Thomas contends that many more are living among us, “hiding in plain sight.” She estimates that four percent of the population fit the diagnosis for sociopathy. For sociopaths and those who love them, it should be heartening to know that a diagnosis of sociopathy does not doom a person to a life of crime or loneliness. While Thomas fantasizes about killing, for example, it’s not something she would ever consider acting upon.

Parents of sociopaths may find the book to be a sometimes painful, sometimes comforting insight into the elementary school years.

“I usually had friends despite my perceived oddness,” Thomas writes, “but I experienced periods in which I was avoided or even ostracized by everyone. I could overwhelm people, put them off. I was too aggressive for them, or they could see how deceptive, untrustworthy, and scheming I was.”

She notes, however, that she was “never bullied or picked on,” because her peers were afraid of her. Instead, she was often the one who picked on others, coldly choosing her victims and targeting their vulnerabilities. She also lacked the insecurities that plagued many of her friends, and didn’t care very much what others thought of her.

Just as the sociopaths you know probably begin to wear on your nerves at some point–self-centeredness, in the end, being a friendship-killer–the memoir begins to grow old a few chapters in. The fact that it is interesting but not entirely illuminating should come as no great surprise. The best memoirs work because the author is able to reflect with some degree of honesty and humility on his or her own flaws. While Thomas is honest to a point, it is difficult to trust a voice that confesses to thoughtlessly bending the truth to her own purpose; is she being truthful now? Thomas’s self-congratulatory tone tends to wear after a while. The premise is certainly compelling. But what is missing, ultimately and perhaps unsurprisingly , is the author’s ability to truly connect with her audience.

Crown, May 14, 2013

ISBN 9780307956644

Buy from Amazon    Buy from Indiebound   Buy from Barnes and Noble

Michelle Richmond is the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller The Year of Fog. Her new novel will be published next year by Bantam, and her new story collection is forthcoming from Fiction Collective 2.

Give Me Everything You Have by James Lasdun

Give Me Everything You HaveIt isn’t often that a book keeps me awake at night. Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, the new memoir by James Lasdun, did just that.

In 2003, Lasdun, author of several books of poetry and ficiton, taught a creative writing workshop at Morgan College in New York City. One of his students, a quiet, reserved young woman whom Lasdun refers to in the book as Nasreen, turns in a story which he praises in front of the other students. Nasreen seems unflustered, if vaguely pleased, by the praise, and she visits Lasdun a few times during office hours to discuss her work. When the class is over, they lose touch.

Two years later, Lasdun receives an email from Nasreen, wanting to know if he will read her novel. An email correspondence ensues, one which becomes increasingly personal, and eventually flirtatious–primarily from Nasreen’s end. While attempting to subtly discourage the flirtation, Lasdun encourages Nasreen as a writer and offers to introduce her to his agent. When Nasreen becomes more direct, inserting herself in his life in a way that makes Lasdun, who is married, uncomfortable, his own emails become more businesslike and less frequent.

Nasreen doesn’t react well to this cooling effect. She begins sending him dozens of emails each day, many filled with inappropriate fantasies or requests. Eventually, her emails become hateful and anti-semitic. She then begins involving other people as well, attacking Lasdun’s agent by email, absurdly accusing Lasdun and the agent of stealing her work and selling it to other writers. She begins contacting Lasdun’s potential employers and accusing Lasdun of having affairs with students and plagiarizing her work. She leaves nasty reviews on Amazon alleging the same things, and posts rants on goodreads and various blogs. In short, she sets out to ruin him, referring repeatedly to her own tactics as “verbal terrorism.”

Nasreen’s aim is nothing less than to destroy her former professor. While her claims are so outlandish, her tactics so reprehensible, as to discredit her among critics, Lasdun’s colleagues, and the publishing world, the sheer volume and vitriol of her attacks on Lasdun have what was perhaps the desired effect: she infects every part of his day. He cannot stop thinking about her, feeling overwhelmed and attacked by her. All he wants is to be rid of her, but it is impossible. The police and FBI are unable to help, because she has never threatened his life, but they insist that he keep the emails rather than discard them, in case she does actually make a threat on which they can act. Lasdun, a self-proclaimed liberal and non-practicing Jew, is suddenly cast in the light of the oppressor/racist/sexual predator.

Give Me Everything You Have is not merely a recounting of the sordid details of the years-long attack. It is a deeply meditative book, in which Lasdun turns the microscope on himself, examining both his own role in the disaster–his willingness to fall into the friendship in part because the attentions of this young, attractive, talented woman were flattering–and the problem of his inaction. While he is never quite able to muster compassion for the woman who has taken on the aura of a demon in his daily life, he does attempt to understand how their seemingly innocuous online relationship escalated to this horror:

 

People are always in various stages of various different dramas when you encounter them: freshly embarked on some, halfway or more through others. One is always approaching the denouement of this or that subplot of one’s life. And you, the stranger, entering the picture in all your blundering innocence, may well be the catalyst for some long-awaited climax, or the last in a series of minor but incessantly accumulating, and finally backbreaking, straws.

The fact that Lasdun has always lived in the shadow of his father, an accomplished architect whose well-known buildings tower over London, and has always felt that his own contributions to the world pale in comparison, adds another dimension to the book.

Lasdun’s thoughts on the re-emergence of an old-fashioned culture of reputation–in which one can be ruined by someone else’s words, posted and spread anonymously and exponentially through the relatively new tool of the Internet–are fascinating. Whereas reputation once meant to him the currency of literary fame and fortune, it takes on a far more sinister face: reputation is something which can be built over a lifetime and destroyed rather quickly by one single, determined, off-kilter person.

As a writer and sometime teacher, I find the book particularly nightmarish. But it serves as a cautionary tale to anyone who cares one whit what others think–which is to say, all of us.

ISBN-10: 0374219079

Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, Feb. 2013

Buy the book from Amazon

Buy the book from Indiebound

Michelle Richmond is the author of four books of fiction, including the international bestseller The Year of Fog. She is the founder and publisher of Fiction Attic Press. Visit her website.

Kayak Morning by Roger Rosenblatt

I first came across the work of Roger Rosenblatt at a local bookstore, where the paperback of his memoir,Making Toast, was on display on the front table. When Rosenblatt’s 38-year-old daughter died suddenly of a heart defect no one knew she had, he and his wife Ginny moved in with their widowed son-in-law to care for their three small grandchildren. Making Toast is a beautiful and deeply painful book, shot through with the author’s raw grief. Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats, takes up where Making Toast left off. At the time of its writing, Rosenblatt’s grief has not abated. If anything, it has grown sharper. This book, like the one before it, is stunning. It is associative, like the best long-form essays, meandering from subject to subject, from esoteric fact to watery remembrance.

The book is shot through with meditations on water, solitude, Quogue, and kayaking, as well as surprising revelations (Rosenblatt interviewed several presidents; among them was Nixon, who remarked that Rosenblatt’s tape recorder was “better” than the old tape recorders).

My first thought upon reading this book was that it is the kind of book I would like to have written. But then I realized I was mistaken. Kayak Morning, like Making Toast before it, draws its weight and its beauty, its utterly crystallized emotions and startling sensitivity, from grief. I would like to have the talent to write this book, but I would not like to have the experience that made this book possible. The death of Rosenblatt’s daughter is on every page, it colors everything. His daughter died before him, his daughter whom he remembers with such specificity as his little girl, and he cannot get over it. What father could? What parent could? The book comes from a place no parent wants to go.

In this way it reminds me of Joan Didion’s Blue Nights. Blue Nights, which addresses, among other things, the unexpected death of Didion’s adult daughter, follows the narrative thread of The Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir about the year following the death of Didion’s husband. Both of these two Didion books are incredibly good, but The Year of Magical Thinking is, in my mind, the more masterful one. In Blue Nights, Didion is doing battle with time, with the stark realities of her own aging body and her aging mind; she worries, in fact, that she no longer possesses the powers of narrative that she once had. Beyond that, however, Blue Nights, beautiful as it is, is a book without hope. At the end of The Year of Magical Thinking, her daughter is still alive; at the beginning of Blue Nights, she is not.

Didion’s approach to the narrative of grief is perhaps the more obviously intellectual, Rosenblatt’s the more dreamy. Both are deeply felt, unforgettable. Didion writes Blue Nights, it seems, in the depths of grief and in the absence of hope, while Rosenblatt writes Kayak Morning in the depths of grief but the presence of hope; he has his wife, his two sons. More important, perhaps, is the fact that he still has his daughter’s children, his grandchildren, whom he cares for every day. During the school year he and his wife live in a single room of their son-in-law’s house. He writes in this room while the children are in school, and when they are not, they are always welcome to pile in and pile on. One does not get the sense that Rosenblatt will outlive his grief; and yet, his book’s two-word title includes the word Morning, a sharp contrast to Didion’s two-word title, which includes the word Night.

Ecco, Jan. 2012 ISBN 978-0062084033

BUY THE BOOK

Reviewed by Michelle Richmond, author of The Year of Fog, No One You Know, Dream of the Blue Room, and The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress