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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Norwegian wood: Karl Ove Knausgaard's travels in American for the NYT

Read yesterday and finished this morning the first half of Karl Ove Knausgasrd's cleverly titled "My Saga," a piece the NYT magazine commissioned him to write, as he explains: the editors asked him to travel to various Norwegian pseudo-Viking sites in Canada and the U.S., accompanied (part of the time) by a photographer and to chronicle his journey for the magazine. I find that most often these commissioned magazine pieces don't work out so well - it's an editor's idea, rather than the writer's, and often the writer takes on the assignment as a piece of work, not as part of the core of his or her being. Some of that's true in this piece - KOK's observations about America are pretty shallow and obvious and won't be terribly informative to American readers at least - but the project is saved, at least to a degree, by the ever-engaging narrative style. KOK is more aware than us of the shortcomings or even failures of part of his journey, and, as throughout his great, on-going project, My Struggle, his is both the most honest and disarmingly self-effacing of all writers. For ex., when he goes into a restaurant in Newfoundland and notices that all of the fellow diners are fat, some grossly so, he also has the sense to upbraid himself and realize that if this is the best he can come up w/ in his observations about America his saga will be a failure. He spends a lot of time telling about his "struggle" to get validation of his driver's license, and uses that the parenthetically tell us how he's always losing things, including for ex. a carryon containing passports and a laptop with all of his writings - left in a cab, but recovered the next day - and he's very sanguine about the faux. Other parts of the saga focus on the woes of his hotel room (including a clogged toilet, I will say no more) and his need to find places to smoke: some of course criticize KOK for this "navel-gazing" and concern with the trivial rather than the grand, but I am on his side: I think through his willingness to examine every aspect of his life and being he creates a rich and unexpected examination of character and culture. No doubt, he is more of a novelist than a travel-writer, as his focus is so often internal and private - as he notes, he hates to talk to strangers or even to casual friends, which is not a good trait for a journalist or travel writer - but his personal insights, so unexpected, always life even his work-for-hire to a higher level. Some of the brief descriptions of Detroit, for ex., are excellent - even tho, through part one of this saga, there is no real "conflict of forces" to drive this journey forward.

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