On a Pages file stored in the cloud there is a list of the books I have read going back eleven years. Since coming to Philadelphia and being confronted with an ignorance as deep as America itself, a concerted effort was made to increase the number of women and non-white men read. If this was something written concerning achievement then the numbers would be given, but this isn’t one of those bits of self-aggrandizement. Instead, any success that was made brought something else to the fore. When a white male author appeared it was the most white male author possible. Thousands of pages of Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle series, mostly as a way to think through the possibility of a fatherhood that is not desired personally, but one is also an other. Read in secret, in a secret house, in a city by the sea. Where no one, save one, could see. The whiteness of pure white given voice in the pink flesh of those who lack melanin.
Why is it that Knausgård’s work has been so popular? Upon reading the first volume of the series of memoirs of an utterly unremarkable life one can’t help but wonder what actually happened. The first book is perhaps the most boring book that I have ever read and yet it captured everything about a life. For those whose fathers both stayed and abandoned them like some kind of quantum superposition of shit parenting the book touches something deep and far more generic than the little life of Karl Ove. After all, what is some Norwegian in a world such as this. Except that it is a world of fathers such as his and the men who grow up despite themselves.
It could be this thematic that makes Knausgård’s work so gripping for a certain reader. Yet, surely this “universal” theme is explored elsewhere to greater and less precious effect. Readers of better fiction will know (and for all its truthfullness, Karl Ove gives us a fiction, a fabulation). Knausgård’s works are popular because of their honesty. It is their honesty which makes such a mundane life a spectacle. Precisely because we live in a world where such honesty–about what one is, about what one desires, about what one suffers, about who one loves and in what way–is deadly. Simply put honesty will get your ass thrown out, ostracized, or even killed.
Is such honesty simply another benefit of white privilege, then? After all, Knausgård’s particular form of heteronormativity and concern regarding “others” takes a particular white hue. Here is perhaps where privilege discourse requires still a deeper analysis to understand what the fuck is going on. In a way the honesty manifest in My Struggle is a pastiche of the honesty of hip hop poetics or the barely concealed dissimulation of a Baldwin sprawled dangerously before his male lover in a white world. The honesty of knowing there is dirt on everyone of us. The stink of another body that can only be an affront to community, to good sense, to decorum. Lemonde isn’t simply a capitalist innovation, it’s also something that sticks to your skin.
Will the dear sweet melancholic lose his life from his honesty, as Baldwin might have lost his? Karl Ove will never experience social death and the total dishonor attendant to it. His honesty may lose him friends, his family, his wife, and even the children he is proud do not fear him. Yet, he will still be something. His honesty is no hindrance and that is why his struggle is never quite true. The risk of honesty is only a risk if one is nothing and being honest would expose that true nothingness. It is only a risk if it would undo the narrative. But dear Karl Ove will always have a narrative as one who lives always in the shadow of the father and one’s relation to him. Karl Ove will never be no one, especially now that he has become the good father.