The Best of Autofiction:  Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle

Remember the “Me Generation”?  I do, just barely.  In 1976 Tom Wolfe wrote a cover story about the “The Me Decade,” and Baby Boomers were known, if briefly, as the “Me Generation.” 

Nobody likes a narcissist, hence the ambivalence toward autofiction, which knows no generational divide. (We are all “me.”) Of course Proust and Norman Mailer wrote autofiction before the term was coined, but Karl Ove  Knausgaard is the sovereign of autofiction. And though most critics love Knausgaard’s six-volume masterpiece, My Struggle, some are indignant because Knausgaard (a GenXer) changed no names in his detailed account of his life and relationships. 

I had no clue what autofiction was when I began to read it.  Immediately I was intrigued by the fast-paced novels.   Knausgaard is sharp, observant, absorbing, mercurial, likable, and unbelievably fun to read.  And the narrator Karl Ove is a sympathetic, likable character, though he has some exasperating characteristics.  Oddly, I am reminded of Tolstoy’s masterpieces, not because Knausgaard writes on a large scale–it is utterly personal–but  because he draws you into his personal novels in the same indefinable way.  

It matters very little which volume you begin with, because the books are not chronological.  In the first book, we meet narrator Karl Ove as an adult, balancing writing, relationships, and child care.  I posted about it at my old blog here.

I just finished Book 4, set in the 1980s, when  Karl Ove, 18, takes a job as an assistant teacher in a tiny fishermen’s village. He doesn’t take teaching seriously, and plans to stay only one year.   Determined to be a writer, he got his start as the music critic for a small newspaper when he was still at gymnas (secondary school).  And now he spends weekends writing  short stories. The trouble is: alcohol. 

Is Karl Ove an alcoholic?  He has a charming personality, and makes friends easily.  But he drinks so much at parties he has blackouts.  He doesn’t consider this a problem, and is furious when he oversleeps and the headmaster comes to his house to wake him up for work. Karl Ove thinks missing work because he is hungover is a man’s choice.  Knausgaard also writes of Karl Ove’s years at gymnas (high school), when he also loved being drunk, and drank so much he allowed friends to trash his mother’s house.  All signs of alcoholism…

He also constantly broods about sex.  If only he could get a girlfriend…

All right, perhaps there are too many  drinking scenes and and brooding-about-sex scenes.  At the same time, life is repetition, and the repetition  here is a simulation of  real life.  That is the way we live: repetition.  And these are great books.

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