The Structure of No Structure
Shaggy Dog, McLoughlin Bros., inc., 1880,
by Eric D. Lehman
When I picked up the first book in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical series My Struggle, I had an unusual reaction: “It’s boring,” I told my wife, “but I can’t stop reading.” Succeeding volumes continued this pattern: nothing much happened. Book Four begins with an ordinary scene, the most ordinary scene, watching suitcases at an airport carousel. What time? “It was five minutes to seven.” The decision weighing on him? Whether he should take the bus or a taxi. There were no great physical accomplishments, no fabulous experiences, no brilliant investigations into the nature of the universe. You cannot really summarize the books, put their plots into movie pitches, or create a spellbinding miniseries for the BBC. But I could not put the books down.
I am apparently not alone, since the collected volumes have been hailed as one of the 21st century’s first literary phenomena. Some reviewers have pointed to the voyeuristic nature of the books, and perhaps the lure of peeking into a completely honest confession might be the secret to his success. However, it’s not like he describes having sex with celebrities or eating cobra hearts or anything worth peeking through the keyhole to see. So, it isn’t just the lure of the unknown, which any honest memoirist can give you.
Of course, many great memoirs are simply great stories, and when we examine the prose carefully, we are disappointed and chagrined. What we want as readers are great stories also told by great writers. However, Knausgaard’s work may be even more startling – he has taken what is not a great story, and somehow made it compelling and beautiful. Some attribute this to his prose, but most can’t seem to agree why. Are his sentences “direct” and “unmetaphorical” as The Paris Review states, or is it a prose of “dreamy thickness” as the Los Angeles Review of Books posits, or is it “elegiac” and “intimate” as told in the New York Times? Perhaps it is all of these, or none.
Other critics attribute the greatness of these autobiographical novels to Knausgaard’s destruction of “structure.” In The Guardian, Jonathan Lethem praises his “abandoning every typical literary feint” and in the San Francisco Chronicle, Kevin Canfield says that the author is trying to “reshape our expectations about storytelling, character arcs, and closing act resolutions.” Knausgaard himself seems to agree with these critics in various interviews, lectures, and other books. In Home and Away, his book of letters with Swedish writer Frederick Ekelund, he says, “This is the great task of literature. Not necessarily in the form of realism and description of reality, but as a stubborn, timeless insistence on, and search for, the disintegration of the structure of that which we know.”
What does he mean by this “disintegration of structure?” Especially since, now that the sixth book has appeared in English, we can see that a novelistic superstructure does in fact exist. We get a pair of bookends of his father’s death and the publication of the book about his father’s death, which together create a classic metafictional loop. We get a 400-page essay on Hitler’s Mein Kampf, which gives the entire series the configuration of a gigantic personal essay, with this piece as the reflective conclusion of a memoir. And the heart-wrenching breakdown of his wife after she is exposed to the world through these very books is an undeniable emotional climax. The whole of My Struggle is clearly organized as an autobiographical novel – just a lot longer.
What Knausgaard has instead attempted to do is wreck what we’ll call the “middle level” of narrative structure. In this way, he resembles Gertrude Stein, who tried to break down the syntaxes and structures of the sentence. Knausgaard keeps the sentence-level syntax and the overall superstructure, but attempts to gets rid of the novelistic bric-a-brac in-between. This mid-level structure is often lumped in with “stylistic devices,” but anaphora and hyperbole are much different things than falling action and nested stories technique. Sometimes mid-level structures are referred to as “literary forms” but other times that term is reserved for poetry, letters, novels, and other “genres.” The most appropriate category for them is probably something like “narrative devices.” These might include “MacGuffin,” “Chekov’s gun,” and “cliffhanger,” all of which Knausgaard plays with.
He is not the first to attempt this. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is an early English-language example of an author pulling back the veil of structure. Virginia Woolf disguised the narrative in Mrs. Dalloway, and went even farther in The Waves. Jack Kerouac tried to problematize narrative in On the Road or The Dharma Bums, both secretly structured novels with clear progressions of characters and ideas. Woolf and Kerouac both succeeded brilliantly, so much so that many people think their novels “stream of consciousness” or “free writing.” But Knausgaard goes even farther than they do, because instead of just hiding the mid-level structure, he actively sets out to destroy it.
The first thing you notice is that the story is not chronological. Flash forward, flashback, and nested stories all break up the narrative. Of course, these simple techniques of fracturing the mid-level structure are so common that they barely register with a reader of literary fiction. What makes it a little different is that Knausgaard might flash forward and then never come back. A story might be placed inside a story, but then there might be no payoff. Any sort of braiding of themes and plot lines is ignored, leaving a tangle, a Tristram Shandy shaggy dog story.
He takes foreshadowing, red herrings, and reversals, and breaks them apart whenever possible. If something bad is going to happen, for example, he never signals it. At one point in Book 3 he is out fishing with his grandfather, and they see porpoises. “Seeing porpoises is a good omen, you know.” “Is it? I said. “Oh yes,” he said. This ends a section, and we expect this to lead somewhere, to signal something good about to happen. It doesn’t. But nothing bad happens, either. Life simply moves on.
Likewise, Knausgaard seems to play with dramatic one-line pronouncements as their own paragraphs, setting off things like, “I went into the kitchen and sat down on a chair.” This is not exactly a dramatic moment or proclamation. Or is it? What makes drama? Knausgaard has created an expectation in the reader through these fragments, and that expectation is similar to the expectation we have in life, that something magical will someday happen, that the great plot will reveal itself.
There are objects that seem to mean something, that promise future meanings. A piece of clothing, an album, a tree. The dramatic set-ups never pay off. When he sees a waitress in a soccer uniform across the room, love at first sight, the line “She was holding a tray of empty glasses” never bears fruit, if it even could. A series of magical, get-to-know-you moments seem to lead to love, especially so close to the end of the volume, but instead of losing his virginity to the soccer waitress, he loses it to a woman named Vilde, on whom not even three pages are spent.
It may be that Knausgaard partially accomplishes his de-structuring through the style itself, which provides a constantly detailed movement from bed to desk, from kitchen to playground, from birth to death. “The brief, dark, cold evenings were laden with all the excitement that exists in the unseen and the hidden. The autumn was darkness, earth, water, and hollow spaces. It was breathing, laughter, torchlight, dens, bonfires, and a flock of children drifting here and there.” Knausgaard has seemingly found a balance between detail and reflective content, between the mind and the world.
But his main method of keeping narrative tension without structural tools is by giving promises that never materialize or only appear in twisted ways. In doing so, he has mimicked in some way, as he hoped, the rhythms of life, which have created a fascination in readers, a delicious confusion, a frustrated expectation. The narrative is so compelling because it seems a little like life itself, in which we often experience the sense that something remarkable will happen, but never does. Few have reproduced that so faithfully or perfectly on the printed page.
However, the attempt is not entirely successful. Just as Gertrude Stein tried but did not completely free sentences from syntactical structure, so Knausgaard does not quite “disintegrate” the mid-level storytelling structures for future authors. Indeed, his books might work so well only because such structures exist in other stories, ones we have read before, and will presumably read after. As Stein might have put it: A story is a story is a story. Narrative structures are deep within our human minds, perhaps even in our DNA. The author can either work with that, or against it, but the story remains.
About the Author:
Eric D. Lehman teaches creative writing at the University of Bridgeport and his work have been published in dozens of journals and magazines, from Berfrois to Entelechy. He is also the award-winning author of fifteen books, including Shadows of Paris, Homegrown Terror, and Becoming Tom Thumb. Visit his website at www.ericdlehman.org.