It elicited comments as riveting as the piece itself. The naysayers had a point: the noodling narrative about the Norwegian author’s car trip to Minnesota is annoying, like his hairdo: precious but trying to look unkempt. And his ideas seem as random as those duets Fred Armisen and Kristin Wiig sang as Garth and Kat on SNL. Knausgaard, like G & K, is either a genius or pulling something over on us. Probably both.
In My Saga Knausgaard retraces meanderings of Vikings and Scandinavian immigrants to the US as a meditation on place, while simultaneously getting a bead on modern American "culture". But first our narrator establishes that he’s shiftless, so we’ll take him seriously: He seems to think that forgetting to get a drivers license to rent a car for a road trip financed by the NY Times telegraphs that something deep is coming. Takes a while, though because first there’s a sophomoric subplot about travelers’ bowels and a stopped-up toilet.
As the story progresses, the narrator's chutzpah is almost funny: how could anyone think that driving around the midwest for a week could illuminate why cities he encounters on the way like Detroit are in crisis. Even his photographer asks, "So your idea is to drive across America and write about it without talking to a single American?"
So low-hanging fruit gets picked. Like, the author hears a lousy cover band in a Detroit dive and sees it as metaphor for the death of Motown. Or he “discovers” that a lot of Midwesterners are fat. (Good news, writers! The Times will pay for that kind of insight.)
So who cares what this guy thinks?
Well, despite all this I did, because no one talks about landscape, be it Newfoundland or Detroit, more movingly than Knausgaard. His channeling of the Vikings loneliness in Newfoundland and their homesickness for Scandinavia made me cry. Read it just for that.
(Kudos also to the photographer, Peter Van Agtmael, not only for the art but for putting up with this guy in a car. Note: he also got hammered by some naysayers who wanted prettier Detroit pics.)
The landscape part must be good because after that, Knausgaard’s gee-whiz analysis of what’s wrong with the US strikes starts to ring true. Take his first view of Detroit:
“I’d seen poverty before, of course, even incomprehensible poverty, as in the slums outside Maputo, in Mozambique. But I’d never seen anything like this. If what I had seen tonight--house after house after house abandoned, deserted, decaying as if there had been disaster--if this was poverty, then this must be a new kind of poverty, maybe in the same way that the wealth that had amassed here in the 20th century had been a new kind of wealth."
Or this, after too many days on the interstate:
"I had never really understood how a nation that so celebrated the individual could obliterate all differences the way this country did.... The identical cars are followed by identical gas stations, identical screens, which hang everywhere in this country, broadcasting identical entertainment and identical dreams…. Was that what home was here? Not the place, not the local, but the culture, the general?”
The truth is, whether these opinions are adolescent or well-founded, we Americans lament the same stuff. That he's Norwegian doesn’t make these concerns less valid. So I'll read My Saga Part II because the author has guts: there is nothing easier and harder than being an outsider. Easy, because it's a no-brainer to see what's wrong with other people’s lives, culture, neighborhoods, or hairdo. Hard, because you might be right, but for sure you'll be lonely.