#tobyreads: Wrapped Up in Books — The Literary Lives of Karl Ove Knausgaard, Thomas M. Disch, and Gabby Bess

Thomas M. Disch

Like a lot of readers I know, I read — devoured, maybe — Jesse Barron’s interview with Karl Ove Knausgaard last weekend. I’d been reading the second part of his six-volume memoir/novel/whatever he prefers to call it My Struggle, subtitled A Man In Love. I’d read the first part of said work last year, along with his novel A Time For Everything; both were on my list of the best books I’d read in 2012.

In the interview, Knausgaard notes that

In Min Kamp, I wanted to see how far it was possible to take realism before it would be impossible to read. My first book had a strong story, strong narration. Then I would see how far I could take a digression out before I needed to go back to the narration, and I discovered I could go for thirty or forty pages, and then the digressions took over. So in Min Kamp I’m doing nothing but digressions, no story lines. Language itself takes care of it.

And while neither volume is necessarily plot-driven, Knausgaard’s digressive approach does still circle around the same topics (in the first volume, his relationship to his father; in the second, his relationship with his wife), ultimately accumulating details and leading to some devastating moments. (At one point, reading A Man In Love, I found myself muttering “Oh my God” repeatedly while riding the subway.) It’s an approach ultimately closer to Javier Marias than, say, Gerard Murnane.

Talk of literature abounds in Knausgaard’s book, sometimes enamored and sometimes contentious. That’s a quality it shares with Thomas M. Disch’s 1996 collection The Castle of IndolenceIt collects a number of Disch’s essays on poetry, and while the mid-90s setting does unfortunately produce some knocks on political correctness, Disch’s fondness for the esoteric has pointed me in the direction of a number of authors. Kenneth Fearing, whose body of work encompasses noir and poetry in equal measure, comes to mind — it looks as though NYRB Classics have, in the years since Disch’s collection was released, reissued several of his books. And, in a more general sense, as I’ve been lax on my “trying to read more poetry in 2013” resolution, I suspect that Disch’s intensely-written collection will help me recover some momentum.

I can’t exactly be objective about Gabby Bess’s collection Alone With Other People, which blends short stories and poetry — one of the stories in it, “Experience the Fun,” first appeared as a Sunday Story. The lines between the two are porous: certain figures appear in both, and there’s a sensibility of closely observed quotidian details throughout the book. Bess’s protagonists are frustrated in their jobs; they envision horrors to jar themselves out of it; they endure unexciting romances. It’s a compact volume, but it covers a lot of ground, and manages to find drama in a number of situations that wouldn’t normally lend themselves to drama. As debuts go, it’s a memorable one.

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