The latest issue of the relaunched New York Times Magazine has, as its centerpiece, a looong essay by Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose six-volume My Struggle has sparked widespread reflection on autobiographical fiction, consciousness, and time. The Norwegian writer’s mission, per Times decree: “travel to Newfoundland and visit the place where the Vikings had settled, then rent a car and drive south, into the U.S. and westward to Minnesota, where a large majority of Norwegian-American immigrants had settled, and then write about it,” as a kind of “tongue-in-cheek Tocqueville.”
This is a fascinating assignment, and I found myself moving through the piece in my usual Knausgaard trance, lulled by the accretion of detail and propelled by little more than the Newtonian logic that objects in motion tend to remain in motion. Knausgaard—provocatively low-affect, as if he’d wrought his prose from some insight-resistant material—is a master at arranging banal facts in a row and letting you wonder: Is this boredom I feel? Or drafts from the invisible wings of genius? Does it matter? One thing’s for sure, though: Karl Ove Knausgaard may be an intriguing novelist, but he’s the last person on Earth you want as your travel writer.
To begin with, he has no interest in the basic procedure of getting from point A to point B. (“It’s good that I always put off paying bills. It’s good that I never cash the checks I receive. That means I’m a writer,” he says, of wandering into customs red tape and then wearing it as a badge of honor.) For the Times assignment, Knausgaard attempts international travel even though he lost his driver’s license a year ago. He hopes things will shake out anyway, which basically means forcing a team of government grunts to humor and indulge him. (“I emailed the Swedish Embassy in Washington … to ask if they could fix it for me. They could not. So I had figured on calling the Swedish Transport Agency.”) Later, Knausgaard does not receive documents he needs because he had neglected to provide the mailer with country codes.
He is also, it turns out, willfully incompetent. He clogs his Newfoundland hotel toilet—and we will be ever-grateful for the revelation that the offending crap was his first Canadian crap—and refuses to notify the staff so they can fix it. His cellphone runs out of credit and his terrible record on bill payment means he can only re-up in cash. The form doesn’t go through. He is too ashamed to email his Times editor with the news that he is stranded in Canada—“nor had I used the time to talk to anyone, or to walk around and get to know the town”—and so he “[lays] down in bed and [reads] about the Vikings.” If I am Knausgaard’s editor at this point, I am no longer imagining him as “a tongue-in-cheek Tocqueville.” He is LOL MY WORST F–ING NIGHTMARE.
But the broader reason that no one should be tapping Knausgaard for illuminating travel writing is that he appears flummoxed by everything that happens outside of his own brain. Other people, unfamiliar spaces, complicated airports—he faces them all with equal bafflement. The flat, uncomprehending tone Knausgaard uses to describe elements in the Cleveland landscape is the same that he employs for Pierce, the hotel worker, or Peter, the photographer. “So your idea is to drive across America and write about it without talking to a single American?” asks Peter at one point. “Yes,” Knausgaard replies. Earlier, he sums up American diners in terms that he himself acknowledges are tatted cliché: “Everyone in the place, except the waiter, was fat, some of them so fat that I kept having to look at them.” Knausgaard neither knows how nor wants to close the distance. This makes him almost constitutionally averse to establishing a real sense of place.
Consider how, throughout “My Saga” (did I mention the essay is called “My Saga”?), the specifics of the writer’s surroundings get lost in his dull bewilderment at all things that are not himself. Buildings, people are alike in strangeness. Cleveland could be any site of alienation, “an endless row of streets with identical houses, beneath the dirty gray light of a misty, freezing sky.” America as a whole consists of “identical cars … followed by identical gas stations, identical restaurants, identical motels and, as an extension of these, by identical TV screens, which hang everywhere in this country, broadcasting identical entertainment and identical dreams.” What travel writer worth his salt would posit that El Paso, Texas and Portland, Oregon dream identical dreams (especially when he’s only seen Cleveland and Detroit)? Perhaps one who believes, as Knausgaard does, that “identity is not something we invest in the landscape, not in the lake or the forest or the mountain,” but “in our notions about the landscape and in the names we give it.” In My Saga, places can’t acquire character until Knausgaard brushes on the secret sauce of his writerly vision.
Of course, in genres that do NOT include travel writing, such solipsism can be a feature, rather than a bug. Knausgaard’s prose style, which collects data without tuning into the spirit of his subjects, creates a hypnotic kind of detachment: “His name was Pierce, he was in his 60s and had a deeply lined face. … He said that they were expecting a heavy snowfall the next day, and that this was probably the last chance to get out to the site for a long time.”
But travel writing, even if the practitioner affects an outsider-y naiveté, simply requires deeper engagement with place. It needs someone who, as John Jeremiah Sullivan said of Donald Antrim, can “render permeable the surface lens that divides” a setting’s “underworld of fantasy” from its realist features. Hire the guy who can access a sense of where he is through a mix of observation, intuition, and receptivity—not the one who notices “small ice-covered lakes…scattered here and there, many of them free of snow” but has no idea what to do with them or why they matter.
Anyway, toward the top of “My Saga,” Knausgaard worries that, unlike the Dutch reporter who retraced John Steinbeck’s steps through the United States, he can’t place America “in an economic, political, and cultural context.” Unlike Jack Kerouac, he can’t sing America’s soul “from the inside out.” I’d argue his real problem is both simpler and harder to solve: Our great crumb-gatherer of small, subjective consciousness is too deep inside his own head to look around. Also, he can’t operate a phone card.