May 7, 2015

Knausgaard: The New Novel Thing

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle is sweeping the world in six volumes and 3,600 pages. It’s the novelized memory of a mostly ordinary Scandinavian life, a book whose boredom has been called riveting, transcendent, but also…boring. In ...

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle is sweeping the world in six volumes and 3,600 pages. It’s the novelized memory of a mostly ordinary Scandinavian life, a book whose boredom has been called riveting, transcendent, but also…boring.

In our conversation, James Wood of Harvard and The New Yorker finds in Knausgaard’s patient meditations, in his small-ball Fjordic stakes, nothing less than the rhythm of eternity:

There’s nothing eloquent about the phrasing, but the simplicity and pungency and innocence of the truth-telling struck me immediately. And what I mean by that seriousness and innocence is an awareness precisely of rhythms of life and death. The sort of rhythms that the psalmist knows. You know the Psalm 121: the Lord will know your going out and your coming in. In the larger sense, the form of our life is our going out and our coming in. It seemed to me that’s absolutely a rhythm that Tolstoy knew. It’s a rhythm that Proust knew.

Meghan O’Rourke, herself a poet and memoirist of personal experience, senses tension as the Norwegian works out what we want from letters as well as life:

In Knausgaard, there is a profound question about masculinity in the contemporary age and especially in the social welfare state. At times, there’s absolutely this kind of fascist-nihilist energy… He talks about his friend reading all this anti-liberal literature and philosophy. There is a real tension in this book. I’m really curious to read the last volume, which I think contains quite a lot about Hitler in it. To me, so much of this project is about this question of where do we find value today. How does literature potentially help us or not help us do that? So, to me, the news is in that. And it has something to do with masculinity and its sense of being.

The author’s own line has been that the books themselves are embarrassing, that he would burn them if he could. Yet they served as a way to open himself up and write (and write and write) a way out of some of his deep problems with fiction. Bill Pierce, senior editor of AGNI magazine, told us the struggle nourishes a “reality hunger” in readers and writers, too:

The fiction that I’m writing now is quite different from what I was doing before precisely because it’s less concerned with external ideas, received ideas, of what ‘literary’ means. [Knausgaard’s] work is literary because of what it does, but not because of how it’s written. He gets us all asking…where does my truth really lie? It doesn’t lie in wrought sentences. He knows that we can easily lose interest. And the strange phenomenon in Knausgaard is that we don’t.

If Knausgaard inspired a “period” in fiction writing — a version of the Raymond Carver grip on the American short story — Bill Pierce thinks it “would be a time when cleverness and literary language are always put in the service of heart truths, of our deepest sense of what is it to be human and alive at this moment.”

Does that seem like what books should be doing in this moment? If you’ve read My Struggle, tell us what you made of it — and even if you haven’t read the man we’re calling ‘the Knaus’, tell us what you think makes “fiction” fiction and “literature” literary — and share what you’ve been reading instead.


Sheila Heti: Smash The Fiction Section

The problem with writing a different kind of novel is that interviewers won’t stop asking you why you did it. Even so, as part of our preparation this week, I asked Sheila Heti why she wrote How Should A Person Be?, a five-year-old book, to be found in the fiction section, that’s hard to think of as “fictional”.

Heti tells the story of her very real friendship with a painter named Margaux, living in Toronto, both by republishing their emails and by making things up that they did together.

In Canada the book has no subtitle. Heti’s American publisher asked her to append “a novel from life”, a name Heti likes because it doesn’t really say anything (all novels evidently coming from life).

The book is much sprightlier and less morbid than any volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle (which Heti reviewed in the LRB). But Heti — together in a class with Ben Lerner and Rachel Cusk — did experience her own version of the feelings he describes.

She says she wrote her first book, Ticknor, with Beckett and capital-L Literature in mind. Then her head “got turned around”: she felt an aversion to artifice grow into an interest in the ‘backstage’, in the process, in the pop culture of the moment, in things thought to be unliterary: like internet porn, say. To grow up as a reader is to live in the past, she said — and that means missing a lot of what’s happening in your own moment.

In his book, How Fiction Works, James Wood argues that all fiction writers are realists in one sense. Barthelme to Breton, J. K. Rowling and Eimear McBride, they’re all trying to say something true using something false. And the same could be said of Heti and her fellow travelers. They’re still imagining things; they just imagine less or differently. Heti called it “a very grown-up thing”: the idea that novelists might use their imaginations not to go to another world, but to go deeper into this one.

—Max Larkin.

The My Struggle Soundtrack

Also, we’re rocking out this week to the music that stirred Knausgaard most during his adolescent years and beyond. Art rock, punk, and glam, mainly, from the likes of The Cure, David Bowie, and Joy Division. Our show begins with one of the My Struggle keynotes: “The Great Curve” by the Talking Heads. Here are some others we’re listening to (on repeat).

— Conor Gillies.

By the Way • March 6, 2015

Ganzeer in America: Get the joke? Can we take it?

The Egyptian graffiti genius known as Ganzeer is working on our turf now. I am presuming to welcome him as an artist of radical humanism. Four years ago in the Tahrir Square uprising in Cairo, ...

The Egyptian graffiti genius known as Ganzeer is working on our turf now. I am presuming to welcome him as an artist of radical humanism.

Four years ago in the Tahrir Square uprising in Cairo, Ganzeer was first among the young outlaws who painted the truth about Egypt’s dictatorship and the promise of the Arab Spring on the walls of their city. They made images that beat guns, for a while.


Ganzeer hand-painted that famous highway billboard, of a tank bearing down on the bread-delivery-man on his bicycle. He made the iconic poster of Egyptian police with American weaponry, stripping and beating up a lady protester in Tahrir Square. Four years later the same intrepid Ganzeer, just into his 30s, has taken root in Brooklyn. He’s got New York and the United States in his sights.

For his “All-American” gallery show in Manhattan of new paintings and posters, his impressions of us are merciless – not exactly funny, not quite incendiary, but tough: maybe just what we need from an artist and humanist of Egypt and the wide world. One Sunday afternoon this winter Ganzeer let me into his Brooklyn studio for a long gab about art as social commentary, about Concept Pop, as he calls it – which is to say idea-driven art that comes with a sort of punch in the nose. We’re talking about what he sees as the face of America, and I keep wondering: can we take it? “I guess I’m going to find out,” he smiles at me. “We’re all going to find out.”


G: I just notice things. I just noticed that Robin Williams’ death, for example, grabbed far more media attention, in the papers and whatnot, than the events in Ferguson happening at exactly the same time. Media aside, just normal day-to-day experiences, you just see things. You’re on the subway for the first time, and the loudspeaker is telling people that all their bags are subject to random search by the police, which is a quality of an authoritarian state; it doesn’t get more obvious than that, you know? You see cops harassing guys who are playing music on the subway if they’re African-American. Of course when you’re entering Williamsburg and there are some white hipsters playing music on the subway, the cops are standing there but they’re not doing anything about it. So you start to see trends…

For example, enforced nationalism. The display of the Egyptian flag in public space to a nauseating degree is something new that happened recently with the military takeover in Egypt… but then you come to the United States and maybe this practice has been here for a longer time: you see the flag on every single vehicle of public transportation… You see these incredibly pointless glossy magazines at every newsstand trying to sway society in a particular direction: to constantly be happy, to constantly have great sex, a great American body, great American summer, great American dad – whatever it is, you know, it’s just like ridiculous.

CL: And what about the people?

G: I see a lot of immigrants mostly. People who are actually not American at all, not in any way American. So what’s interesting about all this Americanism that’s in the air – it’s trying to get people to assimilate and become American when they’re so obviously not. Most people in New York are not really American.

Egypt seems mostly behind him now, except for the native confidence it gave him in the power of images — “we’re a visual people, back to ancient times” — and the force of ridicule. “Egyptians have a reputation for liking to laugh… If the joke is good, people are not going to remember anything else.” “Honest Money” in Ganzeer’s “All American” show is his redesign of our legal tender, six bills memorializing moments in our history:


The $1 bill has a hand holding a severed head of a Native American man. This exemplifies what I would argue is the first major event in American history, the genocide of the Native American population… No, There’s no Thanksgiving on my bills! The rear side shows where there are Native American reservations today. They tend to be seen as the American way of doing good by these people… but these reservations are about 2.3 percent of the entire country… To be honest, looking at this map the only thing it brings to mind is Israel and Palestine. So you have some scattered bits of Palestinian land, right? But then the fact of the matter is the entirety of the land is occupied land, taken from these people.

On the $5 bill we have the enslavement of the African population, bringing them on board ships and taking them to the Americas to serve European settlers… The $10 bill shows the exploitation of the Chinese workers in building the transcontinental railway… On the rear… in 1882 the U. S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion act, which was their reward…

Finally, on the $100 bill we have an illustration of ancient artifacts in American museums. For example the Met: 39.5 percent of those artifacts come from Egypt, India, Greece, the Roman Empire, Peru, Syria, Turkey, Korea, Africa and Asia. The Met makes an annual revenue of approximately $68 to $70 million, one museum in the US. Zero percent goes to Egypt, Syria, Turkey… Meanwhile the Disney Consumer Products Co. made $39.3 billion in 2013 off licensing the use of Disney characters in foreign countries.

Ganzeer is showing us a parody of that bugaboo “Orientalism,” turning it 180 degrees. I’m calling it “Occidentalism” that says in effect: Look what they do in the odd, exotic West — in the New York seat of empire. His language is art for a gallery wall. There’s a bit of theory in it, about art as Activism, Empty-ism (high and low), and what he dubs his own Concept Pop.

You have a certain kind of Activisty art. It’s not going to change anybody’s mind: a pumped up fist is like a slogan… It fails on conceptual and aesthetic measures. If we look at what’s happening in contemporary arts here, there’s a lot of art that is not really about anything in particular. It just entirely focuses on aesthetic experiments and playing with materials. I call it “Art for Supervillains.” If you think about your standard Hollywood villain figure and what his house would look like if he had art in it, it’s probably going to be some of the art you might find in a Chelsea gallery. And then of course you have Street Art, or graffiti, right? So there’s a lot of tagging; people writing their names on the wall, or doing beautiful murals they can do with spray paint: they’re very large and they’re impressive technically speaking, and they’re not really about anything as well, right? So these are the major movements in the art sphere here.

And it is a little disappointing, disheartening, that there isn’t enough art that can experiment with a method but be about something in the process of doing that, right? Mine? I call it Concept Pop, and for me it’s just a way of doing art that can use these pop references, popular symbols, popular forms; but rather than do it for no reason, do it with an actual concept behind you – but of course in so doing it’s also very different from conceptual art which often tends to deliver concepts in a very bland, unaestheticized way, right. I feel like it’s an approach that occupies this particular mid-ground that I try to dance in a little bit.

Ganzeer could remind you of Ai Weiwei — another anti-authoritarian global humanist who lashes his fellow artists to be bolder, more notoriously defiant. But Ganzeer likes the irony in their different stances: Ganzeer sees himself as equal opportunity offender. Ai Weiwei is a celebrity in the West for confronting the government in Beijing. “But he seems to be incapable or unaware or naïve enough not to do anything about the context here” in the States. Ganzeer feels he was invited implicitly to follow suit: “becoming this avatar of some kind of resistance movement in some other country, right? But of course it’s a role that I completely refused.” And still, “almost every profile or review seems to focus on the Egyptian aspect of my work. A lot of artists fall into that trap, right? … It is easy for the artist to fall into… coming from this very interesting, exotic land, right?”


So he is happy to pose for my camera in front of a collaborative painting he made with artists in Germany: it depicts a child warrior in Africa holding the outline of a machine gun that was originally papered with Euro bills. On public display in Germany the painting “experienced citizen censorship,” as Ganzeer put it. His audience stripped off the Euros (fakes, in any event) but the point stuck about neo-imperial interest in Africa’s instability. Ganzeer is restoring the work in his Brooklyn studio. When we do speak of Egypt, where his revolutionary work has been effaced and he himself would be in danger, Ganzeer wants to nail a punchline about the United States. I observe that most Americans know very little about the US hand in Mubarak’s reign, Mubarak’s downfall, the succession of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood and now General Sisi and the Egyptian Army. Ganzeer says: that’s just the point:

The one obvious change you can see since the ‘revolution’ in Egypt is that the police force has become incredibly heavily militarized now – and of course these weapons come from the Egyptian military, which gets its weapons from the United States of America. So of course the US government has a direct involvement in the killing of Egyptian people on the streets of Cairo today, and the American people do not know that. And the fact they do not know exemplifies the kind of democracy that they actually have. How is it that these people think they live in a country where they do control the government’s actions and don’t even know that their government is supplying weapons to kill people across the world?

Ganzeer in conversation becomes the very image of his defiant Cairo cat that thrilled me in Egypt two and a half years ago. His wounded common street cat was a comment on the stalled revolution. It was homage, too, to the Pharaonic Egypt, the semi-sacred cat symbolizing freedom and endurance. We’re blessed to have this cat’s fresh, almost fearless, gaze on us for a while.



Podcast • May 15, 2014

Chris Cooper & Marianne Leone: Becoming Actors

For the perspective of experience and solid accomplishment, we're asking two pro’s in the middle of enviable careers what they learned in and out of school, where they’d be looking for training, how much they’d pay, if they were starting out again. Chris Cooper is a Hollywood hero in supporting roles. He won an Academy Award for one of them, in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. His wife Marianne Leone played the gangster mama Joanne Moltisanti in The Sopranos on HBO.

We’re digressing here from our ongoing conversations about higher education in general, and arts education in particular. For the perspective of experience and solid accomplishment, we’re asking two acting professionals in the middle of enviable careers what they learned in and out of school, where they’d be looking for training, how much they’d pay, if they were starting out again. Chris Cooper is a Hollywood hero, often in deep supporting roles. He won an Academy Award for one of them, in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. His wife Marianne Leone played the gangster mama Joanne Moltisanti in The Sopranos on HBO.

Podcast • June 5, 2009

Ken Robinson & John Maeda: Creativity for Breakfast

Sir Ken Robinson does most of the talking, over breakfast here, on the sketchy matter of “creativity” and the teaching of it. John Maeda, in the gossamer blazer and scarf, is the work in progress. ...

Sir Ken Robinson does most of the talking, over breakfast here, on the sketchy matter of “creativity” and the teaching of it. John Maeda, in the gossamer blazer and scarf, is the work in progress.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversations with John Maeda and Sir Ken Robinson. (24 minutes, 11 mb mp3)

Both men are titans of the TED conference style of presenting “ideas worth spreading” to the Web. John Maeda emerged at TED two winters ago talking about The Laws of Simplicity, while inside he was reeling toward his own future, head still spinning from Ken Robinson’s TED talk a year earlier on education as a standardized way of crushing invention. Maeda, a star at MIT’s Media Lab, still in his thirties, heard a call from the heavens to “change my life.” And so he did, moving from MIT and the engineering of technology to the presidency of the Rhode Island School of Design and the teaching of art and innovation. After a RISD year that he’s been blogging at every turn, Maeda’s invitation to Robinson to give the commencement address felt like a personal thank-you and maybe an appeal for confirmation. Early on RISD’s graduation day, we had a three-way gab at the Hope Club in Providence about expressiveness and originality, in art and life, across the board.

Well, I think it’s helpful to start with a definition. And John’s right, there are all kinds of misconceptions about the creative process, people think it’s just sitting around waiting for inspiration to hit you, it’s about special gifts, it’s about luck, some people have it, some people don’t. It’s unfairly distributed. And I think all this is nonsense.

Firstly: everybody has tremendous natural creative capacities, everybody. It’s an endowment of being a human being that you’re born with. The truth is that some people discover their real creative possibilities and others don’t, and that’s partly because of how we educate people.

The second big misconception is that it’s about special things, that there are only certain activities which are inherently creative. And that is equally mythical. You can be creative with anything, absolutely anything that involves your intelligence. I put together a large scale strategy for the British government about ten years ago and I know that the government thought, when they asked me to do this, that I was going to get a commission together exclusively of artists. Well, you know the arts can be tremendously creative, but so can science and so can mathematics, and so can business and so can broadcasting and so can anything. So one of my campaigning issues for a long time was being able to get creativity out of the ghetto and to get the arts integrated with a bigger argument.

And the third misconception is there’s not much you can do about it, creatively enough, and that’s the end of it and good luck with it. And what RISD testifies to, and all great institutions like this, is that you can create conditions onto which capabilities will grow and flourish. That you can teach some of the essential processes of creative achievement that it takes application and work and control of the mathematics and discipline. So my definition – I remember some politicians in Britain saying the problem is “you can’t define creativity” and, I said “No, I think the problem is you can’t define it. So let me define it for you.”

So my definition is: it’s the process of having original ideas that have value and, all three bits of that to me are important. Firstly, it’s a process, it’s not an event, I mean it occasionally happens that some idea hits you fully-formed and that’s the end of it. But much more often an idea may stare itself in your mind and it’s the beginning of something, not the end of it, you then have to work on it, and evolve it. And often doing that is a very material business – you’re working with physical materials, it could be steel or clay or it could be words or numbers. It could be a conceptual process. It always is to some degree a conceptual process, but it’s a process.

It’s very rarely the case, I think, that what comes out of the far end is what you began with. I remember someone saying that art is a surprise, not a prediction. And, it’s part because of the way this process evolves. But it’s as true of science as it would be of the visual arts or music or theater.

The second thing is it’s about originality, it’s thinking new thoughts and trying to make something fresh and original. And that’s a real job of work for all the reasons we’re saying: because our minds quickly become kind-of enthralled in assumptions that we don’t question anymore.

And the third thing is it’s about critical judgment, it’s about value. And I think this is a really important part of the conversation, because not any original idea is any good. Some original ideas are actually not even worth pursuing, they’re original but they’re kind of worthless. But then often mature works are produced and the culture as a whole thinks this is a waste of time. And that’s because there’s a difference of value being applied to it. And my point is just to say that every creative process isn’t just about thinking fresh things, it’s acting critically on the ideas, it’s a kind-of reciprocal process of hypothesizing and critique.

Sir Ken Robinson in conversation with John Maeda and Chris Lydon, in Providence, R.I., May 29, 2009.