Real, but not that real: My Struggle, Book 6, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

I received the first volume in this series as a gift, mailed to me by Anne Pier in, I think, 2013. I was living in Rochester at the time; I remember standing in the entryway to the building on Meigs St. when I opened the package. I brought the book with me to Champaign, Illinois, then to Tel Aviv, next to Durham, and finally to New York, where I lived for two years, from 2016 to 2018. My first spring in New York, I took a week-long vacation and stayed in an apartment in Thomas, WV, looking out on the Monongahela National Forest. I took the book with me and finally read it after dragging it around with me for almost 4 years. My days in Thomas were quiet and consistently though loosely structured. I woke up, had coffee and breakfast, walked Marcel, then came back and read until lunch, went out again for a long hike, read more until dinner time, drank beer, smoked a cigarette, and read some more. Knausgaard’s writing–simple, precise, even-keeled, almost monotonous–resonated with and helped strengthen the particular mood on this trip, which still stands out in my mind as a particularly happy time. I returned a year later, and by that time I was reading the fourth book. After two years in New York, in 2018, I moved back to Durham, and finished book 5. Almost three years later, I’ve just finished the sixth and final book in the series. 

These books have a meditative quality that I think comes from a stylistic feature the author has commented on many times, in interviews and in the books themselves–attempting giving equal weight to the various impressions and phenomena of his experience. The physical sensations accompanying the preparation of coffee are given just as much space in the text as the argument taking place between the narrator and his mother as he prepares the coffee. The literary device echoes the methodology of classical psychoanalysis, where Freud advocates that the analyst maintain a kind of “evenly hovering attention” (gleichschwebende Aufmerksamkeit) during the session. The same kind of bare, vigilant, nonjudgmental attention arises on its own during the practice of zazen in my experience, at least I have found this to be the case during day-long or multi-day meditation intensives. 

But even from this free-floating attention, a distinct voice and a particular narrative emerges. The narrator’s “I” can’t help but structure these impressions around his own egoic needs, his likes and dislikes, his shame and insecurities and ambition. In attempting to lay bare the raw materials, the bare phenomenology, of experience, Knausgaard drills deep into the core of the self, to what is real in our sense of separateness and individuality. In the context of Buddhist psychology and metaphysics, it is often said that the ego “is real, but it’s not that real”. The way I understand this is that the ego, or sense of self, is a real phenomenon, a natural and biologically rooted outgrowth of human cognitive development, as real as a daisy or a large-mouth bass. But it is also as unreal as a daisy or a large-mouth bass, insofar as all these phenomena are in some radical sense inseparable from all other phenomena–indeed, they (all phenomena) are all literally one thing. Knausgaard’s books get at this point obliquely, using the tools and language of literature and memoir rather than psychology or religion. 

For me, these books draw out and beautifully develop the painful and often embarrassing details of childhood, growing up, fatherhood, friendship, and heartbreak to get at what is the most urgent and arguably only real spiritual question: what is this?

“Marcel walks to metal” now out at Gauss PDF

My project “Marcel walks to metal” is now up at Gauss PDF, a site edited by J. Gordon Faylor that hosts all kinds of weird, beautiful, and funny art, most of which exists as PDF files.  I’ve long admired this site and it feels good to see my work included there.

I started working on this many years ago, in the Spring of 2013 as I was writing my dissertation.  I was walking my dog, listening to an album by blackened power metal band Wintersun, and was struck by the contrast so I took a picture with my phone.  This is the first image in the series after the title page.

I kept taking pictures and adding metal lyrics for years, albeit somewhat inconsistently.  I did not take any pictures in the year I spent in Champaign, IL, where I completed a one-year post-doc after finishing my PhD.  I was extremely depressed that year and didn’t make any art.  There is only one image from Tel Aviv, where I lived the next year.  The project picks up again in 2015/2016, after I moved back to Durham.

The annotations at the bottom of each photo capture the passage of time and changes in geography.  You can also discern signs of aging in Marcel over time, particularly in the whitening fur on his face.


Kale joke published

I recognize my faults; I am always conscious of my sins.  I have sinned and done what I consider evil, which is make a joke about kale.  So you are right in judging me; you are justified in condemning me.  Anyway here is my kale joke in The Haven.

It may be interesting to you to know that I wrote it when I was alone in a cabin in the woods enduring several days of primordial animal terror.  I kept a fire going, held tightly onto a metal fire poker, awaited my demise, read a copy of the New York Times I picked up before heading into the woods, and wrote this kale joke.

“Broken turtle, busy hare” performed at The Jewish Museum

Last night Hinda Weiss and I presented our piece, “Broken turtle, busy hare” at Scenes from the Collection at the Jewish Museum in New York.  The performance weaves together two artists’ journeys: Hinda’s video work from the Negev Desert and fragments of my own memories of my childhood in rural North Carolina.  In the video, a woman walks with absolute determination on an absurd path while in the text a boy attempts to construct an identity out of animal corpses, archaeological artifacts, and religious paraphernalia.

The show included other performances and installations by Kiki Williams, Rachel Labine, and others.



Book review: Hunger

After I graduated from college but before I moved to Boston, in May 2006, I went to visit Amy in Raleigh and she gave me some books:  If on a winter’s night a traveler, The man without qualities, Hunger. Maybe others. Then my dad drove me to the airport and I flew to Boston.  I was starting a job as a research assistant about two weeks later and I was subletting a room from some BU students I found on Craigslist. I had to send a cashier’s check to these people to secure the room and there was some question up until the moment they let me into the apartment about whether I had been defrauded.  Three students–Alaa, Emily, and Lauren–lived in the apartment. There was also Katie, an old friend of Lauren’s who was a student at UMass Boston and who described herself as “basically another roommate” which was what I considered an unpleasant surprise. She had purple hair and seemed even less ambitious than the other three, who all turned out to be at the center of a social network comprised of numerous losers who were all enrolled at Boston University at the time.

I arrived in Boston during an early summer rainstorm.  I thought it’d already be chilly that far north but it was humid and warm and my glasses fogged up as soon as I got off the B train at Commonwealth Ave. and Harvard St.  I was impressed by how dirty that neighborhood was. I could sense that rats were everywhere, hiding.

I was happy to be in Boston and happy if a bit nervous to have nothing to do for two weeks.  I wandered around and read Hunger in a sort of unintentional and self-aware reenactment of the events in the book.  I had to be careful with my money since I wasn’t going to be paid for another three weeks–and, again, had some vague premonition that I was going to get screwed somehow and not actually get paid for working–but I wasn’t pawning the buttons on my shirt.  I’d walk down to Espresso Royale, a coffee shop near the BU main campus, read and drink coffee until I got anxious, then ride the 66 bus over to Harvard Square and walk around there and read in whatever coffee shops I ran across. In Harvard Square there was a burrito place called Anna’s that reminded me of Cosmic Cantina in Chapel Hill so I started eating at Anna’s every day because I ate at Cosmic Cantina every day and the bus ride over to Cambridge provided some structure.

Eventually the rats started to appear.  I saw them scurry into alleyways or other places while I was walking home at night, and later one of them came into the apartment.  It was barely evening and we were watching TV in the living room that was not a separate room from the kitchen but separated from it by a sofa we all tacitly agreed was the dividing line between the two rooms.  There was rustling in the kitchen, and Katie turned around and screamed, the most strenuously engaged I’d ever see her body. The rat barely acknowledged the sound and continued digging into a bag of bread on the lowest of the wire shelves where we kept our food.  Over the next week or so, the rat came to take on a personality. It was fearless. You had to stomp near its head to get him to go back wherever he came from. Eventually Alaa or Emily bought a rat trap and caught him. He lay there dead, his spine broken and his massive gray body sprawled on the kitchen floor, like a big gray kitten.  Eric, a Steelers fan studying business administration at Boston University, was summoned to dispose of the rat. I watched Eric take the rat to the dumpster in the alleyway and I hated everyone in the apartment at that moment, including Eric, even though he’d been helpful with the rat.

A few days later I found my own place.  The rat was dead and I took that as a sign that I needed to leave, the rat’s blood transmogrified into the ink I used to sign the lease for a $995/month studio apartment on Commonwealth Ave., right next to a liquor store.  I lived in that apartment for a year and loved it. I loved the weird dangerous elevator, the floors in the foyer spongy and ruined, the gay Asian guy named Angelo who lived across the hall who always seemed a little scared when I greeted him. I liked living alone in a city where I didn’t know anybody and where I could sit in the window and smoke cigarettes and get buzzed and just listen.


“Ah, will you be kind enough to give me a bone for my dog?” I said; “only a bone.  There needn’t be anything on it; it’s just to give him something to carry in his mouth.”

I got the bone, a capital little bone, on which there still remained a morsel of meat, and hid it under my coat.  I thanked the man so heartily that he looked at me in amazement.

“Oh, no need of thanks,” said he.

“Oh yes; don’t say that,” I mumbled; “it is kindly done of you,” and I ascended the steps again.

My heart was throbbing violently in my breast.  I sneaked into one of the passages, where the forges are, as far in as I could go, and stopped outside a dilapidated door leading to a backyard.  There was no light to be seen anywhere, only blessed darkness all around me; and I began to gnaw at the bone.