How Long Have You Been Waiting and How Much Have You Read?: In Line for Knausgaard in New York
The first thing I noticed was the line, which snaked out the front door of McNally Jackson Books in Manhattan, coiled down Mulberry Street, and ended somewhere halfway down the block. After the event, I overheard Sarah McNally, the bookshop’s owner, estimate between 300 and 400 attendees, the most they had ever had for an author event. The reading, she said, also held the distinction of being the first one to be held in the basement while simultaneously live-streamed to the café on the ground floor of the two-floor bookshop.
I had expected a crowd — there had recently been, among many other articles and reviews, a profile in Time magazine under the headline “Norway’s Proust” and a series of New York Times articles, one referencing the surprising popularity of Knausgaard’s six-volume, 3,600-page autobiographical novel My Struggle, describing it as a “movement” — but I hadn’t expected something to this extent, mostly because this kind of thing never happened at literary events, and even less so for an international author in translation making a bookstore appearance. The event, billed as a “book three launch party with Karl Ove Knausgaard and Zadie Smith,” was scheduled to start at 7 PM with, according to the bookstore’s website, “doors open at 6 PM,” as though it were a rock concert.
“We’ve been waiting since 4:30,” said Kelsey Ford, the permissions editor at New Directions, who stood maybe fifty people from the front of the line, far enough away as to be invisible from where we were standing, like some promised land to which we could only be admitted after proving ourselves worthy, a thing that could — or, depending on your place in line, could very possibly not — happen.
Toward the end of the line, I saw Anelise Chen, a writer I know, who said she’d been waiting since six or so.
“How much have you read?” I asked, and she answered, “Just the first and second books” — <em>just</em> meaning, roughly, one thousand pages.
“What is it about Knausgaard?” I asked, curious.
“I don’t know,” said Anelise. “It’s bizarre and a little unreadable. But also completely brilliant.” Her assessment reminded me of poet and autobiographical novelist Ben Lerner’s smart review in the London Review of Books that described My Struggle as, essentially, “boring,” unexcerptable — and “a work of genius.”
I recalled the week before, having run into Michael H. Miller, a culture reporter at the New York Observer, and the writer Tao Lin in the crowded hallway of New Directions’ annual BEA office party. I asked Tao, the author of several autobiographically-driven — Knausgaardian, you could say — novels, whether he had read much Knausgaard and he answered something along the lines of having “read five pages or so” and then feeling “tired.” He noted, with some amusement, that he had two copies of book one, as though they had appeared in his possession through no conscious effort — or desire — of his own.
“You should read it so you can write about it and pan it,” suggested Michael, provocatively, and two weeks later, Tao would write about it, or close to it, an article for the Observer about attending this same event, not panning it but expressing, instead, deep, sustained interest in the conversation, as well as fascination at the spectacle. Had Tao been convinced, as I would be, by attending the event, by hearing Knausgaard’s “soothing and calm” voice, by observing his “intensely focused” and nearly unblinking blue eyes, his “sensitive” and “paradoxical” way? Maybe Tao had earlier been making a joke about not reading it, or, perhaps more likely, had decided to give the tome another chance, finding himself, like so many others — myself included — amazed, wholly entranced: another convert into the cult of Karl.
I had told Michael and Tao that a journalist from Time had recently been over to Knausgaard’s house in Sweden and brought along with her a crew of something like twenty-four people — camera, lighting, the whole deal.
“Maybe when book six comes out,” I said to Tao, “they could put him on the cover with the headline, ‘His Struggle’ — surviving the fallout from your negative review.” I exited the conversation before revealing how little I, myself, had read of Knausgaard’s work, a couple pages about a high-school incident, a well-hung classmate, and a female gym teacher that had been excerpted in the New Yorker, and which I remember enjoying but had not bothered to finish, for the same reason there are so many things we enjoy but never finish — perhaps because of that reason, too.
Down in the basement of the bookstore, people were finding their seats, deciding for or against last-minute trips to the bathroom. “I’ve been waiting since four,” admitted a heavyset, white-mustached man in line for free drinks provided, I had been told, by the Norwegian Consulate, cosponsors of the event. “You must be a big fan then,” I said. “I’m a big fan of Zadie Smith’s, but I haven’t read Karl’s work,” said the man, who appeared to be in his fifties and, to my view, a casual reader, someone outside the scene. Perhaps this could explain why, despite not having read a page of the work, the man felt comfortable enough referring to Knausgaard by his first name only, as one would a friend? Or maybe it was because he did not want to be heard mispronouncing an unusual, unfamiliar last name — an outsider who didn’t want to give himself away.
In the front row, Danielle Peterson Searls, a carpet specialist at Christie’s, seated herself in the folding chair next to mine. “I’m something of a super-fan,” she admitted, saying she had been waiting in line since 5 PM or so. She told me she had been to the event the night before, in Park Slope, at Community Bookstore, and was planning on attending the next one too, a sold-out event at the New York Public Library the following evening that she and her husband, Damion, whom I knew as a prominent translator and Proust scholar — and who, she told me, wasn’t so much a fan of Knausgaard — would to get her attend. What was it, I asked, that drew her so strongly to the writer’s work? She referred to something Knausgaard himself had posited at the bookstore the night before, of a kind of intimacy that readers felt with him as the author, a relationship-like quality, that you got to know the book and its author so well — better than anyone you knew in your actual life, even yourself.
She added, “When I start reading, I miss my stop every time.”
I mentioned meeting the man in the free-drinks line who had been waiting since four and yet who hadn’t read a word of Knausgaard’s, and Danielle told of a woman in front of her in line who, over the course of two hours, allowed no less than ten of her friends to cut in line. She recalled feeling angered less by the cutting, but more their unworthiness to attend, when so many true followers like herself were at risk of getting shut out. “It’s amazing how many Zadie fans there were in line who didn’t know Knausgaard’s work,” she related.
“Someone was asked, ‘What are you in line for?’ and they were like, ‘I don’t know, some Norwegian guy.’”
Behind us I spotted London Review of Books editor Christian Lorentzen, who had recently reviewed book three for Slate, referring to it as “narcissistic, indiscreet, and a remarkable work of art.” I asked Christian if he had edited the Ben Lerner piece on Knausgaard, and he said that he had. After a few minutes of more waiting, he glanced around the crowd with an expression of amused disbelief.
“Is he like Axl Rose or something?” he wondered aloud.
“Maybe he’s like Thomas Pynchon,” I offered.
“If this was for Thomas Pynchon, I’d be in your seat,” said Christian, referring to my folding chair, front and center, especially reserved for press members.
During a lull I mentioned to Christian the white-mustached man who had been waiting since 4 PM.
“It’s not like he couldn’t see Zadie all the time,” Christian replied. “He could go into the bar down the street and see her there. Well, not the bar down the street, but somewhere. It’s not like she doesn’t do things.”
Introducing the event was bookstore owner Sarah McNally, whom I had earlier seen standing in the front area of the room for a few minutes without speaking to anyone, just waiting there quietly. She mentioned how, following the conversation between Knausgaard and Zadie Smith, there would be two lines to get your books signed — one beginning downstairs, one beginning upstairs — both converging at a table where, beside stacks of his hardcovers, Knausgaard would be seated, receiving his audience like a kind of literary guru or king-figure.
After the conversation, on line for the bathroom, I met a Norwegian woman with very blond hair and a wispily bearded man who had taken a bus from a small city in Pennsylvania to attend the reading. A friend of the man’s had recommended the event to him and, bizarrely, he had taken that friend’s recommendation of a pilgrimage — two hours on the bus, three hours in line — to hear this Nordic author whom he had never before read.
“Why do you think there’s been such an interest?” the blue-blazered Zenia Chrysostomidis of the Royal Norwegian Consulate General asked a group of us as the crowd was thinning out. The question seemed both sincere and utilitarian: if one could with any knowledge determine which books American readers preferred, and why, one could better achieve the objective of promoting Norwegian interests abroad. We were standing, it occurred to me, within a small circle of Norwegian journalists, a Norwegian photographer, and a Norwegian literary critic, and I noticed the consul had posed her question to the group, but primarily directed it at me, due, I imagine, to my status as the lone American in the circle.
She was, in short, asking the same question I had been asking all night long: <em>Why? Why all this?</em>
“Well, that’s what I’m trying to find out,” I said, not having read the books yet knowing suddenly, instinctively, that there was where our answer was.