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Mar 17, 2015 | 1 comment

My Own Struggle, Or An Exercise in Autofiction

by Isabella David McCaffrey

weeping nude

“Weeping Nude,” oil on canvas, by Edvard Munch, 1914.

5:20

The puppy’s awake. Fuck.
“It’s okay,” I murmur sleepily, placating Maddie, magically granting myself glorious hours of sleep.
Snuffle, whine, bark.
Clearly, I’m still dreaming.
“Okay, w’be right there,” I lie.
“What time is it?” My husband wakes in a panic.
“It’s just the puppy, sh!”
Stock-still, rigid with fear, we will everyone asleep.
Silence.

6:12
The puppy begins whining insistently from her crate, whines about to turn into barks, potentially waking the baby. That cannot happen! I spring up immediately, unlatch the crate, carrying Maddie’s squirming bulk downstairs, forestalling her latest trick—squatting in place on my husband’s uncle’s old bank rug, still the nicest thing in our house, even though we’re now officially grownups. Huffing after five steps, I wonder how this will work when she’s bigger, which, because she’s a Newfoundland, will be sooner than later.

What I really ought to do, if I were a good person, is take her outside for a walk. The temperature is an excruciating 19 degrees. But I’m no saint, the snow is still falling thick and fast from the midnight blizzard, so I spread a wee pad in the kitchen and coax her to go on it.

“Hurry, hurry,” I whisper as encouragingly as I can without waking the baby, who, after her 2nd birthday party yesterday, is now really “the toddler.” In this old house, every sound can be heard from every room, and we thought the matchboards were charming. Fools.

We live in beauty like ballerinas, tiptoeing in fear. The puppy evades my hands, goes to lap up huge mouthfuls of water, then immediately squats beside her bowl. I pretend this doesn’t annoy me so as not to create any issues surrounding her potty-training. Or is that for human babies?

Whatever. I know if I don’t go back to bed, or at least the couch, I’ll be a mindless zombie the rest of the day. Harper was up three times in the night with bad dreams. Luckily, none of them fully woke her, but I went to her crib, stroking her birthday-cake-stained cheeks the way she likes until she fell back asleep. Her father, whose turn it was at bedtime, plopped her in her crib, face unwashed.

I try not to think about the shameful state of her skin as I open the second volume of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard and, not so much escape my present reality, as sink into a more deeply felt version of my current hell. I admit it’s a book I picked up because of the buzz surrounding it, but the book has so far has been a pleasant surprise. The series was on all The New Yorker’s 2014 best reading lists. Stunned by universal agreement among the contentious intellectual gliteratti of New York, I was curious to read them myself. Or at least one of them—this despite comparisons of the books with In Search of Lost Time, which feels more like a bucket list daredevil feat than a collection of words to savor.

Contrary to my expectations, I find Knausgaard is really good and, even better, accessible. Not pretentious at all as I feared but funny, empathetic, honest. The New Yorker described his writing as “Autofiction,” a new word for me and a literary trend I have a hard time explaining to my husband.

“Isn’t that just memoir?” he asks.

“No…” I say uncertainly. “At least, I think it’s not fact, just his own life he’s using maybe.”

“How is that not memoir?”

I’m stumped. I’ve recently read an excellent article on the subject, and I hate that I retained none of it. I decide it’s more helpful overall if I’m well-rested than well-read. Rolling over on the couch, I ignore the freed, delighted puppy, wreaking havoc in the family room.

9:00
Maddie relays it’s time to play again by barking in my ear. I start reprimanding her, then see the time. My husband, I can tell from the scraping noises outside, has been up for a while now, shoveling snow. It’s still coming down in sheets of white instead of lovely, individual flakes. I worry briefly about the roof and then think there’s no point worrying now. The roof’s the least of it.

Daycare’s closed again.

I make myself a cup of coffee before I wake Harper, who, if left to her own devices, can easily sleep until 11. It can be tempting, especially if I’m on a roll, working on deadline, but I’ll pay later. She’ll be up all night, making such a racket it’s impossible to sleep. I check my email and see there’s absolutely nothing but some annoying shopping offers.

I can remember the days before email when letters were still written, although rare. We lived for days, weeks, months, even, without hearing from each other. Now, I can’t go one morning without receiving some notice from the world that I exist, which feels like a moral defeat. How strange that my daughter won’t recognize this difference. I decide Knausgaard would sympathize, and this cheers me up a little.

9:30
I go to wake Harper, still dead to the world, so crashed from her own sleep interruptions she’s let the pillow carve a deep line into her tender cheek. Like her mom in some ways, she looks more as if she’s recovering from a drunken revel than a toddler’s birthday. The watery coffee isn’t doing much for me, but Starbucks and its bitter jet fuel is closed today, too. My fatigue is so intense it’s like a heavy stone in my heart, almost like unhappiness. I know it is only fatigue, though. If I could just sleep a few more hours, I’d be right as rain, but I can’t. I have to keep Harper on schedule or face imminent doom.

The party yesterday was the real disaster. Everyone else had a good time. I’m grateful for that, but it’s been such a January, so cooped up, that having people around suddenly only drained me further. After a week’s snowbound isolation, I lost the ability to make small talk. When my friend’s dapper husband, Neil, tried to tell me about the resort where they’d just vacationed, either from envy—which I’m ashamed of—or social ineptitude—which I’m equally ashamed of—I couldn’t take it in.

“That’s how it is when you have kids!” Neil finishes a joke about vacationing with children in tow. Neil, a doctor and graduate of Princeton, is one of those people whose free-time makes for an impressive CV. I pretend to know what he’s talking about—that having kids is the reason you might do nothing on vacation—but laugh a little too late, too out of synch, revealing my mind is working hard to make the connection. He looks at me strangely. I feel as if I should apologize, explaining I’m rusty at small talk, because I’ve only spoken to a non-verbal 2-year-old and a puppy for eight horrible, icy days.

No, too pathetic. Instead, I pretend my distraction is the boiling kettle and run away, proverbial writer’s tail between the legs.

Yes, well at least, Knausgaard would definitely approve.

10:00
When Harper refuses to eat her breakfast, I spoon the yoghurt in her bulging cheeks for her. I still haven’t wiped off the frosting from yesterday, because when I tried, she began screaming at a glass-breaking frequency like a beached dolphin, a new trick of hers. Illogically, she hates water in small amounts, yet loves it in large bodies. Now, she won’t eat, so I have to put on Sesame Street to distract her—a useful, albeit craven, trick.

Bright, shiny celebrities have all adopted the show, ruining the pure, untrammelled memories of my celebrity-free childhood. I feel I’m regressing somehow as Jessica Alba describes the “scrumptious” birthday cake. Thinking snide things about Jessica Alba and her actual likely consumption of cake, I try to clear my inane thoughts, sensing another moral defeat.

In fact I’m annoyed at myself for knowing (and judging) the pertinent facts about Jessica Alba’s mothering that I’ve read in magazines at the gym, things like she’s so busy with her projects that seeing her daughters once or twice a week before bed is a feat to be aspired to. When does she see them then, I wonder? I don’t judge her for that, so much as for exhorting other women to live her “ lifestyle.” Why does Jessica Alba imagine she has the answers simply because she’s rich and beautiful and adored by millions of strangers on Instagram? Well, okay, I know how that sounds, but it’s not envy. It’s not; it’s irritation over the celebrated tautology of ubiquitous jackasses.

Jessica grins at the camera so desperately I begin wondering if an orthodontist has paid her to advertise his handiwork. Admitting defeat in the face of this shining idiocy, knowing Knausgaard would definitely empathize with my dislike of disliking famous people, I have to go to the other half of the room and let Harper feed herself, even though this means 3/4 of the yoghurt will end up on the floor and therefore in the puppy’s no doubt lactose-intolerant torso.

11:01
I reread the Autofiction article on Flavorwire, so I can explain it to my husband (and to myself), but it’s hard to concentrate with Count Dracula singing the number of the day. Meanwhile, because of the blizzard, my husband couldn’t make it in to work, taking the opportunity to practice his trumpet downstairs between calls. I read, lodged between alternating cacophonies.

Harper loses interest once Sesame Street is halfway through, adding to the melée by banging on the security gate, emitting squeals of dislike; she’s not a fan of the new puppy, who endlessly re-enacts the iconic Coppertone Baby moment. I’m determined to finish reading this article, before I accede, but, like the puppy’s, certain cries only increase in intensity if ignored.

1:30
Harper is down for her nap at last. I can read, work, write, think, sit for two blessed hours. First, I contemplate the article I’ve just reread on Autofiction, or the Next Big Thing. Shamefacedly, I consider trying to write an Autofiction novel since that’s the trend of the future, but wouldn’t that, as Karl Ove puts it in his (not) memoir, be “contemptible” as it is “the writer’s sole duty to search for something different?”

Well, Autofiction is technically new, but now it’s been identified as a trend—like cat eyeliner then or wearing winter white. When the masses catch on, is it no longer cool? Will self-consciously Autofictive works count as Autofiction or is Autofiction self-conscious by definition? On the other hand, if Autofiction is reminiscent of Proust, isn’t it simply a revived interest, not a new phenomenon?

Well, according to the article I read, Autofiction is simply writing that “vigorously reasserts the self.” So, not memoir but rather a contrasting of the drowned, paranoid, deflated self in postmodern literary experiments by Pynchon, De Lillo, and other uber-masculine writers whose work I’ve actually always been too intimidated to try, all because, once in a Barnes and Noble, a very pale, bespectacled employee with a blond goatee loftily told me Gravity’s Rainbow was the best book ever written.

I thought anything that could so please that self-important, unsmiling personage probably wouldn’t please me. I hadn’t yet experienced the phenomenon of Harry Potter, in which I learned that something which feels intensely personal can be liked by, well, everyone under the sun until the planet is almost depopulated of trees.

Luckily, I’ve learned as much by the time I heard mention of Karl Ove, or I might have dismissed him as well, as too lofty for my tastes. And I’m enjoying his book for the exact opposite reason. Knausgaard manages to make even the most ordinary subjects fascinating; he goes so far as to crow about this talent in the narrative, albeit putting the actual words in the mouth of an intellectual crony who lengthily praises Knausgaard’s ability to make brushing teeth, walking down the street, buying groceries, pushing a stroller fascinating material. Indeed, Knausgaard depicts so-called “ordinary” experiences with an unabashedly laser eye. Reading him makes me wonder how much I take in of my every day world myself.

If I were to try the same, how much could I recall? I think of a passage from a novel of Kundera’s, which one, fittingly, I can’t remember. In it he describes the act of reading simultaneously as an acting of forgetting. My mother, a voracious reader, is the queen par excellence of this feat. It doesn’t matter if she’s only just slammed a book shut, she won’t remember a word of it or the name of a single character, but she will invoke the book if anyone asks, adding only whether or not she liked it.

This foggy recollection of a great masterpiece more than satisfies her needs, while, somehow, if I can’t recall character names, I feel I’ve failed. Is my highly selective memory much better than vagueness? Is that all living is, getting through the day until the next one? Remembering nothing of substance in between except a handful of majorly memorable moments? Remembering Harper’s 2nd birthday party but not the day after? Not today? Not acting as if my own ordinary life is worth taking in?

At least Autofiction, by paying excruciating attention to the self, seems to say, although we are plagued by forgetfulness and a million distractions, the self is worth paying attention to, real attention, not the self-pitying kind but the harrowingly minute attention a scientist pays proving a thesis. Or in Knausgaard’s words, describing his struggle:

“…the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined my efforts.”

If I could I so honestly admit dissatisfaction would it be as profound a study of the self’s struggle or just whining, and then what? Does hyper-awareness bring pleasure then or only more pain? And what does that change? Nothing? Everything?

Those are only more questions, granted, but that’s also the exciting thing about Autofiction—it proves there are mysterious worlds yet to explore. The novel isn’t dead; new forms can yet be born, there’s a whole brave, new world of the exquisitely wrought self to navigate and chart, many questions to ask and answered. And of course, questions are where we, writers and their readers, must begin.

Why are we reading? Why are we writing? Not to live another life, surely, but to feel we are living the lives we have with as much self-awareness as we can muster. Painful or pleasurable, it’s worth witnessing your own life. If Autofiction explores the self without conventional plots, perhaps it’s because that’s worth focusing on, minus all the space conventional denouements, deus-ex-machinas, or other predictable, rehashed devices demanding that fascinating characters are put through familiar paces.

And now, I’m finishing this essay, hoping I’ve sounded as deeply profound as Knausgaard, knowing, in trying, I’ve failed. If I truly evoke him and his brutal brand of honesty, I must admit all I’m really thinking in my heart of hearts is please stop snowing, sky! Please let the daycare open! Most of all, please, puppy, please for God’s sake pee outside.

Unlike Knausgaard, I have to admit, at the end of the day, I’d just rather not think too deeply about some of this stuff; I’d prefer to escape. Probably, the next book on my reading list won’t be New Yorker-approved but a hard-boiled detective novel, or something about talking dragons. It’s pleasant, very pleasant, to fantasize about the possibility of flying far, far away—at least for a little while. I’d hate to snub the glitterati, but perhaps made-up plots still have some value in our lives, after all.

Published 17 March 2015

Isabella David McCaffrey’s work has appeared in Best of Black Heart Magazine, The Lascaux Review, Adbusters, Slippery Elm, Every Day Fiction, and elsewhere. She was longlisted for the Venture Award and is the winner of Tampa Review’s 2014 Danahy Fiction Prize.

1 Comment

  1. Well said Isabella. A very interesting take on the value of various literary genres. I especially like that you do not de-value one over the other like some overly self conscious critics tend to do.

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