The latest book from Kim Adrian, Dear Knausgaard, reminded me of why I love the epistolary mode—so much so that I initially considered writing her a letter, then thought better of it.
It’s risky. You’d be here, as readers, looking over my shoulder as I write, while simultaneously opening up the envelope as the intended recipient, both feeling how I agonize over how my words will be received and receiving them. It’s only worth the price of admission if the voyeuristic thrill (No, don’t say that…) isn’t compromised by identifying, in part, as the addressed (How could you say that to me…), and yet it’s nearly impossible for us to be held in suspense and shocked at the same time. That, anyway, is the special pleasure of belles-lettres, if done right, a to/from frisson that makes you want to cry out in French! Dear reader, how I wish I could have satisfied! If, as Barthes says, in one of the many well-timed interjections throughout Adrian’s book, “For some perverts the sentence is a body” (his emphasis), then a sentence meant for someone—some body—else is a perversion that, well, pardon my French.
Of course, we know she’s not actually going to send the letters to the Knausgaard residence, where for some reason I imagine them being ever-so-carefully parted by sterling silver letter opener. That would be a violation of the epistolary essay sub-genre, what Lopate calls “essays in disguise,” which going back to Seneca the Younger “were probably intended from the start for publication rather than for their ostensible recipient.” But Adrian finds a way around this problem of unreality, in a postscript to her letter of March 11, 2019, allowing us to suspend disbelief nonetheless:
P.S. It’s fun pretending I’m writing you letters. But obviously these are not really letters--not entirely, not exclusively. They are also sections of a book. And recently I find myself worrying that you, Knausgaard, might someday find occasion to read this book, and that possibility is beginning to make me nervous.
Indeed, it’s the professional hazard of any method actor, a commitment to character so strong you eventually can’t tell the difference between character and actor, who you are and who you appear to be. The single person/a, “Knausgaard,” fits perfectly with the man in question, whose hyperrealism is what makes My Struggle an unbelievable story actually worth suing him over. If Adrian is a little uneasy about that blurring, it’s only for our benefit: allowing us to see the mere prop (the letters) as the bonafide object (the book).
More, this gets to the heart of what books are and are about: readers and writers in relationship (the other three Rs?). In Somebody Telling Somebody Else, James Phelan argues that most all great literature has an aspect of being written by the reader, whose reactions to the text, as anticipated by the writer, shape the text itself. He calls this a “crossover effect,” and basically, as I understand it, the implication is that a writer’s attempt during composition to enter into the experience of the reader allows the reader, albeit imaginatively (no astral projection required), to cross over into the text, such that what they eventually end up reading is, in part, a product of what they hoped (or feared) they would. Perhaps your hopes (or fears, I hope) are unmet in this very review; that doesn’t mean I haven’t been straining to hear your voice in every keystroke. That every book isn’t also a letter to its reader.
The 2017 entry in the Theory and Interpretation of Narrative series, co-edited by Phelan himself, was pushed into my hands by another editor for review, though I never got around to it. Like an unopened letter from a former lover, it’s been sitting on my shelf, enclosing contents I dread but can’t seem to let go of. I’m glad I didn’t get rid of it in the recent move, as I did My Struggle (vols. 1 & 2), which I found intimidating (perhaps for the very “rugged, Christ-like features” Adrian laments on every cover). Now, taking a peek at the back, I see the blurb touting the crossover theory as it applies to everyone from Joan (Didion) to Jane (Austen) to John (O’Hara) to Joseph (Conrad). Wondering if it’s just a hard-J thing, I flip to page 33, more or less at random, where James (Phelan) explains emphatically: “the implied author relies (consciously or intuitively) on the authorial audience’s unfolding responses to the narrative progression as he or she constructs new parts of the text.”
And if all that sounds too complicated, and there’s much else Aristotelian poetics-wise besides (I couldn’t help but look), let’s turn back to Adrian to see that theory in action, played out. As her epigraph from Knausgaard himself states: “Between the selfless writer and the selfless reader, literature is shaped.”
Confession: after reading the first “Dear Mr. Knausgaard,” of February 20, 2019, I skipped ahead to see how long he’d remain a “Mr.” I felt like a Peeping Tom, in the already somewhat illicit PDF of an Advance Review Copy. Squinting and scrolling, scrolling and squinting at the thumbnails in my sidebar window, I searched for the missing title, the naked name. As Barthes (again) says, “As soon as I name, I am named,” and maybe I wanted to be similarly undressed in the addressing. Apparently that’s one way the voyeur satisfies himself, according to the so-called lovemap theory, by mapping his ideal amorous encounter onto the other at an impossible distance, creating intimacy (presumably) through remoteness.
Not three weeks later (that March 11 letter again):
It was starting to feel a little coy, my calling you “Mr. Knausgaard.” But it’s a tricky question. What should I call you? I’ve settled, for the moment, on “Knausgaard,” since that’s how I refer to you in conversation. Though to tell the truth I’m not a hundred percent sure what I actually mean when I say “you” in these missives.
Though it may’ve been popularized by The Who, in that hit single of 1978 inspired by a drunken run-in with a cop (“Who the fuck are you?”), the question is particularly fraught in an epistolary context. As the fifth-generation Posts explain on the institute website, where Emily’s etiquette (and evidently a family dynasty of decorum) is maintained, whether “you’re writing to someone you’ve never met face to face [sic]” or “if you’ve only spoken with the person over the phone” makes a huge difference. No doubt, both of these things could be true of one and the same interlocutor, as it’s quite possible, even likely, you’ve never met the person you’re on the phone with--especially during COVID, when such are the people we only ever meet. But would you then be writing them a letter? (Tell me who are you, because I really wanna know…) Writing to anyone, especially someone—some body—you don’t know all that well, is a delicate matter. Perhaps these are letters, not unlike Adrian’s own, that might belong on the Posts’ list of “Letters Best Left Unwritten,'' somewhere between the “Woe-is-me” and “Gossip.”
Such were my own reservations, anyway, about responding to her in kind, my own “Dear Adrian” to Adrian--whose response to Knausgaard was, already, a response to a response, if we buy the crossover theory saying that even such a solipsistic masterpiece as My Struggle responds to what the reader wants. That, coupled with the fact that I’d met Adrian under almost identical circumstances to her meeting Knausgaard, setting up a pretty untenable rhetorical situation…
We were at the NonfictioNOW conference in Phoenix, 2018 (she’d met Knausgaard at the 2017 in Reykjavik). Adrian was on a panel called “Writing the Hermit Crab Essay,” which I was eager to see. I knew about borrowed forms and about the lowly hermit crab as metaphor for the essayist (homeless, but cunning), having once been witness to an essayist quite literally dragging himself with one arm sideways across the ground, by way of demonstrating his method. Not that I wouldn’t have paid good money to see that show again, but I was really there to see Adrian.
I was a big fan. Though I hadn’t read The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet, which had just come out, I was already in love with the abecedary-sounding form. (The very building blocks of our language, borrowed!) And though I didn’t have my copy of Sock with me, which it only then occurred to me to have her sign, I remembered that it now belonged to an ex who knits, which made me feel faintly positive about that former relationship--if only by association with Adrian, which, if nothing else, made me an even bigger fan. So when I saw her at the coffee station I took my chances.
The panel was about to start. I was growing increasingly anxious, not only about potentially meeting Adrian but about holding her up--no less, en route to the very panel I was there to see her on. The details from here on are a little fuzzy, perhaps a function of some trauma-blocking mechanism in my brain, which saves me from crippling lifelong embarrassment (and thankfully kicks in every time I write). I doubt that I genuinely needed to refill my coffee, as I seem to remember letting out a stream of brown liquid from the dispenser that splashed over the brim, mildly scalding. Now jittery with nerves and caffeine, and clutching my cup with a burning death grip, I blurted out the only thing I could think of, which happened to be what was on her nametag but in the form of a question: “Kim Adrian?”
A spectacular Who-like riff playing in my head (Who, who, who, who?) on the subject of personal identity notwithstanding, I was at a loss as to even what to call her. And if it was this awkward in person, imagine the letter (August 3):
It’s very difficult, as I’ve mentioned, to keep you, Karl Ove Knausgaard, the world-famous author, separate from you, my imaginary friend KOK, separate from you, whoever you are, I mean the person behind the persona, the one I suspect I wouldn’t like too much, the one I think I wouldn’t trust.
“KOK,” to point out the obvious, is just Karl Ove Knausgaard’s initials, an acronym of the man (a mancronym). As such, I originally mispronounced it “cock,” instead of “coke,” Adrian’s actual way of saying it. I don’t know what this says about me; looking back through the early letters for signs of being sexually primed, I can’t find any, unless you count her calling him “Sebald with sex appeal” sexual priming. Perhaps it’s just an undercurrent I picked up on, like with the woman sitting next to Adrian in that packed auditorium in Reykjavik who couldn’t help “pressing her left thigh against my right thigh,” though even here Adrian couldn’t be sure “if it was sexual, or maybe passive-aggressive, or perhaps completely unintentional.”
And I had some baggage in this Dept. of Writing Writers. Once, in grad school, I sent Albert Goldbarth a postcard. Goldbarth is a notorious luddite and doesn’t own a computer, and though he has an email address he never checks it (making the contents of which the stuff of essayistic lore). I was told that he always responds to a postcard, or to most handwritten correspondence anyway, and so I wasn’t prepared to be, apparently, the only one not to get a response. Now it occurs to me why this might have been.
The postcard was a photograph I took, meant as glossy homage to his recent Adventures of Form and Content. That dos-a-dos binding, harkening back to the bygone era of Ace Doubles, suggesting something of a Mobius strip, where no matter which end you started with you always ended up in the middle, bending all tenses into the present--that was what I hoped to pay homage to with my polaroid. But taken as it was on my Holga 135, an ’80s point-and-shoot capable of more or less artsy smears of things, this blurred-out 3x5 definitely left some room for interpretation.
Half aglow, half in shadow, the rendering (such as it was) was of a light fixture I’d accidentally snapped. That shadow may have been my finger over the lens. Nonetheless, the dark/light duality captured, for me, something of the two-faced nature in all of us, inherent in all things, or at least in Goldbarth’s Adventures. Though it’s also possible to sexualize the image: yin-yanged, with very unclear boundaries, I wouldn’t blame Goldbarth for taking offense at what may appear a crazed fan’s obscene gesture, not-so-subtly toward what he refers to as a book “69’d.” All of which to say, I was done with writing writers.
Like the actor who demurs, “Now enough about me—I want to know what you think of me,” this review can’t keep the book under review in view, only its reviewer. By way of comparison (and more to the point), consider Adrian’s first impression of Knausgaard, recalled with no fuzziness whatsoever, aside from polite mention of a potentially faulty memory that, in effect, lends her even greater credibility (March 5):
You were introduced, at some length by, if I remember correctly, the Norwegian ambassador to Iceland, who called you by your full name, which sounded so great--the “Karl” smashing into the “Ove,” and the “Knausgaard” nothing at all the way I say it, with my American accent, but a weird mash-up of angular and singsong sounds. You then hulked up to the podium, all six-foot whatever of you...
That verb, “to hulk,” gets me every time. Muscular yet tender, it describes the lumbering gait of “all six-foot whatever of you” with an appreciation for how things actually look at a distance, not with that voyeuristic hunger of mine above but only an open gaze, open to what is. As if to be in audience were already to be close to him, Adrian sees the interrelationship of fans and the famous. All I can get close to—then, at the coffee station in Phoenix, as now—is myself. Dear me.
It may be in keeping with the spirit of the AFTERWORDS series of which it is a part, “reinventing literary criticism,” according to the Fiction Advocate website, “by opening it up.” But it’s precisely for this reason I can’t pin it down, this spirit I can’t find any prior evidence of. If she’s borrowing a form, Adrian returns it, so far as I can tell, utterly unrecognizable, either dissolved or reinvented in that fancy Benjaminian sense. Even Benjamin himself is defamiliarized in the text, as his quote about boredom and “the dream bird” is the first she acknowledges, as if pulling him through an invisible curtain all other canonical figures (Barthes, Proust, etc.) remain behind (April 16):
As is the case with so many of Benjamin’s more eccentric assertions, this one seems to mean many things at once. I bring it up now because one of those things applies to My Struggle, in the sense that there are hundreds of pages in your novel--maybe even the majority of pages--in which the prose can accurately be described as boring in precisely this way: a procreative way. I mean, plodding as it is, something comes alive.
I suppose this brings me, then, to my thesis for this review, which Adrian herself unknowingly supplied: plodding as it is, something comes alive. In a series of unsent letters that the writer knew from the start she’d never send, more of a procedural than anything else, Adrian somehow manages to make this plodding come alive, hatch the experience egg of her dream bird. I don’t know how she does it.
Emerson couldn’t do it, except on accident. In his July 21, 1855 letter to Whitman, in response to Leaves of Grass (or, more Knausgaardian, My Celebration), Emerson offers a stiff “Dear Sir” to the author of the work he considers nothing less than “the most extraordinary piece of wit & wisdom that American has yet contributed.” (And no complimentary close, not even a mere “Sincerely”? What would the Posts say!) Only when he then saw his own words emblazoned on the spine of the next edition, in gold lettering capitalized as if a subtitle, did things come alive: “I Greet You at the Beginning of A Great Career.” Thus was born--hatched--the first book blurb, entirely through no fault of his own.
Or Rilke: in his letter of February 17, 1903, the first of ten to the young Mr. Cappus, an officer cadet having second thoughts about his chosen profession (the old pen vs. sword chestnut). Though Letters to a Young Poet, like that to a young Whitman, wasn’t intended for publication, you can’t help but think the author saw it coming. “Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism” might as well be every critic’s mantra (just as Beckett’s “Fail better!” became the rally cry for the business world), and on some level we hear him speaking through Mr. Cappus to all of us. How else to explain the curious typographical “error,” in my Stephen Mitchell translation (sans publisher, San Bernardino, CA), of a space between “unsay” and “able”? An unsayable so spaced, so shot through with light, it enacts its own meaning? Unsay able!
Perhaps it’s just the “happy accidents” Bob Ross made famous that we’re after. Note that we have a hand in them, as surely as Ross has a hand in making little trees happy. Here, take a look at the bottom of page 143, right after Adrian’s discussion of—or interrupting, rather—Knausgaard’s book-length essay on Hitler, in Book 6. Apropos nothing but the end of her book, of Knausgaard’s, of material to work with, an accident happens, as much to Adrian as it is a function of her attempt to make anything else at all happen (July 13):
Just now (this is neither here nor there: I only thought you might be interested) there’s a rabbit in our backyard stretched out in the overgrown grass beneath a dark green plastic stool, the top of which has faded from years of sun exposure.
I won’t bother to copy out the glorious rest; that’s yours to discover. Suffice it to say there’s an echo of Dickinson, who once saw a bird similarly--both tiny, irrepressible creatures taking a drink or a nibble from nearby grass (“easily within reach” and “convenient,” respectively), both shining brilliantly upon their departure from the page (“actually incandescent” and “off Banks of Noon”). Both a dream—bird, rabbit--hatching some boredom-induced revelation, making the familiar alien. “Because underneath all those ordinary scenes of your sort of ordinary life,” Adrian says, there’s something else: “some kind of flexible metaphysical web.”
An old poetry professor of mine used to call these moments, with something of a smirk, “Your lizard brain sneaking up on you.” She used to sit on an exercise ball in her barely moved-into office, a haphazard setup so unlivable I wonder if I didn’t dream it, and bounce as I read, bouncing till I said something only she knows what worth. Then, still. In pencil she’d draw a faint, tremulous circle around the word, the webby word, worlded. Though I don’t know what, if anything, she’d circle this August 24, 2020, the book’s release date, I can’t help but suspect it’s something similarly out of the corner of my eye—there, that dragonfly. See it’s on the tip of that branch, an old poplar, blown back by the wind only to regain its balance to the uproarious applause of leaves.
Dorian Rolston is a writer in Houston, Texas, where he teaches high school English. His recent work has appeared in Aeon, DIAGRAM, Terrain.org, and Leaping Clear, among other places. He's currently at work on a collection of close readings.