Book Review: “In the Land of the Cyclops” by Karl Ove Knausgaard
A Short Essay on a Book of Essays
When I was growing up in small-town Ontario, Canada, people considered me to be smart. So smart, it was said, that I could commit a crime and figure out a way to get away with it. When it came time to join the ranks of the workforce I found that — in many cases — I was the brightest light bulb in the room. Or so it seemed. Then, I took a job at a digital design agency in Toronto, Canada, for two years. I found, much to my shock, horror, and dismay, that I was just a 40-watt bulb trapped in a desk lamp surrounded by people who were as brilliant as searing police searchlights. I was no longer the smartest guy in the room; I might have been now the dumbest. This is how I feel when it comes to writing about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s book of essays, In the Land of the Cyclops, which was originally published in English in hardcover in 2021 through a small press and is now getting the trade paperback treatment from a major publisher. Knausgaard is a smart guy. He should get the Nobel Prize not for the quality of his writing, but for the cleverness and originality of his thoughts and arguments.
This is to say, then, that there were parts of this book that I simply did not get. I was reading over my head here — and perhaps that’s not a bad thing. If anything, reading Knausgaard has exposed me to a bevy of classic and contemporary authors to think about and check out. But I might be getting ahead of myself there. When it comes down to it, In the Land of the Cyclops is a sort of autobiography of Knausgaard. A great deal of the book is left to discussions of obscure literature, as well as off-the-beaten-path photographers and painters. In writing about this, Knausgaard is opening himself up to works that he admires and understands, which is a way of opening up himself to his audience about the things that make him tick. He likes to think about art and its place in a larger society. He sometimes reflects on his work, too, which is satisfying when it happens. After all, I’m a writer and there’s nothing more thrilling to read than another writer (and a much more successful writer than I) riffing on the writing lifestyle and how to be and act as a member of this vaulted profession. At the end of the day, I often found In the Land of the Cyclops to be endlessly fascinating, even if I had to skim some of it as it was just too elitist to me — if I can say that without sounding imprudent or rude. When the most famous work up for discussion here is the 19th-century French novel Madame Bovary, I think it can be said with some fairness that this is a collection that is not going to be for everyone. However, if you’re brave and up to the challenge of reading this book, your worldview will be expanded and your IQ may jump up a few points.
There was one element of this work that left me feeling a bit disappointed. The book includes a series of photographs or reproductions of images based on the artwork being discussed. I could have used more of this, however, as what’s included here is a bit skimpy. I understand that rights issues might have prohibited the inclusion of more art, but it’s difficult — even with the author’s generous explanations of what he’s talking about and referring to in the text — to understand sometimes what the fuss is about. After all, the artists being discussed are usually not household names. Still, what is included may take your breath away. I was impressed with the quality of the reproductions — I read this book on my black-and-white Kindle, so things may be more impressive if you get a physical copy of the book — and some of the images are quite striking, if not a bit weird and avant-garde. You may pause and linger on some of these pictures. Again, given the experimental and non-mainstream nature of these photographs, this is not an essay collection that is going to be to everyone’s taste, but, if you take a chance on this, you’re likely going to have an encounter with the divine.
In the end, the book is like a wormhole into the author’s soul and that of others who share some of his proclivities. He is, at times, very honest about his struggles with depression (he worked in a psychiatric hospital for a time, as well, so it may come with the territory), and when he drops his guard and stops letting his intellect take over his narratives, the result is searing and striking. One wishes that he didn’t feel that he had to speak about his life in such a coded manner because there are some universal truths to be had in this text that could have been more accessible to a wider audience. Still, if you strip away the pretense and don’t mind engaging your brain in some deep philosophical and theoretical discussions, there is much to admire in this work. This was the sort of book that I wish were being read to me in person by the author, complete with a PowerPoint presentation behind him to illustrate some of his points. In any event, though, what we’re left with here is intriguing and certainly interesting. Even if my intellect doesn’t match such a towering intellectual as Knausgaard, I think that, ultimately, I may wind up being a little bit smarter for reading this engrossing narrative of a life lived in the community of the arts. If anything, you may treasure such an experience if your mind remains open — along with both of your eyes. Keep a watch for this one.
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s In the Land of the Cyclops will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on January 10, 2023.
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