There is something brilliant about recruiting Karl Ove Knausgaard to write a two-part essay in the New York Times Magazine on traveling through America. In Knausgaard we have an author widely praised as Proustian in style; an author who embarked on writing a six volume semi-autobiographical book titled My Struggle; an author who has an über-focused, uncanny and unswerving sense of his surroundings. He also presents, in somewhat flat prose, just the facts - his observations. He is socially awkward and very reserved. He prefers to be alone or with only the company of his children. It appears, as far as I can tell, that his prior American visits were spent only in New York City. This latest visit, one that he is documenting, is his first foray into the American hinterland as it were. A Norwegian abroad in America; not your average Norwegian either, nor your average tourist. I can't wait to read the NYT Letters to the Editor column in the coming weeks.
Many Americans tend to believe in the idea of the country's exceptionalism, a deep belief that renders other countries as merely lesser entities; Europe is especially disparaged as 'socialist' because most European countries provide single-payer healthcare, along with reasonably priced higher education, for instance. What then would they make of Norway, one of the most truly socialist countries in the European bloc? What would they ever make of the Norse - the Danes, the Swedes and the Norwegians as a whole - if they were to ever meet any of them on their own soil? The Norse, a proud and stoic people living in the far north of the planet, who endure almost six months a year of darkness and bitterly cold temperatures, who's temperament is far removed from that of the average American. Knausgaard finds himself confused; not initially when he lands in Newfoundland, Canada, visiting the place where the Vikings had landed and settled a thousand years ago - in fact he is in thrall at being able to witness the very place that his Nordic ancestors landed, after crossing from Greenland, in what to them was the New World: Newfoundland. His confusion began when he went out for dinner later that evening.
Reading Knausgaard's essay of his time in America is like witnessing the collision of continents: Those piles of food baskets, no doubt plastic, are a perfect allegory that points to indulgence and over-consumption on a grand scale; the enormous girths; the waitress asking Knausgaard if one pizza was all he was having; his otherness in the eyes of that waitress; the shame he felt when tipping. We see Knausgaard, in all of this telling, colliding head-on with North American mores.
It would be imbecilic of me to suggest that there are no obese people in Norway, Denmark or Sweden, there must be. It is just that it is not the norm throughout Europe in general. Does obesity make America exceptional? Knausgaard felt that it was a cliché even when considering it. Having experienced American eating habits he may feel it is no longer a cliché as far as he's concerned.
I have traveled extensively throughout Europe, yet have been in Norway only once, when my band Gang of Four performed in Bergen in 2006. I recall eating well at the Bergen home of my friend Arve Overland's parents. It was a gathering of family. The food was healthy and plentiful, medium-sized portions; the food served was not the centre of attention; conversation was the key that brought warmth and goodwill to the occasion.; the food was a tasty compliment. I didn't feel like I was just a guest so much as I was part of an extended family.
In Jungle Jim's and Pizza Delight, Knausgaard must have felt unmoored, lonely and deflated.