- A Man in Love—Karl Ove Knausgaard
- The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America—George Packer
- The Signature of All Things—Elizabeth Gilbert
- Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football—Rich Cohen
- Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief—Lawrence Wright
- A Death in the Family—Karl Ove Knausgaard
Last month I expressed a fear that I might be turning into the fiction-hating Noel Gallagher, who recently told us that “novels are just a waste of fucking time” and, on top of that, not true. And though my reading diet this month was only one-half fiction, that half consisted of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s extraordinary A Death in the Family, the first volume in the six-book sequence My Struggle. If you run with the word diet and picture the books as food—and I feel I know you well enough by now to understand that you have nothing better to do—then My Struggle is a great big T-bone steak of a novel. It might seem to occupy the same space as the accompanying vegetables if you’re looking down on my reading plate from above—and again, why wouldn’t you?—but from up there, you can’t see the weight and the caloric content. You have to plough your way through My Struggle to understand just how filling it is. (I avoided the word meaty. You can see how meaty a piece of steak is without having to eat it.)
This is not the month, however, to discuss with any clarity the merits of fiction versus nonfiction, nor to come to a conclusion with any finality. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s novel is about a writer named Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose autobiography is indistinguishable from that of the man who “created” him. My Struggle (and if the title sounds familiar, it’s Min Kamp in the original Norwegian) describes, in extraordinary detail, the first four decades or so of Knausgaard’s life; the eponymous death in the first book is of Knausgaard’s father, who died in squalor at his mother’s house after years of alcohol abuse. Compare and contrast to one of the nonfiction books I read this month, Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear. Wright’s book is in part about a man called L. Ron Hubbard, whose relationship to his own history, according to Wright, was a lot more complicated than Knausgaard’s. Hubbard’s wartime record, for example, is almost impossible to describe with any accuracy, such is the puzzling gulf between his own account and the official records. He told the author Robert Heinlein that he’d been “sunk four times and wounded again and again.” He wrote that he’d been “blinded with injured optic nerves and lame with physical injuries to hip and back.” And he said that after the USS Edsall was sunk, off the north coast of Java, he survived by swimming to the shore, hiding in the jungle, and sailing a raft to Australia. There is documentary evidence that he suffered from ulcers, and that he caught gonorrhea in Miami, and both conditions sound painful and uncomfortable. But Wright can find no record of any injuries sustained during combat, nor can he verify the derring-do of the jungle hideaway and the raft escape.
Hubbard is not the author of Going Clear, though, and there is no tired irony in his possibly fanciful autobiographical claims appearing in a work of nonfiction. He is, however, quite an extraordinary man, even if we exclude those parts of his life that must remain obscure, and there are great swaths of this book that are as lurid and fast-moving as a comic strip. We know that he was a pulp-fiction writer who produced an incredible number of words—one hundred thousand a month between 1934 and 1936, according to the Church of Scientology, and we have no reason to doubt the estimate. We know that he produced a self-help book, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, that sold millions of copies in the 1950s. We know that when interest in Dianetics dried up, Hubbard founded a religion, and formed a small navy consisting of three large ships crewed by converts. (Some of this crew were pubescent girls who were always referred to as “sir.”) We know, too, that this flotilla sailed around the Mediterranean for great chunks of the 1960s, sometimes stopping along the way to look for treasure that Hubbard had buried himself during a past life. We know that when one becomes a Scientologist, one signs up for a billion years, although presumably this contract, like any other, can be extended as it approaches its expiry date. You can open Going Clear at almost any page and read something so extraordinary—so completely contrary to everything you understand about psychology, science, nature, logic, history, and human beings—that, on finishing it, you are almost guaranteed to run straight into the arms of the nearest novelist. Novelists have to care about those things and take them all seriously, otherwise nobody will believe them.