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A scene from the finale of the TV series Breaking Bad. (Ursula Coyote/AP/AMC)
A scene from the finale of the TV series Breaking Bad. (Ursula Coyote/AP/AMC)

russell smith

Why today’s literary novelists could learn a lot from Breaking Bad Add to ...

The name Karl Ove Knausgaard seems to be on every intellectual’s lips these days. The novelist’s six-volume, 3,500-page magnum opus, provocatively called My Struggle, was the subject of every radio show and office and bar conversation in his native Norway for several months; it sold 450,000 copies in that country alone (which means that every single adult there has at least had a conversation about it).

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The first volume of it, titled A Death in the Family, has been translated into English, and it is not the one that has caused controversy in his homeland (the subsequent volumes were criticized by his ex-wife and family for revealing too much of their private lives). But it has already received the most hysterical rave reviews I have ever read of a new novel. The paperback edition begins with eight pages of critical praise from European media, with people calling it stupendous and ambitious and a rare feat and everything but the Second Coming.

I’m more than halfway through this first volume, and I have to admit I’m finding it rather slow going. So far, it’s about the author’s small-town childhood and adolescence, written in painstaking and indiscriminate detail, and then about the death of his alcoholic father. I understand that this is the point: It’s part of an interesting discussion going on right now in literary circles about fiction and memoir and autobiography and the differences among them, and why people are being more honest about their failings generally (it’s because of the Internet, basically). I too have been reading lots of undisguised autobiography as fiction (Taipei, by the American author Tao Lin, is similarly fashionable).

Knausgaard doesn’t bother giving his characters fictional names: His ex-wife is called Tonje just as she is in real life. It’s understandable that Norwegians are interested in this gossip (Knausgaard was already known as a novelist there before this book), but I don’t know him as a public figure, so I don’t care about his real life (or wife). I don’t care what real people are behind the undifferentiable characters in Tao Lin either. It’s all just fiction to me. Slow, angsty, kitchen-sink fiction.

It’s not that I’m not enjoying it at all. It’s just that I’m not really looking forward to picking it up every evening.

Which is a very different feeling from that I had on anticipating every episode of Breaking Bad. I watched the finale this week with the excitement of someone allowed to see the Great Pyramids or the Mona Lisa for the first time.

Reaction to that final episode has generally been good, which is surprising considering how easy it is to disappoint devoted fans with something that attempts a giant wrap-up, and given the limits of believability that must be pushed to satisfy these narrative demands. Satisfying is the word that has come up most often. It was satisfying because it provided a series of definitive endings, endings for every subplot, and those endings were unequivocal: Walt dies, as he has to; he gets money to his family, as he has to; he saves Jesse, as he has to; he admits his psychosis, as he has to; he kills off the neo-Nazi gang and the annoying Lydia, as we want him to. It’s not exactly plausible that all those things would happen, but we want them to, so they are satisfying. It’s not real, which is why it’s exciting.

Autobiographical fiction can never do these things, because our lives contain few endings or even resolutions of any kind. I am slowing down in reading Knausgaard because I suspect it’s going to end pretty much in the present day, with a middle-aged writer about to write a book. The word satisfying does not come to mind. Its verisimilitude, on the other hand, cannot be challenged.

Verisimilitude was gloriously, spectacularly absent in that Breaking Bad finale. That ridiculous MacGyver-like spinning machine-gun contraption didn’t make sense on any level: Its magical ability to kill a half-dozen bad guys in one long burst was just silly, comic-book stuff.

Verisimilitude is something I am constantly seeking in fiction. I am looking for surface detail that makes something seem real. I roll my eyes at scenes that require automated, magical superduper machine guns. And yet I am also always telling my writing students that the anecdotes that make up their own lives, no matter how heart-wrenching they may have been for their subjects, are not in themselves stories. Stories have endings; endings are contrived. In order to come up with a great ending – an ending that is, like the near-superpowers of Walter White, satisfying – you’re probably going to have to make something up, something that didn’t actually happen.

The trend toward reflective autobiography in fiction is a fascinating one, because it is defiant in its honesty, and because it is influenced by ways of communicating that have been enabled by new technology (i.e., blogging, updating, tweeting). It’s cool. But the grim, grey mundanity of real contemporary life is never quite as electrifying as that provided by the thoroughly artificial. Artifice is at the root of art, and art needn’t be ashamed of its artifice.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated My Struggle comprised 3,500 words.

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