Truth Is Stranger Than Autofiction

Works that reveal or revise the lives of their authors: Your weekly guide to the best in books

Karl Ove Knausgaard sits before a window.
Peter van Agtmael / Magnum

Claire Vaye Watkins, the conspicuously named protagonist of Claire Vaye Watkins’s latest novel, I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness, knows that her vagina has teeth. Claire mirrors the author in many ways beyond their shared name: They’re both writers navigating new motherhood and mourning a father who died when they were young. But those strange teeth—which Claire grows lovingly, in secret—are one of the early hints to the reader that this book is no mere memoir. Rather, Watkins has written a destabilizing autofiction. In fusing the unreal with the hyperreal, she can dig down into the thorniest bits of her family’s story while simultaneously building an escape route out of it.

A compelling genre for revising difficult realities, autofiction is an equally effective medium for writers to face trauma head-on. In Zinzi Clemmons’s What We Lose, a narrator named Thandi loosely depicts the author’s own experiences after her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Experimental and nonlinear, the novel’s form reflects the fragmentary language of grief. Karl Ove Knausgaard, on the other hand, eschews fragments for odysseys: His six-volume autobiographical novel, My Struggle, is a feat in personal disclosure. Over the series’s thousands of pages, the Norwegian author aims a floodlight at every corner of his life, whether mundane or grotesque, in pursuit of capturing the truth of an uncensored “I.” By the final volume, however, Knausgaard’s most salient revelation might be that pure, perfect truth is the stuff of fiction.

Knausgaard’s opus is often heralded as a pioneer of autofiction, but in Japan, the semiautobiographical genre of the I-novel has been trending since at least the beginning of the last century. In 1979, Yuko Tsushima made a seminal contribution to the tradition with her novel Territory of Light. Like Tsushima, the protagonist is a single mother, and many critics have read the author’s writing as memoiristic. However, by carefully rendering the ordinary circumstances of her unnamed narrator, she also created a plausible avatar for countless other single mothers navigating the challenges of 1970s Japan.

A rereading of Lucia Berlin’s writing similarly reveals how she intertwined memory with the imaginary. The posthumous publication of Welcome Home: A Memoir With Selected Photographs and Letters invited a closer look at how many protagonists, and even certain passages, from Berlin’s short stories appear to actually be paraphrases from the author’s unfinished memoir. The fictional women Berlin wrote—her litany of alibis—are often alienated and shamed. They are unsteadied by trauma. By her hand, their fullness, which is also her own, is placed firmly into view.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading

Statue with face lifting off to reveal orange hole

Adam Maida / The Atlantic

In defense of fakeness

“Both works suggest that, valuable though truth telling may be, invention and fakery are necessary sources of possibility and relief in relentlessly difficult moments. Reading these two books side by side shows that autofiction, as much as any other mode of writing, can be escapist.”

Woman seen from the back, standing with an umbrella and facing a bridge in the rain

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

What We Lose: A striking novel about filial grief

“Clemmons’s novel features another in a line of mostly young women for whom the quest for identity presents itself as a dilemma of authenticity, a challenge to make meaning in the face of existential drift and pain. How should a mother be?, this novel asks. How should a daughter be? How should a person mourn?

Illustration of Karl Ove Knausgaard's face, against a black and white backdrop

Illustration by Jesse Draxler; Martin Lengemann / LAIF / Redux

How writing My Struggle undid Knausgaard

“The spiritual confession is among the models for My Struggle, though it is truly a confession for our time: Knausgaard finds not God, but himself. For this reason, criticizing his character, even at its ugliest moments, is beside the point. The uglier he is, the more powerful his redemption becomes.”

Woman crouching down with a sleeping baby strapped to her back

Corbis / Getty

The careful craft of writing female subjectivity

“To see only the personal or, on the contrary, to immediately discount the personal, underestimates Tsushima.”

Illustration: Lucia Berlin

Illustration: Celina Pereira; Nationaal Archief / Wikimedia

Lucia Berlin’s harrowing, radiant fiction

“Does it matter where her material came from? Does it disrespect the writer to consider the question? Or is it a failure to consider this work without probing its apparent function as witness to the pieces of a real life that could be acknowledged no other way?”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Nicole Acheampong. The book she can’t put down is Three Strong Women, by Marie NDiaye.

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