The NY Times Magazine got Karl Ove Knausgaard (author of My Struggle) to “drive across America and write about it without talking to a single American”, like some sort of introverted Tocqueville. He came unprepared:
I dialed the number of the driver’s-license office at the Swedish Transport Agency, keyed in my personal identity number and sat down at the desk, scrolling through some Norwegian newspapers as I waited my turn.
A prerecorded voice came on and informed me about opening hours, then the line went dead.
What the hell?
Had they closed?
But it couldn’t be later than 1 p.m. in Sweden.
I looked at the Transport Agency website. To my dismay, I discovered that it was a holiday in Sweden tomorrow, Trettondagsafton, the Feast of the Epiphany, and a half-day today.
That meant I couldn’t get the driver’s-license confirmation letter until three days from now at the earliest, more likely four.
I wasn’t even in the U.S. yet, I was just in Canada!
I lay back in bed and stared at the ceiling. I should email The Times and explain the situation. Maybe they had a solution. But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t bring myself to tell them that I’d undertaken this great road-trip assignment across the U.S. without my license. They’d think I was a complete idiot.
In any case, there was nothing I could do today.
And his thoughts on Detroit (emphasis mine):
I’d seen poverty before, of course, even incomprehensible poverty, as in the slums outside Maputo, in Mozambique. But I’d never seen anything like this. If what I had seen tonight - house after house after house abandoned, deserted, decaying as if there had been disaster - if this was poverty, then it must be a new kind poverty, maybe in the same way that the wealth that had amassed here in the 20th century had been a new kind of wealth. I had never really understood how a nation that so celebrated the individual could obliterate all differences the way this country did. In a system of mass production, the individual workers are replaceable and the products are identical. The identical cars are followed by identical gas stations, identical restaurants, identical motels and, as an extension of these, by identical TV screens, which hang everywhere in this country, broadcasting identical entertainment and identical dreams. Not even the Soviet Union at the height of its power had succeeded in creating such a unified, collective identity as the one Americans lived their lives within. When times got rough, a person could abandon one town in favor of another, and that new town would still represent the same thing.
Was that what home was here? Not the place, not the local, but the culture, the general?
Update: The Times has posted the second part of Knausgaard’s My Saga.
If there is something to be gained, if it is gainable, no power on earth can restrain the forces that seek to gain it. To leave a profit or a territory or any kind of resource, even a scientific discovery, unexploited is deeply alien to human nature.