I’ve still not written much about my multi-year project reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s  6-volume, 3,600 page autobiographical novel My Struggle. Translated from the Norwegian, it was a polarizing work, and a commitment, but I was mesmerized. I suspect many who offer their opinion on it haven’t read it. It’s a lonely feeling, having a work of art that’s so important, so transformative and beautiful,  so personally touching, and yet if I bring it up I get blank stares, or wrinkled noses. I’ve been kind of on my own with it. 

I suppose living in lockdown this would be my opportunity to start or find an online support group for those who have read it. And maybe I will.

But this week I’ve been thinking about another transformative arts experience. 

Before you start thinking I’m that easy, that I have a life-changing experience every time I turn around, I’d say. Well, not that often. Let’s see: Mr Rogers. Visiting Disneyland. Seeing West Side Story for the first time. Reading Thoreau. John Carpenter movies in the 80s. Angels in America. Wes Anderson. Paul Thomas Anderson. Jane Smiley. Caroline, or Change. Karl Ove Knausgaard.

A dozen-ish life-changing things in 56 years doesn’t seem excessive, does it? Oh, I left out Rent and Michael Chabon and Logan’s Run. Maybe a few more. But still, these moments are important, and somewhat rare.

When my friend Bart told me I had to go see Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s musical Caroline, or Change when it came to San Francisco with the original Broadway cast, I didn’t have high hopes. I loved Tony Kushner, but wasn’t sure about a show focused on a 12 year old boy’s relationship to his family maid in the 60s south. 

I started misting up a couple songs in, and to say it was a 3-hanky experience is an understatement. Being touched this deeply by anything reminds me of the Mormon mother in Angels who answers the question, “How do people change?”

Well it has something to do with God so it’s not very nice. God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly and then plunges a huge filthy hand in, he grabs hold of your bloody tubes and they slip to evade his grasp but he squeezes hard, he insists, he pulls and pulls till all your innards are yanked out and the pain! We can’t even talk about that. And then he stuffs them back, dirty, tangled and torn. It’s up to you to do the stitching.

And then up you get. And walk around. Just mangled guts pretending. That’s how people change. [Tony Kushner, Angels in America]

Yes. Being transformed by art for me is like having my insides pulled out and rearranged. It’s a painful punch to the gut that somehow feels so true, and loving, that I realize it’s what I’ve been hoping for. 

Caroline, or Change is about a 12 year old boy, mother dead of cancer, father blind and blank with grief, who idolizes his family’s angry, bitter maid Caroline. His stepmother, at a loss to help him keep hold of his things, decrees that any money he leaves in his pockets goes to Caroline, who doesn’t want to take a small boy’s money, but who can’t make $30 a week feed her 3 kids. JFK is assassinated, a Confederate statue’s head disappears. The boy leaves more and more change in his pockets, imagining he’s becoming a part of the life of Caroline’s family, unable to understand the incredible inequality that makes his castoffs her bitter lifeline. Then a Hannukah $20 goes through the wash, and the shit hits the fan. 

The music is beautiful and haunting. Like opera, a list of things that happen probably can’t get close to it. But I’d be curious, if you’ve seen the show, weren’t you also wrecked? It helped me wake up to my white privileged childhood and the long shadow of racism in this country. Also the pressure cooker of being an about-to-be gayboy in the second half of the twentieth century. And more.

But what has me thinking about Caroline this month is the song “Underwater.” Throughout the play, the waters of the Gulf of Mexico stand in for all the threats, seeping into the humid Louisiana basement laundry room, that could submerge Caroline in despair. 

In a surreal sequence that’s mostly dream, the boy asks Caroline what it’s like underwater. She sings:

It’s like a song you hear on the radio at night.
Like sleepin with the light out.
It’s like the wooden sound of your mama sad bassoon.
That sorrow deep inside you,
it inside me too,
and it never go away.

You’ll be okay.
You’ll learn how to lose things.

My sorrow go where my heart grow calm.
When you stop breathing air
you get… oh… so calm,
no fire down there,
so it’s calm, calm, calm.
And there’s never any money,
so it’s very, very, calm.

I’m not sure just the lyrics put it across, but as our economy collapses and we all have so many reactions, I think about the calm of things stopping. Of not having money. Of sinking into the moment.

If you ever get a chance, check the show out. The original cast recording with Tanya Pinkins is a knockout.