“I am committed to the idea that the value of this collective’s work has not been dependent on our choice of text,” Joshua Dubler asserts at the end of his chapter in The Abyss or Life Is Simple. “Provided that it was long enough to justify repeated, ritualized encounters, another text might just as well have served our purposes.” I had not read the six-volume Norwegian novel My Struggle by Karl Knausgaard around which The Abyss or Life Is Simple’s critical, creative collective is structured, so maybe I was perfectly primed to share Dubler’s conviction. I can imagine readers who turn to the book for fascinating insight into Knausgaard. But with no prior experience of the novel, I came for the collective vibes.

We are told in the introduction that this book was created by a group of scholars and writers who began to meet in 2016 “by happenstance, on a basis of curiosity and enthusiasm, loose ties of professional friendship, and a shared commitment to reading My Struggle.” Over the course of six years, the group met in different locations, reading volumes of the novel as they were released and translated into English and looking, collectively, for new ways to read and write religion. They also engaged a rapporteur and transcriptionist, who collected all the words spoken during these discussions. Pieces of these transcriptions are interspersed like short interludes between the more traditional single-authored chapters, forming a kind of shadow text around them.

There is something of a gauntlet thrown in the choice of My Struggle by a group of religion scholars. In the late 2010s, Knausgaard was being heralded as the quintessentially secular novelist of our time, the harbinger of a literary style promised since Matthew Arnold prophesized the replacement of scripture by literature. One of the book’s co-authors, M. Cooper Harriss draws on Zadie Smith’s analysis of the novel to explain that My Struggle is a novel of a purely immanent frame. The novel collapses not just a transcendent horizon of meaning into the endless flow of the quotidian, but also the very “distinction between the literary mechanism (words crafted in a significant order) and a compelling experience of human life.” As Harriss observes, this collapse is, of course, only apparent. “Whatever the narrative may reveal” in its painstaking allegiance to flat secular time, “it also necessarily conceals plenty as well.” The authors of this volume are looking with, through, in, and around “apparent” secularity. If they find “religion” lurking even in these pages, then perhaps the religion/secular binary will finally crumble to be replaced by other modes of thinking and writing religion.

This does not mean that The Abyss or Life Is Simple is advancing a unified thesis about religion in late modern life. As the authors note in their introduction, the term “takes on different possibilities” from “the quotidian dimensions of ethics, practice, duty, self-craft, and meaning-making” to the mise en abyme, the uncanny, “the peculiar resistances of language and of writing… where the relation of life to its fragments is much more complicated, and unsteady.”  These unsteady moments are illuminated in many different lights and excavated from the steady flow of Knausgaard’s prose with many different disciplinary tools, from a reading of failed rituals and carnivalesque reversals to holy, weeping women, from the aesthetics of “the swarm,” as both a politics and, in Dubler’s words, “a candidate ur-form for the study of religion” to a theological reading of the angel figure by way of Jean-Luc Marion.

The “more than” of apparent secularity rises above the surface flow of empirical description in the authors’ analyses of the act of writing — and reading — in the novels. Winnifred Sullivan describes Knausgaard’s own descriptions of writing, in the novel and in other writings about writing, as compulsion and revelation. If his writing is a faithful rendition of the repetitive details of ordinary life (peeling potatoes, cleaning the bathroom, taking a shit), the act of becoming a writer for Knausgaard is saturated with “emotion-driven thoughts” and attention to the possibility — maybe even the expectation — of “solar revelation and angelic visitation.” What is foreign, unexpected, uncontainable is encountered in writing itself, through the quotidian but surplus to it. Courtney Bender takes up this “ethnographic surplus” in Knausgaard’s descriptions as opening the work to parts of life that are not “assimilable from monological positions,” parts of life whose indeterminacy — “what do they mean?” — “mark the presence of something deeper, enduring, ever-present.” For Bender, this “something more” than the quotidian is “recognizable yet unspeakable, immanent to the quotidian, [capable of] marking the quotidian as the product of our work to keep it at bay.”

Bender suggests that these uncanny moments and failed rituals point to “just how gossamer-thin our everyday has become” — both our experience of everyday life and our fascination and insistence on “the everyday” as the scale of knowing and being that matter most for our thinking. Writing and language are themselves “old ritual powers” that create the quotidian to contain whatever we might glimpse beyond or through what she calls “the tiny tears and frayed edges of its thinning frame.” But since we are, as readers of The Abyss or Life Is Simple, reading a book that is attempting to make clear the power and limits of writing through careful reading, these “old ritual powers” might fail us, too. These fraying edges might catch us in their web.

The thinness of our scholarly everyday is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the genre of the collected volume. “People are like: we don’t want to read your anthology either!” Liane Carlson jokes in the final transcript provided in the Outro, where the collective discusses what they are supposed to produce out of this experiment. Six years is a very long time to talk to anyone about anything. What did they do with all that time? The final paragraph of the introduction offers us a litany of collective doings that range from the concrete (“We ate and drank, we traveled, we walked… some of us swam”) to the abstractly interpretative (“We played with ideas, with interpretations”), from the experiential to the experimental (“We thought freely. We trusted each other with our thoughts… We cultivated fascination”), or from the transgressive (“We delighted in the sense of being up to something”) to the transcendent (“We opened worlds. We became worlds. We explored those worlds. We entered each other’s worlds”). But how do you capture all that in a scholarly book published by a university press? Isn’t there something exhausting — thin, worn out — about even trying?

This is not to criticize the individual scholarly chapters collected here: they are anything but worn out. They are insightful, captivating, and compelling enough that I read every one of them even though I had only a cursory interest in Knausgaard’s work. As Dubler’s chapter so beautifully illuminates, “the Knausgaard swarm” was forming right when I gave birth to my second child, and I had no real interest in the shitting, cleaning, or cooking habits of anyone outside my claustrophobic everyday life. By the time I might have had the bandwidth to read a six-volume novel, the swarm had swarmed elsewhere. Reading seven chapters of careful analysis of Knausgaard’s work did not make me want to read more Knausgaard. It did make me wish there were more scholarly collectives like this.

The authors of the book seem to sense the thinness of this project too, the impossibility of an academic genre that captures what they have been up to. This is why all those transcripts interrupt the flow of writing-as-usual. Sometimes these dialogical insertions feel like a prelude to the chapter to come and sometimes they feel disconnected or digressive. Like Knausgaard’s method itself, these transcripts are a bracing dose of the mundane reality of intellectual discussion. Voices overlap, trail off. Ideas are picked up, interrupted, abandoned, not fully explained. The reader can’t quite catch the thread of the conversation or when she does, it disappears when the transcript ends. They give the lie to the “apparent” singularity of authorship of each chapter, reminding us that all our polished, careful analysis always comes out of the flux and uncertainty of collaborative thinking.

Most scholarly books bury this truth in the acknowledgments page — in thanks for the friends who read drafts, the graduate students who workshopped chapters, the peer reviewers who gave generous and constructive feedback, and the editors who offered insightful comments and probing questions. The transcripts of the collective conversation that led to The Abyss or Life Is Simple make this community of authorship part of the fabric of production, the scholarly equivalent to Knausgaard’s peeling potatoes and cleaning the bathroom.

But these transcripts are also carefully edited, a few scant pages out of what must have been hundreds or perhaps even thousands of transcribed pages from hours of conversation held over six years. This, too, is an “apparent” transparency, one that builds to a fabulous sort of mise en abyme of its own. I won’t spoil it except to say that I laughed in delight when I realized how the transcripts created their own hermeneutic circle: the thing being discussed is the thing we have been reading, pulling us in a circle back to the beginning of the text — the one we are reading and the one we are reading about.

The transcripts as they appear in the book are not “the reality” behind the scholarly artifice of the individual chapters. They are an attempt to render in writing what cannot really be written in the rituals of our recognizable scholarly genres. The transcripts attempt to capture that time, to make it visible as real labor, as a product that is surplus to the volume we are currently reading.

“Well, you think that our product as scholars is an edited volume as a representation of thinking,” Bender says in the final transcript offered in the Outro. “And I have always said that so much energy goes into that volume that other things that may have been possible are excluded… I have always argued that there should be a product that we can talk about and describe and show but it does not necessarily have to be a document that is the encapsulation of something.” “It is us being changed,” Sullivan responds. And then later adds, “There is something frivolous and self-indulgent about what we are doing.” “More than anything else?” Dubler responds, “Like AAR? [Laughter]… but seriously. More than anything like that?”

This joking toward articulation is, I think, what Dubler meant by the choice of book not really mattering. This is what I was looking for when I picked up a collection of essays about a novel I had never read. I am not sure if this volume represents the kind of product for whose existence Bender yearned. Then again, maybe the collected volume as a genre was always meant to keep at bay the “something more” that strains against the frayed edges of the scholarly quotidian. If you have been part of an intellectual collective of any kind — a great round table, a meaningful seminar, a writing group, a reading group — you will feel the thrum of the “us” that is “being changed” under and behind the words on these pages. Maybe the inability of any scholarly book to capture this, even when it presses against the seams of what it is supposed to contain, is a sign of writing’s failure. Or maybe it is a collective glimpse of something that cannot be contained or redeemed by the ritual powers of writing as we know them.