Karl Ove Knausgaard’s haunting new novel

For much of the past decade, Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard was part of a cohort of writers left behind in WG Sebald’s long backdraft, whose work drew its strength from the difficult and sometimes ephemeral between reality and fiction. Sebald was interested in the subjective nature of history and the tension between the macro-scale on which world historical events are understood in retrospect and the individual scale on which they are experienced. The contemporary iteration of Sebald’s impulse is a little different in that it is invested with a dense, gravitational solipsism. So-called autofiction is the social romance upside down; in the hands of a self-fictionalist, his own life is a small world. Knausgaard, in particular, has strived to recreate at a micro-level the events that shaped him. In “My Struggle,” his autobiographical six-volume novel, he achieved an acute and piercing psychological closeness that was at times suffocating or infuriating and at other times utterly sublime. To read Knausgaard was to discover that even the most mundane action was animated, if not with meaning, at least with beauty, which can function as its own type of meaning.

Alongside the major topographical features of Knausgaard’s life – his learning that his parents were fallible, rejected by his brother and by lovers and friends, discovering literature and music – we experienced the negligible. We poured out countless cups of coffee and tea. We brushed the bread with butter or jam. We ate canned fish. We listened to records. We have turned the pages of the books. In the midst of these scenes told almost in real time, Knausgaard offers degressive ruminations on, among other things, the nature of death and the work of various writers and artists. It is the unity between the experiential and the essayist that made “My Struggle” so captivating. Reading novels had the same feeling of aesthetic elevation and drift as visiting a staged play. For incredibly long periods of time, you felt your own taste and sensitivity fueled the novels. You wanted to live in Knausgaard’s brilliantly illuminated version of a world you almost recognized as your own. In other words, Knausgaard performed a devious transfer, a variety of literary hypnosis.

“The Morning Star”, the first of Knausgaard’s new cycle of novels, marks a departure from the self-fiction mode of “My Struggle” and a return to the more purely fictional mode of his earlier novels. The new book covers a few August nights in Norway as a new star strangely shines in the sky, as animals and humans bustle relentlessly, like before a disaster. I was worried the novel would feel bogus and strained compared to the sprawl of “My Struggle” and the books of essays and reviews that followed. The premise of “The Morning Star” sounded a little whimsical, perhaps derived from the pessimistic mysticism of Roberto Bolaño or the free-wheeling phantasmagoria of Jorge Luis Borges. It seemed to me, at first glance, like a drastic overcorrection. Did Knausgaard become pulp? Was he going kind on me? I had seen other writers undertake such changes with a sort of stiff, irritable condescension, with disastrous results. Turns out I didn’t have to worry. I compulsively read “The Morning Star” and stayed awake all night after finishing it. I left the novel as I often did after watching a great horror movie as a kid – totally convinced that every evil and implausible thing I had just witnessed on screen was waiting for me in the room. adjoining room. Not that this novel offers horror in the conventional sense of the term. Under the mysterious sign in the sky, people lead the kind of stifled and frustrated lives that Knausgaard made his domain: the stranded creatives, the spiritually hungry, the terrifying sentient, the almost realistic failures.

“The Morning Star” is narrated in the first person by nine characters, whose lives are interconnected in ways that are both big and small. Arne, a teacher on summer vacation with his family, is friends with Egil, a dilettante who has experienced a recent religious breakthrough. Kathrine, a former classmate of Egil, is a priest who is considering leaving her husband. The young woman who greets Kathrine in a hotel is revealed to be related to another narrator, Emil, and, going a step further, she recognizes Kathrine as the priest of her confirmation. Iselin, a restless, floundering college student, rents a room from a couple whose missing son is the only witness to a possible ritual murder investigated by Jostein, a crass art journalist who sees the case as his return to life. the hard-boiled crime reporting that he prefers. Jostein is married to Turid, who works in a mental hospital and is thinking about ways to illegally acquire drugs from the pharmacy. “The Morning Star” is a secular and superstitious novel in the spirit of “2666” or “The Wild Detectives” of Bolaño. The story’s discursive sprawl is tied up by the matrix of interpersonal connections, giving it shape even as the characters rationalize how frightened they are by the events that unfold over the bizarre two days.

As for what happens in the course of the novel, it’s hard to say. All and nothing. Arne and his partner, Tove, fight, and later Arne has a drunk driving accident. Egil fails to connect with his son, who is not even interested in trying to get to know him. Emil, an educator, worries about his gang and about a child he dropped from a coffee table during a diaper change. Iselin works in a convenience store and has an awkward meeting with a high school teacher, then is terrified when a screaming man appears at her door, demanding to be let in. Turid loses a patient through his own neglect and wanders the woods at night trying to find him. Jostein is unfaithful and sleeps with a woman before being called to the scene of a gruesome murder. The novel is difficult to summarize because most of its action and its forebodings flow from the long and slow lines of everyday life, as in this passage where Turid, in the middle of a day’s work, contemplates a fly:

One of the flies landed on my knee. I sat down quite still and watched him crawl for a while. When he stopped and lifted his front paws to his head, much like a cat washing itself, I carefully raised a hand towards him. My father taught me the method when I was little. If the movement was slow enough, the fly wouldn’t see it. With my hand right on top, I stood still for a few seconds, then hit as hard as I could.

The fly was crushed and yellow material came out. I picked it up by one of its slender legs and dropped it in the trash.

Dad also said the flies were dead. That is why there were so many of them and why they stayed near us in our homes. They were dead souls. I never knew if he meant it or not. But since the first time he had said it, I hadn’t been able to look at a fly without thinking about it.

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