Review: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Cosmic Novel The Morning Star
On the bookshelf
The morning star
By Karl Ove Knausgaard
Penguin Press: 688 pages, $ 30
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It might be a coincidence that Karl Ove Knausgaard’s new novel ends on page 666, but don’t bet on it. “The Morning Star” finds the best-selling Norwegian author in strange and disturbing new territory. At first, it sounds familiar: as in his great six-volume autobiographical novel, “My Struggle,” the main topics include bourgeois anxiety and malaise, the business of intermediate fiction. This time, however, we see them through dark glass, and as the pages turn, “The Morning Star” is revealed to be the evil twin of “My Struggle”. It is a strange, polyphonic and diabolical work which gives Knausgaard’s banal realism a mythical-fantastic touch.
The action takes place over two late summer days around Bergen, Norway. It’s “hot as hell”; lawns are “yellow and parched”; disaster seems imminent. Arne’s wife artist, Tove, takes a psychotic break; Kathrine, a priest, questions her lukewarm marriage; Turid, a nurse, works nights in a psychiatric ward while her unfaithful husband Jostein drinks and protests against an unjust world. The nine Knausgaard narrators all work on something: alcoholism, professional disappointment, crises of faith, and hopelessness.
During this time, a new giant star appeared in the sky. Is it a supernova? A biblical omen? “Something terrible was about to happen,” Kathrine thinks. “This is only Armageddon,” said Jostein. “It had to come sooner or later. The erratic behavior of Bergen’s animals and sightings of monstrous figures – half human, half beast – in the woods may be related. Grim bursts, bad omens, visions of fire: is something bad going on? Are the dead really dead?
While the national characteristics of his recent fiction – doing the dishes, kids feuding over iPads – remain intact here, Knausgaard also mixes both strong elements of horror and some of the more awe-inspiring religious themes of “A Time.” for Everything ”, his first novel. on the angels. In doing so, he reveals himself to be a surprise master of strangeness. We see a cleric forced to bury the lookalike of a man she has just met; an organ donor, dead on the operating table, whose eyes are opening …
Large parts of the novel unfold in the introductory spaces between consciousness and sleep, drunkenness and sobriety, life and death. Our narrators lose their focus; they only have a half sense of things. A dead kitten still looks hot. A huge bird in the woods seems to wear a child’s face. Knausgaard gradually induces the same kind of confusion in the reader by running different plots at different paces. As they come apart, any sense of simultaneity or normal chronology is subtly but deliberately shaken.
As longtime fans might expect, behind the prose hides a wealth of hardcover learning, from the Augsburg Bible and Book of Miracles to Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Heidegger. Lars von Trier’s films seem to have an influence, in particular the disagreeable “Antichrist” and the depression-disaster epic “Melancholy”. Dante is also a key touchstone, from linguistic echoes – hot weather is, naturally, “hell” – to the way someone flushes the toilet in order to watch it “all swirl around in the underworld” . In a last delirious chapter, one of our heroes drinks from the Léthé river and loses his memory (as in the “Purgatorio”).
And although Dante’s religious crisis is transposed here into a series of midlife crises of late capitalism, at least some of Knausgaard’s characters are humble in the face of the unknown, acknowledging the gulf between what we believe and what that we know. At the end of the novel comes a long essay concerning beliefs about death in different civilizations, deepening Knausgaard’s theme (if not quite successfully integrating it into the narrative).
The putative author of this essay, Arne’s neighbor Egil, is the character most in tune with the metaphysical heart of the book, speaking of the author’s darker philosophical purpose: “[T]he world is the physical reality we live in, as our reality is added to everything we know, think and feel about the world. The point is that the two layers are quite impossible to separate. The realm of the dead was once part of our reality. But it was never part of the world.
The gift of storytelling that captivated readers with “My Struggle” remains powerful. Like Stephen King, another inspiration here, Knausgaard stays closer to his characters, his paragraphs mimicking the erratic interweaving of their thoughts. And they all give a good copy because, in all their pettiness, shame, and petty glory, the Knausgaardian archetypes are incredibly convincing. Perhaps the best and most obnoxious variation here is Jostein, whose misanthropy emerges on a bender that counts, at a rough count, 10 beers, six Jägermeisters, four glasses of wine, two Red Bulls vodka, two gin tonics and a whiskey. “No one could ever tell how drunk I was,” he boasts. “It had to be one of my most useful talents.” (He’s wrong, of course.)
In some places, “The Morning Star” may seem too close to Knausgaard’s previous work. Marriage and parental conflict are in the same key as “My Struggle” – some details of Tove’s mental breakdown directly mirror those of Linda in Book 6 of the previous series. And Knausgaard’s strange decision not to try too hard to distinguish the voices of his narrators has the consequence that they all sound more or less like him. “Everyone knows I write it anyway, so why should I pretend I’m not?” ” he noticed in a recent interview with Vulture. Hundreds of pages, as new characters continue to be introduced, readers may crave variation.
Knausgaard said in the same interview that “The Morning Star” is the start of a new series – and indeed, a late cliffhanger leaves many doors open. It may therefore be premature to examine the form of the book. Even so, the write now, edit never approach doesn’t seem entirely successful. Sometimes the novel feels like a collection of hastily stitched short stories with a supernatural plot device. Nevertheless, Knausgaard remains a writer of supreme interest. It’s a thoughtful, very readable novel, full of exciting ideas and flourishes. And anyway, its production rate is such that in a year, we will already be looking at volume 2, reassessing everything we thought of the first.
Arrowsmith is based in New York City and writes on books, movies, and music.