Karl Ove Knausgård’s Morning Star review – bloated and inconsequential | Fiction in translation
For me, a passage from Karl Ove Knausgård’s 2004 novel A Time for Everything has always seemed illustrative of his approach:
the fact that the incident was shrouded in obscurity brings out every detail of his story with unprecedented clarity. The red hue of the earth on which he walks, the green leaves of the trees by the river which he approaches, the yellow sun, the blue sky … The way the shadows of the trees are broken by the rays of the sun. sun in small shaking light lattices.
Under the surface of everyday life, we feel the outline of the ineffable; yet the mundane never quite disappears from sight. The liveliness of these “quivering lattices of light” collides in a dissonant manner with the flatness of this yellow sun and this blue sky. Is this really Knausgård’s idea of “unprecedented clarity”? His admirers might say that is precisely his point: with clarity comes simplicity. Others will say that it is its fatal flaw: it tends towards glare, but painted in primary colors.
Knausgård leaned further into this small space between the everyday and the transcendent, the beautiful and the boring dull, largely avoiding the romantic form. His self-fictional epic, My Struggle, was followed in turn by several non-fiction works. Using his memories rather than his imagination, he sidestepped the need for invention. The Morning Star, then, looks like an event – Knausgård’s return to the novel, enormous and dutifully serious. Gone is Knausgård himself as a subject and a device. Instead, a multitude of narrators, gathered around a fictitious event of weight: the appearance of a new star.
Initially, Knausgård’s patented accumulation of detail feels enriched with a welcome new stream: nameless terror. The atmosphere is calm and strangely fragile. Something seismic is just out of frame, moving forward. At the end of the first chapter, it happens. The narrator, Arne, turns the corner of his car and sees first a crawling mass of crabs, then, above him, the new star with a fierce glow, to which the crabs are drawn.
Where are they? As the book progresses, another possibility presents itself: that they are only running away from a sinking novel. Arne is put aside, so as not to come back for 250 pages, as is any semblance of effort. We go through interchangeable narrators, circling the same static event. The realization rises. This light on the horizon is not a new star. It’s a literary supernova – the entire Knausgårdian Project goes into a spectacular, all-consuming thermal death.
Knausgård’s penchant for spraying down on details has always been divisive. In my struggle, he had a convenient excuse – his white-handed mission statement to write from cover to cover, without changing anything. But without a performance aura to protect it, the insufficiency of its technique is exposed:
I went back to the kitchen, poured the boiling water into a saucepan, put the eggs in, cut some bread and put it in the toaster. […] When the eggs boiled for exactly four and a half minutes, I removed the pot from the heat, drained the water, put it in the sink, and filled it with cold tap water. before taking the eggs and putting two on his plate, one on mine.
This ambient hum of empty gestures is but one weapon in Knausgård’s vast arsenal of redundancy. It is a book full of insignificance. When a character eats a hamburger, Knausgård details the ingredients (“bacon, beef, bun, onion, tomato, lettuce, ketchup”). When a character does a few errands, we are aware of their rudimentary arithmetic (“Three each? That’s twelve. But three, it wasn’t much if they stayed late, especially not in this weather. Four was sixteen…) “).
Forced by the narrative contingency to do something other than the list, Knausgaard panics and goes pre-verbal, leaning his elbow against the keyboard and hoping for the best. A character throws at Pink Floyd: “DA! DA DA! DA DA DA DA DA! “La la la la lalalala.” La la la la lalalalala. Another, Beethoven’s seventh symphony: “Bam baa ba, baam ba ba! Others boil on their own, speaking in vowels: “Aaaargh,” I say softly between my teeth. Aaaargh. As a half-hearted emotional peak approaches, Knausgaard fights for the drama, but only finds the sound. “Ouch, damn it! AIE Aie Aie ! Thinks a man, touching his injured head after a car accident. “Ahhhh!” Thought another, learning that his son had shot himself. The result is flattening, nullifying, sapping life. One character looks like another. The tragedy is indistinguishable from the farce.
Having abandoned language, Knausgård also avoids the inconvenience of paragraphs. The thoughts of his characters come not as prose, but as notes to prose, a whiff of inane lines:
I was pregnant.
That was why I felt sick.
I was going to have a baby.
Erected on a fatally weak linguistic foundation, the novel can only be a structural disaster. As if aware that his creation is falling apart, Knausgård strengthens it with occasional Eldritch events. At best, they’re just sloths – the frightened deer and unstable wildlife of countless Hollywood movies and Netflix TV shows. At worst, they lack imagination and are offensive – people with mental health issues become psychotic, people with learning disabilities become restless and aggressive. There’s even, at one point, a bunch of mutilated bodies, sparking some of the novel’s most laughable dialogues (“Maybe you should snoop around cowboy and Indian circles, why scalp them like that!”).
Finally, having put aside the language, the paragraphs and the multiple plots begun but never developed, Knausgård launches completely and abandons his novel, reconstituting his remains of intellectual nerves in a totally indigestible “essay”. It’s theoretically by one of the characters in the book, but it scans like pure Knausgård-ese. “Time and death are of course not the same,” we are told. “The Tartare is of course not a real place but a mythological place.” “The Odyssey, of course, does not describe a real place either.” Fortunately, he may lack the energy to sustain even his own paper-thin vanity. The trial collapses; we fall back into the mode of the novel.
Most unsuccessful works of art are simply imperfect – a good idea nullified by poor execution; an ambition beyond its capabilities. The morning star is different. Its failure is total and totalizing. It’s not an idea that collapsed in execution, it’s a novel that dreams of having an idea, a novel that, over hundreds of pages, seeks meaning in everything from baking to ‘an egg for the passage of a soul in the afterlife, to return empty-handed.
It is a cruel irony. Knausgård is best known for his willingness to expose himself. Now, just as he takes his semi-mythological character out of his work, he reveals himself in an unflattering way. Once complete, it is now quite simply exhausted. There is no flickering light grid here. There are not even green leaves, nor a blue sky. The Morning Star is a dead planet, Knausgård its extinguished sun.