October 21, 2021

Books

Hell’s kitchen: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘The Morning Star’

By Adam Rivett
The ‘My Struggle’ author’s first novel in 17 years considers the mundanity of everyday acts amid apocalyptic events

A star the size of a small planet nears Earth, hanging ominously in the sky. Animals gather with menacing intent. Inhuman creatures of indescribable shape prowl outside windows and move through forests. For more than 500 pages of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s The Morning Star (Harvill Secker), the reader follows the interlocking lives of numerous characters as they respond to these seemingly apocalyptic events – some simply terrified, others moved at a deeper spiritual level – until, with the reader’s right hand holding that telltale thinning of pages, we come, on page 505 of this 666 page novel (demonic symbolism or felicitous publishing accident?) to this not atypical stretch of prose:

As I was about to fetch the tablecloth and iron it, I remembered the cake. The longer it stood with its pastry cream and filling, the more delicious it would be, his mother had said. 

I moved the bottles of wine and drink we’d bought back against the wall, got out the biggest chopping board we had and put it on the counter, carefully sliced the sponges into three, and placed the layers next to each other in the right order so I knew how they were to be put back together. 

Then I mixed the pastry cream, stopping the mixer every now and then to listen out for Åse.

When the cream was done, I realised I needed to go down into the basement and get the jam and berries from our storage room down there.

That something rather dramatic happens a page or two later doesn’t minimise Knausgaard’s decision here. Throughout the book, whether in its deceptively quiet opening pages or its strange and haunting final stretch, Knausgaard maintains an almost unbreakable focus on domestic servitude, shopping, list-making, mental doodling and other everyday acts of beautiful banality, each and every one rendered in exacting, almost numbing detail. Very few novels of note this year will dare contain an entire paragraph given over to a teenager’s wholly meaningless appreciation of Ariana Grande’s video clips. The Morning Star is such a novel.

So how did we get here? Having rounded out his My Struggle hexalogy with a punishingly long and frequently exasperating final volume, Knausgaard proceeded to write with a curious freedom and a true lack of obligation to entertain or conform. There was art criticism of varying quality. There was a book on football that was little more than a glorified set of long emails between friends, and no less enjoyable for that. And, most importantly, particularly for its effect on the conception and writing of The Morning Star, there was the Seasons Quartet series: four volumes, one for each season, all filled with gentle observance and goofy digression, and all written with the short breaths and sharpened focus of poetry. Few chapters lasted longer than three pages – moving from cats to bicycles, clothes to cynicism, the actual to the abstract – with each volume punctuated by diary entries that maintained the tone and rhythm of housebound life. The books, Knausgaard said, were dedicated to his unborn daughter. All this noticing was left for her.

For whom all the obsessive noticing in The Morning Star has been left is harder to guess, but the methodology remains the same, even if the song is radically different. There’s certainly no trace of Knausgaard’s familiar personal mode here. This is in many ways a decidedly old-fashioned novel – it has cliffhanger chapter endings, dramatic set pieces and revelations of family connections. Yet surrounding all these familiar fictional comforts are the aforementioned slow pace and manic detailing, here offering a patient counterpoint to the book’s more inherently melodramatic aspects. In much the same way that moments of great drama erupted from the domestic stillness or social obligation of My Struggle’s early volumes, or how the adolescent aimlessness of Some Rain Must Fall – the least appreciated of My Struggle’s six volumes – snapped after long stretches of low-level antics into mania and rage, The Morning Star deceives the reader into the slow acceptance of something terrible and inescapable. Material that would have seemed melodramatic or unearned if Knausgaard had been in a rush to give his readers “the good stuff” plays better at these grander lengths.

Part of what makes the book so simultaneously frustrating yet compelling is Knausgaard’s weakness for character, and his typically capacious sense of honouring life’s mixed pageant of chore and bliss. While the voice of each character blurs after a while, the constant first-person perspective eventually making them resemble an overwhelming if indistinct choir, Knausgaard’s fidelity to human life and our necessary duties spares them from the fate of most dead meat in a comparable thriller – those characters born for the knife, gun or explosion, established at speed and ferried along quickly to their cosmic comeuppance. But in Knausgaard’s novel, even minor characters get their moments – his curiosity can’t help itself.  

Still, his obsession with tracking each minute of these lives under the newly arrived star does result in some frustratingly flat writing and some perplexing literalism. How else to explain such dialogue, chosen from numerous examples, from a scene involving a corpse briefly coming back to life: “‘The definition of death is that it’s irreversible,’ said Henriksen. ‘No one can come back from the dead. Which means that he is not, and was not, dead.’” Being alive means you’re not dead, yes; hard to argue with that. This sort of heavy-handed explication is almost comic, and it’s entirely possible something has been lost in translation. Knausgaard can often be a comic writer, yet here it’s difficult to deduce a motivation for such passages, which seem to be played with a straight face.

As with My Struggle’s sixth and final volume, the novel is least effective when it moves away from Knausgaard’s exceptional narrative gifts and handles implicit themes explicitly. To gently allude to Kierkegaard or make one of your central characters a priest is one thing, but to handbrake the book with lengthy digressions is quite another. While it’s done sparingly here compared to the near-interminable essaying of previous books, it remains a curious phenomenon, and one that seems to betray Knausgaard’s natural talents. No one doubts he’s done his reading, but this tendency generates little more than a frustrating hybridisation.

Some reviewers have compared the novel’s religious echoes and essayistic interludes to Knausgaard’s 2004 novel A Time For Everything, but the tone and sensibility strike me as quite removed from that earlier work. Most importantly, 17 years after his last novel, his prose seems entirely changed: less refined and self-conscious, rarely beautiful but more capacious and certainly swifter. This might be the book’s most amusing irony – for all its longueurs, it is, in the language of the genre it roughly resembles, a quick read. Even, dare I say it, a page-turner.

Overlong, patchy, often banal, but a zippy and captivating read all the same? I’ve set myself up for a denunciatory closer, and yet, two weeks after reading it, the book’s quotidian horror, and the way it conveys a sense of ordinary life overwhelmed, lingers. Knausgaard’s work often seems to operate by this cumulative magic, where dozens of discountable sins are rendered irrelevant by a totalising vision. Literature rarely handles the mundane and the eschatological at some comparable and simultaneous lengths, or suggests how intertwined they are. Rarely does modern prose zip past the cheaply lyrical and render life in so many humdrum phrases or onomatopoeic sentences. The Morning Star certainly isn’t Knausgaard’s finest writing, but after numerous experimentations with form and subject, he has returned with, all faults considered, a compelling novel. 

Adam Rivett

Adam Rivett is a Melbourne-based writer. He has written for The Lifted Brow, The Age, The Australian, Island, Fireflies and Seizure.

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