“The Morning Star,” his new novel, explores both the uncanny and the mundane.
Credit…Jan Robert Dünnweller
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By Heidi Julavits
THE MORNING STAR by Karl Ove Knausgaard | Translated by Martin Aitken
A reviewer for this newspaper, writing about Patricia Lockwood’s 2021 novel, “No One Is Talking About This,” described the author, glowingly, as a “modern word witch,” before settling on this conclusion: “For all the local beauty and humor of ‘No One Is Talking About This,’ it does not feel like a good novel, exactly, because it does not feel like a novel at all. But nowadays, what does?”
I found myself wondering what a novel, good or otherwise, might feel like to me. If I could articulate that feeling, where would it have come from? Could I trust it? And if, by broader consensus, nothing feels like a novel nowadays, is this cause to grieve or rejoice?
I’m assuming “does not feel like a novel” refers to how more and more so-called novels don’t adhere to certain realist narrative conventions, while still operating within the bounds of realism. Some of these conventions, as Matthew Salesses and Felicia Rose Chavez have noted about the biased language of writing workshops, reflect and perpetuate our deeply ingrained, self-interested, capitalist mores. “Privileged” third-person narration. “Earned” endings. The obligatory “world building.” The demand for “stakes,” as though readers were shareholders in a sympathy enterprise, expecting an emotional “payoff.”
When novels abandon these rules, and thus stop feeling like novels, some readers no longer know how to confidently interact with them as consumers. They no longer know how to feel about them — viable or not? asset or not? — and whether or not they should invest their approval.
Instead of trying to determine the appropriate feel of novels, in order to deliver a value verdict — good or bad — I find it more useful to describe what I feel like when I read them. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s new novel, “The Morning Star,” made me feel as though I were drifting through a nearby galaxy, randomly encountering and re-encountering certain celestial beings, before being released, with a disembodied whoosh, into metaphysical deep space.
Knausgaard is probably the most internationally famous practitioner of what emerged about a decade ago as a viable market alternative to the conventional realist novel: autofiction. His six-volume opus, “My Struggle,” is a multi-thousand-page accounting of his childhood, family and sex life, among many other things. In their emotional analyses of rapture and tedium, their tracking of quicksilver shifts in selfhood and their full-bore self-indulgence, these compulsive books exert the inexplicably mesmerizing narrative urgency of city traffic reports. The pages are punctuated by breakdowns and speed and detours and stasis, but are ecstatically, droningly, philosophically, onanistically embedded in life’s forward lurch.
“The Morning Star,” by contrast, is a hybrid of a Stephen King novel, multi-perspective realist drama, true-crime thriller and theological/spiritual treatise. It’s also a shade apocalyptic, which seems less like a notably alt-world feature than a dictate of realism. For a novel to not feel at least a little apocalyptic today would actually nudge it closer to fantasy.
In this case, Lucifer has possibly arrived on earth as a shadowy, oversize bird/human that prowls the woods at night. (Suggesting his appearance to be more likely than not: My reviewer’s copy of “The Morning Star” was 666 pages long, and ominously concludes with these three sentences: “The Morning Star. I know what it means. It means that it has begun.”)
Divided into three parts — First Day, Second Day and a 54-page essay called “On Death and the Dead” — the novel alternates between the first-person accounts of nine different people, some of whom are connected to one another, and all of whom spot, in the sky, on the first day, an anomalously huge, bright star.
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At first, the star isn’t much reacted to by anybody. Yet its regular appearance lights the pages with eeriness. In some cases, uncanny events are semi-explicable in earthly terms; Arne, a professor, discovers that his troubled wife, Tove, has beheaded the family cat (earlier, she accidentally killed a kitten by stepping on it). In others, the creep of the unknown suggests the novel is building to a supernatural reveal, like King’s “It.” Kathrine, a priest, encounters a chatty stranger first in an airport and then at a hotel, and later learns that he might have been dead at the time. Four members of a band, who belong to a satanic cult, are missing; Jostein, an unethical, alcoholic reporter, tries to break the story when three of the band members are found murdered and flensed.
To focus on these macabre or licentious details, however, inaccurately portrays the initial preoccupation and appeal of “The Morning Star.” As in “My Struggle,” Knausgaard, when tuning in to life’s minutiae, and the musing that emerges from it, is such an easy writer, not as in not-difficult but as in fluidly engaging, especially while following the “First Day” experiences of each character. (There’s a graphic description of Turid, Jostein’s wife and a caretaker at an elder residence, changing a dying man’s excrement-filled diaper.)
For this reason, part of me wondered: What if there were no new star? What if a maybe-Satan bird wasn’t haunting the dark?
Because plot points that might define a different novel do not define this one. That neither the star nor the stalking evil seems essential to the reading experience makes the novel even more beguiling. When I started it, I assumed I was meant to find patterns and clues to connect the sections. To “solve” the structure, and thus identify the King-like mystery, after which there might be a pulse-yammering blood bath or just a deepening degree of more specified creep. Eventually, I shelved those expectations and happily shuttered that part of my brain.
Knausgaard’s sentences, in Martin Aitken's translation, are both plainly direct and lyrically, emotionally elevated. The present is lived to its sometimes transportive, sometimes meaningless fullest. A person just is. A star just is. Lucifer just is (or just isn’t). Bland-yet-gripping dailiness, self-reflection and theorizing about existence replace the familiar architecture of genres, such as horror, from which Knausgaard glancingly sources.
It’s also probably a bit of a spoiler to say: There are no spoilers. A causal connection between the appearance of the star and, for example, a dead person returning to life does or does not exist.
If the novel possesses any degree of inexorableness, it might be found in the symphonic movement toward philosophizing about life and death. Egil — negligent father, recipient of a small inheritance, friend to Arne and lust interest of Tove — is the human-shaped aperture through which these bigger questions are pushed.
If I ever experienced a disorienting queasiness, rather than freedom from the economy of novels that feel like novels, it was here. Egil is afforded not just a summer house from his father but quite a bit of real estate from his author, too. His pontificating can become oppressive, like being buttonholed at a party by its most self-important guest. I wanted to excuse myself to the bathroom so I could return, for example, to Kathrine’s story. (Is she or is she not pregnant, and by whom, or what?)
My impatience, however, was really just confusion. Not about plot, but about intent. I didn’t know how Knausgaard meant for me to read or process Egil and his essay, “On Death and the Dead.” By which I mean, I don’t know what Knausgaard thinks of this character, which strikes me as a dodge. Is Egil a genius? Or a dilettante windbag? In either case, is he supposed to be heartbreaking? Was Knausgaard trying to achieve the effect of J.M. Coetzee’s novel “Elizabeth Costello,” which takes the form of lectures delivered by the eponymous protagonist, whose flaws and mortal flailings are illustrated by her flawed and flailing “lessons”? Are we in meta territory, where the author is critically commenting on his own character (his and his protagonist’s), or is the character simply his 1:1 stand-in, and everything in dead earnest?
A similar disorientation haunted me when reading “My Struggle.” In Book 2, for example, Knausgaard, while taking care of his young daughter, bridles against what feels to him like a softening of gender identity: a man covered in baby food, pushing a stroller. “I walked Stockholm’s streets, modern and feminized,” he writes, “with a furious 19th-century man inside of me.” If only, Knausgaard thinks, he’d clarified his needs to his partner before she became pregnant. “Listen, I want children, but I don’t want to stay at home looking after them,” he imagines telling her. “Is that fine with you?”
I’m never quite sure whether or not Knausgaard, whose work has taken up so much literal and figurative literary space, is knowingly ironizing himself, his masculinity sulks and his bourgeois/high-art domestic toils. Reading him, I can sometimes feel as if I’m being made privy to — and meant to sympathize with, or find scorchingly candid and thus audacious and original — the internal gripes of the “genius” male artists whom a few women in my extended professional circle have married, and whom these women now care for as if they were also their children.
With Egil, too, I cannot say what level of irony is involved in his portrayal. Which might have been Knausgaard’s desired effect. As with Kathrine’s maybe or maybe not conceiving, none of the mysteries of “The Morning Star” are meant to be deciphered. And I might not really care for them to be, at least with regard to how the novel might convey the unique way it should feel, in order to earn, by its own estimation, the category distinction. I cared mostly because to know the answer, one way or another, might expose one of the few darkened nooks remaining inside Knausgaard’s well-lit brain. Sometimes more can be revealed about writers when they are not in the overt act of exposing themselves.
Heidi Julavits is the author, most recently, of “The Folded Clock.”
THE MORNING STAR
By Karl Ove Knausgaard
Translated by Martin Aitken
666 pp. Penguin Press. $30.
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