The Morning Star by Karl Ove Knausgård review – bloated and inconsequential

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To 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 is surrounded by obscurity makes each detail in his narrative stand out with unprecedented clarity. The red tinge of the earth he walks on, the green leaves of the riverside trees he’s approaching, the yellow sun, the blue sky ... The way the shadows from the trees are splintered by sunbeams into small, quivering lattices of light.

Beneath the surface of the quotidian, we sense the outline of the ineffable; yet the mundane never quite disappears from view. The vividness of those “quivering lattices of light” clashes dissonantly against the flatness of that yellow sun and blue sky. Is this really Knausgård’s idea of “unprecedented clarity”? His admirers might say this is precisely his point: with clarity comes simplicity. Others would argue that this is his fatal flaw: he strains for dazzlement, but paints in primary colours.

Knausgård has leant further into this small space between the everyday and the transcendent, the beautiful and the wearyingly drab, largely by eschewing the novel form. His autofictional epic, My Struggle, was followed in turn by several works of nonfiction. Mining his recall rather than his imagination, he bypassed the need for invention. The Morning Star, then, feels like an event – Knausgård’s return to the novel, huge and self-consciously serious. Gone is Knausgård himself as subject and device. Instead, a sprawl of narrators, clustered around a heavyweight fictional event: the appearance of a new star.

Initially, Knausgård’s patented accretion of detail feels enriched with a new and welcome undertow: unnamed dread. The atmosphere is still and eerily fragile. Something seismic is just off-frame, advancing. At the first chapter’s end, it arrives. The narrator, Arne, rounds a corner in his car and sees first a crawling mass of crabs and then, above him, the fiercely bright new star, towards which the crabs are drawn.

Or are they? As the book progresses, another possibility presents itself: that they are merely fleeing a sinking novel. Arne is set aside, not to return for 250 pages, and so is any pretence at effort. We cycle through interchangeable narrators, circle the same static event. Realisation dawns. That light on the horizon isn’t a new star. It’s a literary supernova – the entire Knausgårdian project entering spectacular, all-consuming heat death.

Knausgård’s fondness for pulverising detail has always been divisive. In My Struggle, he had a convenient excuse – his white-knuckle mission statement to write straight through, amending nothing. But with no aura of performance to protect him, the inadequacy of his technique is exposed:

I went into the kitchen again, poured the boiling water into a saucepan, put the eggs in, cut some bread and put it in the toaster […] When the eggs had boiled for exactly four and half minutes, I took the saucepan off the hob, drained the water off, put it down in the sink and filled it up with cold water from the tap before taking the eggs and putting two on his plate, one on mine.

This ambient hum of empty gesture is merely one weapon in Knausgård’s vast arsenal of redundancy. This is a book bloated with the inconsequential. When a character eats a burger, Knausgård itemises the ingredients (“bacon, beef, bun, onion, tomato, lettuce, ketchup”). When a character does some shopping, we are privy to their rudimentary arithmetic (“Three each? That made twelve. But three wasn’t many if they stayed late, especially not in this weather. Four made sixteen…”).

Forced through narrative contingency to do anything other than list, Knausgaard panics and goes pre-verbal, leaning his elbow against the keyboard and hoping for the best. A character throws on some 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 just seethe alone, expressing themselves in vowels: “Aaaargh, I said quietly between my teeth. Aaaargh.” Approaching a half-hearted emotional peak, Knausgaard flails for drama, but finds only sound. “Ow, bloody hell! Ow, ow, ow!”, thinks a man as he touches his injured head after a car crash. “Ahhhh!”, thinks another, learning that his son has shot himself. The result is flattening, nullifying, life-sapping. One character sounds like another. Tragedy is indistinguishable from farce.

Having abandoned language, Knausgård sidesteps the inconvenience of paragraphs too. His characters’ thoughts arrive not as prose, but as notes towards prose, a spew of inane one-liners:

I was pregnant.

That was why I’d felt sick.

I was going to have a baby.

Oh no.

Erected on a fatally weak linguistic foundation, the novel can only ever be a structural catastrophe. As if aware that his creation is crumbling, Knausgård buttresses it with occasional eldritch events. At best these are merely lazy – the startled deer and unsettled wildlife of countless Hollywood films and Netflix TV shows. At worst they are unimaginative and offensive – people with mental health issues become psychotic, people with learning difficulties become restless and aggressive. There is even, at one point, a pile of mutilated bodies, prompting some of the novel’s most risibly tin-eared dialogue (“Maybe you should poke about in cowboy and Indian circles, what with them being scalped like that!”).

Finally, after casting aside language, paragraphs and multiple plot lines begun but never developed, Knausgård goes all in and abandons his novel, reconstituting his leftover intellectual gristle as a wholly indigestible “essay”. It’s notionally by one of the book’s characters, but it scans as pure Knausgård-ese. “Time and death are of course not the same,” we’re told. “Tartarus is of course not an actual but a mythological place.” “The Odyssey, naturally, does not describe an actual place either.” Perhaps mercifully, he lacks the energy to sustain even his own paper-thin conceit. The essay collapses; we drift back into the mode of the novel.

Most unsuccessful artworks are simply flawed – a good idea undone by poor execution; an ambition beyond one’s ability. The Morning Star is different. Its failure is total and totalising. This is not an idea that has fallen apart in the execution, it’s a novel that dreams of having an idea, a novel that, over hundreds of pages, seeks meaning in everything from the boiling of an egg to the passing of a soul into the afterlife, only to come back empty-handed.

It’s a cruel irony. Knausgård is known, most of all, for his willingness to bare himself. Now, just as he excises his semi-mythological persona from his work, he stands unflatteringly revealed. Once exhaustive, he is now simply exhausted. There are no quivering lattices of light here. There are not even green leaves, or a blue sky. The Morning Star is a dead planet, Knausgård its burned-out sun.

Sam Byers’s Come Join Our Disease is published by Faber. The Morning Star, translated by Martin Aitken, is published by Harvill Secker. To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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