“Cheep-cheep, you fat creep,” a bird says to a journalist, or so the journalist thinks, in “The Morning Star,” Karl Ove Knausgaard’s apocalyptic new novel. “Cheep-cheep, and no sleep.”
The bird isn’t the only strange harbinger. A bright and eerie new star, “as beautiful as death was beautiful,” has risen in the Norwegian sky. People are filled with terror and wonder, mostly the former.
Animals have begun to act strangely. Landslides of crabs clatter across roads; birds with scales screech in the woods. Time is acting oddly, as well. That man over there, wasn’t I just at his funeral? What are those hulking, ox-like, humanoid creatures doing in the woods?
“How can we be modern,” Knausgaard asked in Volume Two of his epic “My Struggle” series, “when there is death all around us?” In “The Morning Star,” he picks up that question, as if it were a rugby ball, and runs sideways off the field with it.
This is a strange, gothic, Bible-obsessed novel, laced with buzzard-black themes and intimations of horror. It is set over two days in late summer. A cluster of characters gaze into the same mesmerizing sky. There’s Arne, a literature professor who worries he’s grown plump — Knausgaard’s men hate to be seen as soft — and his wife, Tove, an artist.
There’s Kathrine, a priest and a translator of the Bible who is tempted to smash her dull marriage, and Iselin, a once-promising student now working in a convenience store. There’s Jostein, a lecherous, shambolic, reeling arts journalist, and his wife, Turid, a nurse, as Knausgaard once was, at a psychiatric hospital.
(Turid is among those names, like Shakespeare’s Titus, for which it is crucial, when spelling, not to omit the second vowel.)
Admirers of the six-book “My Struggle” series — I’m among them, with reservations about the final volume — will want to know: Does “The Morning Star” cast the same sort of spell those novels did? The answer, for a long time, is yes.
Knausgaard retains the ability to lock you, as if in a tractor beam, into his storytelling. He takes the mundane stuff of life — the need to take a leak, the joy of killing pesky flies — and essentializes them. About the details of daily existence, he manages to be, without ladling on lyricism, twice as absorbent as most of the other leading brands.
This is a novel about people in distress, even before that shining new eye opens in the sky. There are a lot of bad fathers and health problems and relationships in decline. His people are, enjoyably, realistically annoyed a good deal of the time.
Ray Bradbury said one way to begin writing a short story or poem is to make a list of 10 things you hate and start tearing them down. Knausgaard is a master of this sort of scattered attack.
To this prosaic world, the author begins to stitch in aspects of horror. He adds these details slowly, perhaps too slowly. Although there are gross-outs by the end — the members of a death-metal band are skinned by something worse than critics — Knausgaard never goes all in on his scenario. Simmer does not become boil.
If this book were “The Shining,” Jack Torrance would finish his novel. He and Wendy and Danny would see demented things out the window, and occasionally a screaming lunatic would pound on the basement door. Scatman Crothers would show up so that he and Jack could talk about the essential nature of isolation for a few hundred pages.
“The Morning Star” becomes, in other words, a somewhat programmatic novel of ideas. Knausgaard chews on notions of faith, free will, the transmigration of souls, the nature of angels, on meaning and nothingness in Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and Rilke’s poetry.
A woman named Sigrid says it, and it’s surely true: “It’s all the wrong people talking about God. So it’s hardly surprising no one believes anymore.”
Knausgaard remains death-haunted. One character says: “Our insight into death has not changed. Einstein knew as little about death as did the first cave dwellers.”
Knausgaard is among the finest writers alive, yet there is something cramped about his work when he approaches ideas straight on, instead of obliquely. His wrestling with “Mein Kampf,” over hundreds of pages, slowly capsized the final volume of the “My Struggle” series.
Here the earnest wrestling is with how we think about mortality. At certain moments you sense he is in close contact with all the oldest and deepest wisdom; at other moments, the stream runs shallow.
The translation from the Norwegian, by Martin Aitken, is subtle and seamless. I have one complaint. No one in this novel “sips” or “drinks” a beverage, whether beer or orange juice. Instead they “slurp” it, rendering scene after scene unintentionally comic.
I recently reviewed Joy Williams’s “Harrow,” another hit-and-miss novel from an important writer about peril, dislocation and end times. A line from that book snugly fits the themes of this one: “Do you ever feel that you have died,” Williams asked, “and are walking among those who might have died as well but are not telling?”