For much of the past decade, the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard has been part of a cohort of writers trailing in the long backdraft of W. G. Sebald, whose work derived its force from the uneasy and, at times, fleeting truce between fact and fiction. Sebald was interested in the subjective nature of history and in the tension between the macroscale at which world historical events are understood in retrospect and the individual scale at which they are lived. The contemporary iteration of Sebald’s impulse is a little different insofar as it is vested in a dense, gravitational solipsism. So-called autofiction is the social novel turned inside out; in the hands of an autofictionist, one’s own life is a little world. Knausgaard, in particular, strived for a micro-level re-creation of the events that shaped him. In “My Struggle,” his six-volume autobiographical novel, he achieved an acute, piercing psychological closeness that at times felt suffocating or maddening and at other times utterly sublime. To read Knausgaard was to find even the most mundane action pulsing with, if not meaning, then at least beauty, which can function as its own kind of meaning.
Alongside the great topographical features of Knausgaard’s life—his learning that his parents were fallible, being rejected by his brother and by lovers and friends, discovering literature and music—we experienced the negligibly small. We poured innumerable cups of coffee and tea. We slathered bread in butter or jams. We ate preserved fish. We listened to records. We turned the pages of books. In the midst of these scenes, which were recounted almost in real time, Knausgaard offered digressive ruminations on, among other things, the nature of death and the work of various writers and artists. It was the unity between the experiential and the essayistic that made “My Struggle” so captivating. Reading the novels had the same feel of aesthetic lift and drift as touring a staged room. For shockingly long stretches of time, you felt as though your own excellent taste and sensitivity were powering the novels. You wanted to live in Knausgaard’s brightly illuminated version of a world that you almost recognized as your own. In other words, Knausgaard performed a sly transference, a variety of literary hypnosis.
“The Morning Star,” the first of Knausgaard’s new cycle of novels, marks a departure from the autofictional mode of “My Struggle” and a return to the more purely fictional mode of his previous novels. The new book spans a couple of August nights in Norway as a new star shines eerily in the sky, while animals and people alike stir restlessly, as if before a disaster. I was nervous that the novel would feel phony and uptight compared with the sprawl of “My Struggle” and of the books of essays and criticism that have followed. The premise of “The Morning Star” seemed kind of gimmicky, perhaps derivative of Roberto Bolaño’s downbeat mysticism or Jorge Luis Borges’s freewheeling phantasmagoria. It seemed to me, at first glance, like a drastic overcorrection. Was Knausgaard going pulp? Was he going genre on me? I had seen other literary writers undertake such shifts with a kind of stiff, irritable condescension, with disastrous results. As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. I read “The Morning Star” compulsively, and stayed awake all night after finishing it. I left the novel feeling as I often did after watching a great scary movie as a kid—totally convinced that whatever evil, implausible thing I had just witnessed on the screen awaited me in the next room. Not that this novel offers horror in the conventional sense. Under the mysterious sign in the sky, people go about the sort of stifled, frustrated lives that Knausgaard has made his domain: the creatively blocked, the spiritually starving, the terrifyingly sensitive, the queasily realistic failures.
“The Morning Star” is narrated in the first person by nine characters, whose lives are interconnected in ways both large and small. Arne, a professor on summer holiday with his family, is friends with Egil, a dilettante who has experienced a recent religious breakthrough. Kathrine, an old classmate of Egil’s, is a priest who’s contemplating leaving her husband. The young woman who checks Kathrine into a hotel is revealed to be connected to another narrator, Emil, and, going a little further, she recognizes Kathrine as the priest from her confirmation. Iselin, a student, restless and floundering at university, is renting a room from a couple whose missing son is the only witness to a potential ritual murder being investigated by Jostein, a crude arts journalist who views the case as his way back into the hard-boiled crime reporting that he prefers. Jostein is married to Turid, who works in a psychiatric hospital and ponders ways to illicitly acquire drugs from the pharmacy. “The Morning Star” is a secular, superstitious novel in the spirit of Bolaño’s “2666” or “The Savage Detectives.” The discursive sprawl of the story is trussed up by the matrix of interpersonal connections, giving it form even as the characters rationalize away how spooked they feel by the events that unfold across the two strange days.
As for what happens in the course of the novel, it’s hard to say. Everything and nothing. Arne and his partner, Tove, fight, and later Arne gets into a drunk-driving accident. Egil fails to connect to his son, who is not even remotely interested in trying to know him. Emil, a day-care worker, worries about his band and about a child he let fall from a low table during a diaper change. Iselin works in a convenience store and has an awkward reunion with a teacher from high school, then is terrified when a screaming man appears at her door, demanding to be let in. Turid loses a patient owing to her own carelessness, and wanders the woods at night trying to find him. Jostein is unfaithful and sleeps with a woman before being called to the site of a grisly murder. The novel is difficult to summarize because most of its action and its foreboding flow from the long, slow lines of daily life, as in this passage in which Turid, in the midst of a workday, contemplates a fly: