Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Karl Ove Knausgaard's THE MORNING STAR (tr by Martin Aitken)

I haven't been able to stop giggling since I realized, about 2/3 of the way through Karl Ove Knausgaard's return to fiction writing, that the novel in question has a Tl;dr in the form of an Of Montreal song, but it totally, totally does.


I wish I could remember how I even heard of The Morning Star. The pathetic native app on my phone that Alphabet still seems to insist is a reasonable replacement for the much-missed Google Reader has sussed out that I can be induced to read a lot more literary websites than it previously thought so almost every day LitHub or something grabs me with some crazy niche listicle of "new historical fiction coming out this fall" or whatever, so I suspect it was one of those? Or was it somebody on Twitter? Anyway, I owe somebody some half-assed gratitude; half-assed not because the quality of this novel is such -- anything but -- but because it's gotten me sufficiently interested in its author that I might have to track down some of his other work, most of which is massively multi-volumed, Proust style, and some of which rejoices in the stomach churning title of My Struggle in its English language editions.

Good thing that I a) Use an ebook reader and but b) Never go anywhere anyway, so the likelihood that anyone but my family members who share my big river account will actually see me reading such a thing is small.

But anyway, The Morning Star, hilariously and surely intentionally paginated by the Arbitrary Antarctic Avian in its hardcover edition at 666 pages. I see what you did there.

The titular star appears in the sky above the area of Bergen, Norway one night in 2023, shining its weird light over the messy and mundane lives of several characters whose direct experiences we share and an odd assortment of other figurants, including an infamous black metal band, three of whose members turn up butchered in the nearby wilderness, possibly at the hand of the missing fourth, and other strange phenomena like home invading badgers and giant swarms of crabs emerging from the sea to cause traffic hazards on the highway, possibly just confused by the giant glowing meatball hanging in the sky but maybe also drawn by a sinister power inherent in the giant glowing meatball hanging in the sky.

What does it mean, the meatball? What even is it? Is it natural or supernatural? Is it going to be hanging in the sky forever or is it going to burn out in a few days? Our characters barely seem to care, but they've got a lot of bigger stuff going on. Some of it is mundane and painfully ordinary; some of it is bizarre and unexplainable.

I'm mostly going to focus on the mundane, so I don't get yelled at about spoilers. The bizarre and unexplainable stuff is what both of my readers would be most interested in, so I will leave that behind the spoiler wall.

Arne is spending a pleasantish summer with his wife and kids at their summer home -- pleasant-ish because, well, the wife seems to be on the verge of a psychotic breakdown and keeps talking in her sleep about how she would like to maybe have sex with their neighbor Egil.

Egil has been making a documentary film about the black metal band mentioned above (and how can we not think of Aaron Antes & Audrey Ewell's amazing Until the Light Takes Us, here?) and for that alone might be the coolest character in the book but he's also saddled, about halfway through the novel, with a surprise childcare gig when his ex-wife decides to take off on a trip with her new boyfriend and puts their ten-year-old son on a bus to (approximately) where Egil lives before she even tells Egil about it, thus forcing him to scramble to prepare and then to confront the fact that either the ex has really done a great job poisoning their son against him or his little boy is really a foul-mouthed little prick of a child.

Meanwhile, the girl Egil had a crush on in school, Kathrine, has grown up to become a priest, and is suddenly experiencing a troubled marriage after she delays her return from an annual conference because she just doesn't feel like seeing her husband yet (despite the fact they have two kids whom she misses), only to finally come home to accusations from him that she's having an affair.

Then there's Jostein, an arts reporter for the local newspaper who turns a sour interview with a promising young artist into a hostile one-night-stand while his wife, Turid is having her own problems we'll get to in a moment and his son is having his own Dark Night of the Soul (really, this novel is the most like a Bergman film in prose of any I've ever read, and I haven't even gotten to Egil's many intense existential and religious crises which make up at least 25% of the book yet, oy!). The next day, he gets the a tip-off  about to the scene of the crime where the members of the black metal band have been found horribly dismembered, and rushes there, ready to scoop the world. And remember, this is still the mundane stuff.

Meanwhile, Turid works in a mental institution where she has the usual employee issues with a bitchy boss and a dispiriting job until suddenly one of her most problematic patients waltzes right out of the facility and into the night. Meanwhile, she and Jostein have both gotten faintly worrying messages from their son Ole, but are each assuming that the other is having a more ordinary night and will deal with their boy.

Then there's Solveig, a young woman fresh out of high school and working a dead-end job in town, living in an attic apartment whose landlords, a nice family who occupy the rest of the house, are away on vacation BUT their crazy drug-addict of a son has shown up to terrorize whomever he finds there, even if he's never met 'em before, but of course disappears by the time the police appear.

And there are still more characters, each of whom gets at least one turn in the first-person spotlight, giving you their excuses for bad behavior, disappointment with other characters, misunderstandings of loved ones' meanings, and, every once in a while, reactions to the giant glowing meatball hanging in the sky.

And slowly, things get weird, but never quite as weird as a genre fiction reader might be expecting, for while some possibly supernatural things happen that occasionally might seem like modern takes on, say, the biblical plagues of Egypt or stuff out of Revelations, mostly they're pretty tame by weird fiction standards, because Knausgaard isn't interested in weird fiction; he's interested in god and the afterlife and what it means when we both believe in these things and yet also know they probably aren't true. I didn't bring up Bergman films for nothing, is what I'm saying. I mean, the last 50 or so pages of the book is just Egil's essay about the meaning of death. Though the essay contains maybe a clue or two about some of the dangling plot threads in other people's stories, I'm not sure.

It's all almost farcically, stereotypically Scandanavian. But we like that stuff, don't we? We do. And while ultimately this is kind of a frustrating read -- the plot-before-the-essay ends with someone telling a character who has awakened from a coma that all of the stuff he's worried about -- with what he's worried about being the entire plot of the novel, including so many unresolved questions like who killed the black metal band -- is no longer of concern to anyone compared to what happened in the two weeks he was comatose, and do we get to find out what happened in the two weeks he was comatose? Do we buggery. Perhaps we can go back and tease it out, Gene Wolfe Reader style, someday by re-examining the narrative of his coma experiences, but not right now; the book (the actual, physical book printed on dead trees, which means reading it was a physically painful experience that is the main reason I'm not interesting in going back and teasing out dangling plot threads Gene Wolfe Reader style) is due back to the library where others in my city are anxiously waiting to be frustrated the way I am right now.

Reviewers who have referred to this as a shaggy dog story are not wrong. BUT, it's a really good and interesting shaggy dog story, with lots of good character drama, scenery porn and quality speculations on natural philosophy (are the laws of nature actually immutable laws, or are they merely reflections of matter's habits of "thought"?), theology, eschatology and whether or not a guy can actually drive his recently-crashed-in-an-unreported-drunk-driving-accident car clear across Norway with one headlight and no blinker without getting stopped by the police. So while I'm kind of shaking my fist at Karl Ove Knausgaard, I'm also impressed enough to, as I indicated above, want to read more.

Just not on dead tree. Oh, my aching hands.

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