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the complete review - fiction
The Morning Star
Karl Ove Knausgaard
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- Norwegian title: Morgenstjernen
- Translated by Martin Aitken
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B+ : strangely captivating
See our review for fuller assessment.
|London Rev. of Books
|The LA Times
|The NY Times
|The NY Times Book Rev.
|World Lit. Today
From the Reviews:
- "(T)his is a strange, uneven book. It is a bit like reading a Knausgaard novel on to which a Hollywood blockbuster has been unsuccessfully grafted. (...) Ensemble novels such as this thrive on contrast, inviting us to consider how different people might understand and respond to a universal event. But one problem with The Morning Star is that everyone in it talks and thinks in very similar ways. Although the characters don't feel like caricatures, they don't really feel like fully realised individuals either: more like a collective Knausgaardian consciousness inhabiting nine different bodies. (...) Rather than being interested in the effects language can have, Knausgaard's concern is with the meanings it can bear and the realities it can make thinkable. He doesn't express emotions, or cause us to feel them, but notes them in passing, as though scanning items on a self-checkout." - Jon Day, Financial Times
- "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. (...) 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. (...) This is a book bloated with the inconsequential. (...) Erected on a fatally weak linguistic foundation, the novel can only ever be a structural catastrophe. (...) 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." - Sam Byers, The Guardian
- "This latest novel embodies all of Knausgaard’s known qualities. It takes place over two days, and it lasts forever -- well, 666 pages, to be exact. The long, looping sentences of My Struggle have been replaced with something shorter and sharper, drier and more reportorial. At first it feels like you’re being shot with a BB gun full of cat food, but somehow the rhythm takes hold of you. You are a cat, and you’re HUNGRY. (...) Is it good ? I have no fucking idea. It is enormous, unwieldy, a hoarder’s house, full of sliced ham, possible to become obsessed with, one of those books where someone must write himself out of what he has made." - Patricia Lockwood, London Review of Books
- "Knausgaard also mixes in both strong elements of horror and some of the more grandiose religious themes of A Time for Everything, his early novel about angels. In doing so, he reveals himself to be a surprise master of the uncanny. (...) Big swaths of the novel take place in the liminal spaces between consciousness and sleep, drunkenness and sobriety, life and death. Our narrators lose concentration; they only half-sense things. (...) At times, the novel feels like a collection of short stories hastily sutured together with a supernatural plot device. Nevertheless, Knausgaard remains a writer of supreme interest. This is a thoughtful, highly readable novel, packed with ideas and exciting flourishes." - Charles Arrowsmith, The Los Angeles Times
- "This is a strange, gothic, Bible-obsessed novel, laced with buzzard-black themes and intimations of horror. (...) 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. (...) The Morning Star becomes, in other words, a somewhat programmatic novel of ideas. (...) Knausgaard is among the finest writers alive, yet there is something cramped about his work when he approaches ideas straight on, instead of obliquely." - Dwight Garner, The New York Times
- "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. (...) (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. (...) (P)lot 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. (...) It's also probably a bit of a spoiler to say: There are no spoilers." - Heidi Julavits, The New York Times Book Review
- "If you can imagine HP Lovecraft having studied German romanticism, throw in some Emmanuel Carrère-style theological musings, some Jo Nesbø-ish gore, and set it all in the forested backdrop of Norway, then that might give something of the unusual flavour of this unclassifiable book. (...) It’s a shaggy dog story full of loose ends and narrative flaws, but it has that beguiling, elusively compulsive quality that Knausgaard seems to have made his own." - Andrew Anthony, The Observer
- "The disappointments soon stack up. While there are some brilliantly distilled scenes (...) it becomes clear that the narrator of each section will not be distinguished by their writing style. Men and women, young and old, speak with the same voice (.....) Yet, somehow, The Morning Star redeems itself. (...) The devil himself is invoked throughout (...) and his influence shows as the narrators' stories converge and build towards an unexpected, brilliantly handled and devastating conclusion." - Stuart Evers, The Spectator
- "That The Morning Star fails on so many levels then is a bewildering and not especially entertaining experience. (...) The writing mostly lands like Frankenstein’s boot (.....) The most interesting theme, and one he explored around his father’s death in My Struggle, is again that in any meaningful way, “death has been given no place” in contemporary culture. But the digressions here are a long way from his meditations in that series (...) In this shallow and inept foray into pulp fiction, Knausgaard seems perversely intent on clumsily hammering away at spiritual themes he has considered much more eloquently elsewhere, and has the gifts to articulate further into a clear vision. To what end ?" - Alasdair Lees, The Telegraph
- "The book's timeline covers just two days, and the bulk of the text is made up of mundane detail. (...) There are other uncanny happenings. (...) It is not long before these shock tactics grow tedious. The major problem is repetition. (...) Around page 600 (of a cringey 666), just as I was getting ready to write the book off as a pretentious take on R.L.Stine, two interesting things happen. (...) I found myself becoming intrigued and challenged. The essay casts the earlier chapters in a different, more interesting light. But why save it until the end ?" - Claire Lowdon, Times Literary Supplement
- "These strange events are experienced not by the singular narrator of Knausgaard’s autofiction but instead by a small collection of narrators, which allows Knausgaard to portray how a singular world-changing event can draw out varying shades of human drama, for despite the apocalyptic focus of the novel (which runs a seemingly purposeful 666 pages), its primary concern is what an apocalypse reveals about the inner lives of its characters. (...) Throughout The Morning Star, Knausgaard rarely loses sight of the mundane and the personal amidst all the biblical-scale upheaval." - Phillip Garland, World Literature Today
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
The Morning Star has nine different narrators, each longish section narrated by a different one, some of the narrators getting more than one turn.
There are connections -- Jostein and Turid are married, for example; other narrators are friends or vague acquaintances -- and while the narrators mostly very much go their own ways, some of the narratives overlap, repeating events or even bits of conversations from different perspectives.
The book is divided -- practically in half -- into 'First Day' and 'Second Day', with a (fifty-page) essay by one of the characters -- Knausgaard does like to inject those essayistic digressions in his fiction -- as a kind of postscript/summa to round things off.
(The work is, however, apparently also to be continued, so it seems this is just the beginning, of yet another Knausgaardian multi-volume series.)
The action is set largely in and around Bergen, in the near-future, in August, 2023, and most of it covers only two days.
In fact, however, though divided into 'First Day' and 'Second Day', the very final bits (before the essay-postscript) leap ahead -- though in a section narrated by the one character who has missed that action, only to be told: "So much has happened these last two weeks".
It's a kind of cruel cliffhanger tease for readers, who aren't told what happened in those two weeks yet either (after having slogged for so long through the two days before them).
The two days Knausgaard's narrators do focus on do also include their fair share of action, but it's mostly of the everyday sort.
It is late summer, a kind of season-end, and many of the characters display varying kinds of restlessness.
Some characters are dealing with family -- from infants to aging and infirm parents, and everything in between --, some also with work -- from an unfinished novel to a hot local news story to caretaker work in a local ward for the intellectually disabled.
There is a great deal of alcohol consumption -- notably by Arne, who crashes his car driving drunk, and Jostein, who can't bring himself to go home and goes on quite the spectacular binge.
There are a number of not-quite-insignificant-crises, including Arne's car crash, a relative's broken arm, a patient escaping under Turid's watch, some pets that come to harm, priest Kathrine's marital doubts, and Egil's ex sending the ten-year-old son he's barely had much contact with to spend a few days with him out of the blue.
Arne's wife, Tove, seems to be having a psychotic break, and he has to juggle handling her and their three children, two young boys and an older girl, as they also prepare to head back home for the start of school.
Beyond this, there's also a great deal that is simply unsettling, with people constantly seeing or hearing things, for example, -- sounds or visions in the dark night, especially, many of which are hard or impossible to explain.
The whole atmosphere is unsettling -- quite effectively fairly casually presented by Knausgaard.
Animals, in particular, surprise, from the badger that makes its way into a house to the mass of crabs crawling across the forest, or even an invasion of ladybugs.
Above all, there's that mysterious 'Morning Star' of the title, that suddenly has appeared in the sky.
Everyone notices the star -- though in some cases only after it's been pointed out to them -- and no one really seems to know what it is; a supernova, or the birth of a new star seem to be the two best guesses, but the general attitude seems to be, as Jostein suggests: "Whatever it is, there'll be a perfectly natural explanation".
Of course, before he says that he joked: "'It's only Armageddon,' I said with a laugh. 'It had to come sooner or later'" .....
It's hard, for both reader and characters, not to read something more into the star.
Egil sums it up:
The star was obviously a sign.
Of course, as Arne and Egil note:
But of what ?
It would become apparent soon enough ?
But where, and to whom ?
"So it's a sign, is it ?"
Ah, yes .....
"Everything's a sign.
That tree over there.
"Of what ?"
"I don't know."
Elsewhere, Egil notes:
The great problem of our time was that everything was about human beings and nothing existed any longer outside the sphere of the human.
The sudden appearance of the Morning Star certainly makes that point: people do notice it, but don't make much of a fuss about.
It's surely a spectacular event, and yet they all more or less just get on with their lives -- mostly mundane (though admittedly, with all the freaky goings-on, not as mundane as usual for most of them) -- without being too concerned or curious.
Even Egil doesn't focus on it in responding to Arne's mention, for example:
"We haven't talked about the new star," I said.
"It's a bit weird."
Yes, everybody has other things on their mind, smaller and larger concerns, mostly of the more or less everyday sort.
Nevertheless, some do read a bit more into it -- and into the general creepy atmosphere.
Kathrine, who suddenly can't bear her marriage, does at one point look up and see more in it:
"Maybe," he said.
"But you've got other things to think about."
On the veranda I stood for a moment and looked up at the star.
It was as if it had redefined the sky completely.
Now it was the only thing that seemed important.
She's not the only one with a bad feeling -- "I get an end-of-the-world sort of feeling", Vibeke tells her husband, in the face of a swarm of thousands of ladybugs -- and there's certainly a sense of menace in the air.
At times, it feels like it's at the door or window, or in the house already too, but, mostly, it doesn't materialize -- yet.
Something terrible was going to happen.
That was what it said.
Something terrible was going to happen.
Mainly, it's death -- and the dead -- that haunt the novel, and the characters, often quite literally.
Several people here see dead people; indeed, it's one of the mysteries several of them mull over (including Egil, in his concluding essay, which is: 'On Death and the Dead').
There are a variety of instances of death along the way, of pets and people; notably, there are also several instances where death seems to be, in one form or another, reversed.
Two significant secondary figures are pronounced dead but turn out not to be (though it seems both are as good as ...).
And, somewhat in the background, there's the violent death of three members of a four-man death metal band, the big news story of the day (though, as Jostein and the reader learn at the end, even this sensational story seems to have been eclipsed by the events of the two subsequent weeks (still blank for both Jostein and the reader at that point; presumably we'll have to wait for the sequel).
Coming to grips with (different questions of) death is something quite a few of the characters grapple with -- including then, at greatest length, Egil in his long essay
There are two funerals that Kathrine leads (one described in Egil's essay) -- in one of which there are no mourners for the deceased --, while Solveig is an operating theater assistant when the organs of a patient being kept artificially alive are to be taken for transplantation.
Elsewhere, death isn't necessarily as close but still hangs in the air, in the worry about whether or not someone has died, for example.
In many respects, including its death-focus, The Morning Star is a theological novel, and not just in characters such as the priest, Kathrine, or Egil.
It's Egil that makes the connection that: "The Morning Star was called Lucifer in Latin, which meant 'bearer of light'" -- and who wonders:
The angel Lucifer, the Morning Star, had been banished from heaven to earth.
Now the Morning Star shone once more from the sky.
So what did that mean ?
The shared and similar experiences -- foremost, of course, seeing that star overhead, but also, for example the strange behavior of a variety of animals --, overlayed over their individual experiences and concerns, including quite the variety of familial tensions, as well as the actual real overlap of events and meetings -- and the variously addressed central themes (notably: death) -- all do help make the novel cohere.
For all the differences to these characters' lives and experiences, there's very much a sense of them sharing this world.
Knausgaard is rarely in any hurry, building up his story on the often small and everyday, the necessary steps of daily life down to emptying the dishwasher.
With a great deal of talk -- generally of the rapid, clipped back and forth of much daily communication -- and a lot of personal interaction, the novel moves at a surprisingly brisk pace; even when not much seems to be happening, it's still quite enjoyable reading -- not exactly gripping, but also, just, never quite letting go.
It's not like the novel requires patience -- it reads easily and quickly -- but readers are certainly not offered quick, easy resolutions: Knausgaard is filling a very large canvas here, piece by piece, and layer upon layer upon layer at that.
Interestingly, both the communication and the personal interaction often fail.
There are a considerable number of secondary characters who cannot express themselves at all, or not very clearly -- from a baby to an invalid old mother, as well as numerous intellectually disabled patients.
Yet even those who are physically and mentally capable of speaking often fail to communicate clearly, for a variety of reasons -- so much so that it can become a bit annoying.
Knausgaard does parent-child relationships and the difficulties of clear communication between them very well, and there are quite a few examples of it here.
But even the adult relationships are replete with examples of failures to connect and understand each other, willful and not.
Tove's break is the most obvious -- an actual, clinical, mental break, but Jostein lies evasively to his wife, and Kathrine to her husband (and then wonders: "But I didn't understand how he could think so badly of me. Did he really know me no better than that ?").
Or there is Vibeke and her son-in-law, whose crossed signals lead to an awkward situation, with Vibeke left wondering: "What was it about me that had put such a thought in his head ?" -- a typical reaction, too, of feeling at fault for another's actions, i.e. basically feeling misunderstood, a trait common, in one form or another, to very many of the characters.
The Morning Star is a novel full of sameness -- most notably, as critics have pointed out, in the voice of the different narrators, as Knausgaard doesn't make a great effort to differentiate these.
But beyond that, the main characters also share similar concerns, attitudes, and thoughts -- even if to differing degrees.
While the adults complain about their children being so hard to deal with and understand -- and some of the kids do act out in quite obnoxious ways -- the adults really mostly aren't much better.
(Knausgaard uses the secondary characters, such as the kids, very well to illustrate the adults' many flaws.)
Even the concluding section, Egil's would-be essay, devolves into a narrative similar to practically all those before, a dialogue-heavy back and forth between Egil and someone he meets, complete with excessive drinking and a deep dive into the question of death (as well as a surprise-cameo from one of the other characters ("I'd known her once, we'd been in the same gymnasium school")).
Knausgaard is a one-trick pony in this novel -- but it's a decent trick; after all, The Morning Star is a nearly seven-hundred page novel which doesn't really get very far but still proves mostly satisfying.
A big question, of course, is where it goes from here.
Knausgaard certainly dangles the promise of more: that cruel tease of: "So much has happened these last two weeks" and not a word more about it certainly suggests there's a lot left that readers deserve to know.
Given that this book only covered two days, the potential here seems great indeed, with The Morning Star just a preamble to a much larger work.
Certainly, there's a lot for him to build on, and a lot of directions he could go in.
(Personally, I'm hoping for aliens .....)
Despite being so open-ended, and leaving so much unanswered, The Morning Star is a reasonably satisfying read.
It's engaging. even at this length and pace, a kind of thriller, even as it revels in the mundane and doesn't offer anything approaching the arc of the traditional thriller, especially in its (not-much-of-a-)conclusion.
Strangely captivating, The Morning Star probably isn't for everyone; no doubt, some readers will find it tiresome.
But his approach works well, and there is some actual suspense; I found it a very enjoyable, even gripping read.
The philosophy, and the death-thoughts, aren't entirely convincing -- not yet, anyway -- but do show some potential.
One hopes he does continue this exercise -- and in the same unrushed manner.
At one point, Arne mentions:
No, Heidegger wasn't my man.
I'd tried reading his analyses of Hölderlin and couldn't help thinking he was committing the beginner's error of inserting his own agenda into the poem, instead of drawing elements out of the poem and then cautiously blowing on them until they started to flame.
The poem had to be read in its own light, it was the only sure method.
What he wrote was no doubt good enough on its own terms, but it had little to do with Hölderlin.
Any Knausgaard book comes with a lot baggage -- none larger than the My Struggle to-do -- but, like any novel, The Morning Star should be read and considered on its own terms.
Indeed, Knausgaard seems to have made a considerable effort to force readers to do so: the novel feels more like glowing embers that bright-shining star; that may well be one more reason why the Morning Star, though often mentioned, doesn't really figure that prominently in most of the book, remaining a distant presence, so far.
- M.A.Orthofer, 1 October 2021
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The Morning Star:
Other books by Karl Ove Knausgaard under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard (Karl Ove Knausgård) was born in 1968.
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© 2021 the complete review
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