Hundreds of live crabs crawling over the streets. Ladybugs swarming in a haywire frenzy. Decapitated cats, men roaming the forests with birdlike heads, and patients pronounced dead arising from the operating table. If it all seems like a bad, portentous dream, it’s possibly the effect Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard is going for in his most recent novel, The Morning Star.
Released amidst the pandemic in 2021, The Morning Star ends with a line that might have been ominously delivered by Gandalf somewhere in Lord of the Rings: “It has begun.” It’s what the character Egil remarks after spotting a new star shining in the skies above Norway. Bigger and brighter than the familiar array of lights, the star has already hung above the intersecting events in the previous 665 pages, and we are in its grip, hypnotized by the big question: What does it mean?
After the doorstop-sized memoirs of My Struggle, Knausgaard has returned to a relatively brief novel form here. Written during the worldwide shutdown, The Morning Star can’t help feeling like a rumination—told from nine or so characters’ perspectives—on something that has shifted in this world, something possibly evil, something maybe portending the apocalyptic.
But Egil—a drifting philosophical type who lives on a lake house owned by his rich dad — isn’t feeling apocalyptic; he’s feeling awed. A religious transformation has taken shape within him, and it colors his interpretation of that all-seeing eye above, just as it does other characters in Knausgaard’s novel.
Knausgaard is best known for his lengthy six-part memoir, which dealt in painful minutiae upon his own life, his own sense of shame, and the actions of his friends and family. The Norwegian writer adopted a style perhaps akin to Proust or Boleño: inner gazing to the point of hypnotic transference: we find ourselves caught in his web of mundane existence.
It also has a hint of Midsommer, Ari Aster’s creepy tale of hidden Swedish rituals involving animals and a culling of the aged.
Here, in The Morning Star, he claims his intention was simply to tell a story through many points of view. We meet Arne, a professor staying in a summer cottage with his two kids and wife Tove, an artist who’s having some kind of mental breakdown. There’s Kathrine, a priest who thinks about leaving her husband, checking into a local hotel upon returning from a foreign trip instead of going home. There’s Jostein, a cynical journalist working for a newspaper arts section, hoping to return to hard news by covering a satanic ritual murder case involving a heavy metal band; he’s married to Turid, who works at a mental hospital where the above-mentioned bird-headed man is spotted in the woods. Many of the characters overlap or intersect at some point.
There’s an air of ritualistic creepiness to The Morning Star, as though humans (and nature) are being driven by unseen forces to act weirdly, inappropriately. Teens in the novel are either psychotic or violently sullen (all the more to depict that emo phase as something in flux, mysterious, dark and hidden). Animals are reacting in strange ways to the presence of the new star, but so are the rational adults telling the story.
An uncanny, unsettling weirdness pervades. After squashing a fly, Turid considers the sudden presence of so many in her workplace: “Dad used to say too that flies were the dead. That was why there were so many of them, and why they stayed so close to us in our homes. They were dead souls.”
Apocalyptic fiction is nothing new, but Knausgaard’s methodical telling of the events, while drawing us no clearer to a concise revelation, is a haunting read, tightening the tension to almost unbearable levels, then letting things go slack again, allowing the characters to think they’re overreacting, or calming themselves with comforting reason.
It makes you think a bit of Melancholia, the Lars von Trier apocalyptic parable starring Kirsten Dunst as a deeply depressive bride who nonetheless sees a truth in the skies that her astronomer husband, Keifer Sutherland, fails to accept: imminent doom is heading for them all, looming larger every day.
There’s an air of ritualistic creepiness to The Morning Star, as though humans (and nature) are being driven by unseen forces to act weirdly, inappropriately.
It also has a hint of Midsommer, Ari Aster’s creepy tale of hidden Swedish rituals involving animals and a culling of the aged. The tone is similar in the way The Morning Star reveals, then hides away, elements of the truth.
Mostly, by sticking with a fairly intimate first-person approach, we are drawn into the lives of the characters, even when they seem clueless, or in self-denial, or just plain wrong in their actions. The cluelessness is part of the tension driving the novel.
It’s hard to sum up the meaning of the new star, because each character has a different interpretation. For Egil, it ties to a passage in Isaiah (“How art thou fallen from heaven, Lucifer, son of the morning!”) and he feels its heaviness streaming down: “It affected everyone who saw it. Something silent and intense streamed from it. It was almost as if it possessed a will, something indomitable that the soul could contain, but not change or influence. The feeling that someone was looking at us.” For Arne, it’s a sign of ecological disturbance: “When the animals started behaving differently, or were suddenly dying in strange circumstances, it was a sign that the system of nature had shifted, that the ecosystem itself was breaking down.” Others chalk it up to scientific phenomena, or just some remarkable new attraction.
But Knausgaard hints it’s about something closer to a portal from this world to another. A period of adjustment to something beyond our control, something already set in motion. An afterlife, or the start of the after-party for the planet.
In the end, The Morning Star relies a bit too much on gimmick (666 pages indeed) and an eerie tone to lead us through all these ruminations. We don’t need final answers as to why nature is going haywire amid the presence of a constantly looming star, but do we need more than a sense of creepiness, however haunting and indelible that feeling is. Perhaps though, as Knausgaard has hinted, this is only Part One of a series.