Jeremy Simmons reviews the latest book in the widely acclaimed six-volume autobiographical literary fiction masterpiece by Karl Ove Knausgaard, discussing his almost manic desire to expose every last detail of his life.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, Dancing in the Dark: My Struggle Book 4 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016) 350pp.
“Phenomenon”. “Movement”. “A revolution”. Or…for some, “boring”.
A lot of sweeping single-word descriptions have been lobbed into the literary and popular media arena about the six-part autobiographical novel of Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard, entitled My Struggle. It would be hard to argue with any of those descriptions, since literary fiction is such a subjective medium and there hasn’t been anything like this masterpiece since Proust, which Knausgaard’s work rivals in tone and in scope at six books, or over three thousand five hundred pages. What’s different here, not only from Proust but from nearly everything else on the bookstore shelves today, is Knausgaard’s lack of ‘voice’ in these novels.
Authors spend a great deal of time and effort crafting their voice, and are castigated by an impatient press and reading public if they depart from it, once its established. When you’re reading Michael Chabon or Thomas Pynchon there is no doubting the distincitve ‘voice’ of the author. Ditto Toni Morrison, Chinua Achebe or Joyce Carol Oates, to name but a few. What Knausgaard may have achieved here is to employ a voice that is not a literary voice at all and if that’s true then he’s grabbed the brass ring it seems so many authors today are straining toward: the Unvoice: the storytelling device free of any dialect, intimate tone or unique phrasing style. Pure story.
The plot unfolds, the characters are fleshed out and the action is laid out by only the plot, the characters and the action itself. This is what Hemingway strove so hard to reach (and believed he had) but we needed a Knausgaard to show us how much further Papa had to go to get there. My Struggle is unnerving at times since the author’s naked soul is present at every moment. It feels more like a diary than a novel. Hemingway seems to have built the man he wanted to be out of spare parts, but Knausgaard strips down life’s layers to show you the reality of the man he truly is. Secrets are everywhere unhidden, and sometimes it feels like you’re reading things you weren’t meant to know. But you are meant to see them, that’s part of Knausgaard’s almost manic effort to expose every last detail of his life.
This by itself may not be new, but here the author isn’t using brutally real confessions to beat a message into the reader, or to try and dominate them. There is no pedantic “artistic statement” here, no literary snobbery aimed at undermining the comfort of the middle class, etc. It’s refreshing, for a change, to read an author who’s throwing himself under the bus for no other reason than to purge himself. The soul-searching is relentless, and we witness every moment of it, no self-doubt is spared however humiliating for the author, in fact he makes damn sure you see that humiliation in all its cringe-worthiness as if he were hammering himself flat with his own book, still belittled by his deceased, abusive father and a litany of failed attempts at sex in his teenage years that always end in premature ejaculation, which in volume 4, Dancing in the Dark, is his greatest source of self-loathing. Amusingly, it doesn’t slow him down one bit in the pursuit of his next sexual encounter, all of which shuttle back and forth between hilarious and dreary. This is a peek at Karl Ove Knausgaard’s consummate skill: without a specific, literary voice he still manages to be at turns hilarious, tragic and touchingly profound while recording events that are the banal stuff of an unremarkable life.
On page 203, he corkscrews into a reflective passage pondering the source of evil. “Does evil come from the inside?” he wonders aloud inside your head, because that’s where this author sets up shop. He considers where evil resides and if it’s inalienable or acquired. He’s asking himself whether or not those who possess evil can even be blamed for it. At no point does he try to make a declaration about what is right and wrong; he only probes, analyzes and accepts that his perception may not be shared by others.
If he’s unflinchingly honest about himself and his own failures, Knausgaard leaves the gloves off for everyone else in his novels. Some names have been changed but an uncle is still an uncle, whatever name you give him. We know that he has ruined or at least marred a number of relationships in his life, including family, in his nothing-left-out life story. My Struggle has not gone always over well with those who have roles in its forty-odd years of scope. Lawsuits have been thrown at the author and his publisher. If his father were alive he may have joined the chorus of angry voices. Perhaps this is part of what makes the books so powerful and so enthralling to read; the characters are not only believable but primal. His father, as an example, is a commanding presence the moment he enters a scene, just as he clearly was in real life for Karl Ove: the man was an inescapable force of nature and there is no point, in the writer’s view, in masking any bit of the terror he inspired. Karl Ove, meanwhile, has been described as a narcissist and while there is plenty of narcissism to go around (book four is focused on his late teen years…what teen isn’t narcissistic?) but it’s a flimsy kind of self-importance; so easily punched through by a single disdainful glance from a pretty girl, or a reprimand from his new boss at the school in northern Norway, in the picturesque backwater of Hafjord.
In countless interviews Mr. Knausgaard has characterized his work as being wholly true, one man’s confession of “shame” and while that’s not difficult to see, what is difficult to ratify into all these hundreds of thousands of words is the enormous amount of detail distilled into every scene, on every page, over a three thousand page cluster of books. How much of this is genuine memory, and how much is a novelist’s license to fill the gaps with what seemed right or fitting to the moment? Is that truth, or is that a literary version of truth? Because these books (I’ve read the preceding three) feel true when you read them, the words read more like straight autobiography than fiction of any kind. Nevertheless the claim of “truth” is troubling. For instance, if I write about an actual meeting with someone at a coffee shop twenty years ago, but I don’t remember what I drank that day, is it okay for me to remark that I drank coffee, black, with one sugar? What if I actually had tea? What if what I drank had nothing to do with the actual events that took place? Let’s say, for instance, that I signed divorce papers that afternoon in the coffee shop, my soon-to-be ex-wife sitting across the table from me. Does it matter if I had coffee instead of a latte or green tea? Maybe not, but is it right to say that that scene is completely true if I take a little license with a perfectly understandable lack of memory as to detail? Because there is no way that anyone without an eidetic memory (which Knausgaard does not have) could recall with perfect accuracy the consistent and precise detail that the author injects into every moment of his books.
If I haven’t seemed to share much in this review regarding plot or a story arc, it’s because of the nature of the book itself. If you’ve read any of Knausgaard’s other books, you’ll understand. The story itself is less important than how it’s internalized by its author. In a nutshell here it is: after finishing gymnas -what we might call high school- Karl Ove is looking for a job and moves to the small town of Hafjord in northern Norway to be a teacher at the local school. There he makes friends, clumsily pursues various young women and experiences independence for the first time. His goal is to write and he starts churning out short stories and sends them to friends and family for the praise he craves like a drug. He consumes a titanic amount of alcohol and burns bridges left and right, while struggling to retain some kind of relationship with his separated mother and father, his brother Yngve and an unrequited love back home. He drinks, as seemingly does everyone in Hafjord, to excess almost daily but, again, that isn’t the story. It’s the gradual change in the narrator that drives the story.
“For what happened was that the person I usually was began to draw in the person I became when I was drinking, the two halves slowly but surely became sewn together, and the thread that joined them was shame.”
So Hafjord, the job and the school, the sexual disasters and the all-night benders in a world of perpetual darkness…it’s all just a stage set for the real story to emerge; the internal life of Karl Ove Knausgaard and his “struggle.” It’s his struggle, it’s my struggle, too. It’s a struggle we all know, and that’s what makes it such compelling reading. The difference is that the rest of us don’t have the courage (or perhaps the lunacy) to expose our struggle for millions of readers to devour. Skål, Karl Ove.
Jeremy Simmons is a writer, artist and game designer who keeps very late hours. His writing explores dreams (and nightmares), time and the inexplicable nature of the human condition. His work has appeared in Best Modern Voices, ShortVine and The News Record, among others.