A review of A Death in the Family, the first book in the semi-autobiographical ‘My Struggle’ series
By Michael Morpedo
I find it helpful to treat art as an exercise in code-making and code-breaking. The scary thing about A Death in the Family is that it indulges in neither. Instead, I think, it’s just honest. Karl Ove Knausgaard treats this autobiography/novel as a crack at the beyond, his great obsession, a place somewhere past conventional modern art and irony and packaged meanings. Naturally, that confused the heck out of me – it’s my main reason for writing a hot take on a book that was published in 2009. My secondary reason for writing this piece is that the character of Karl Ove Knausgaard within the story has confused me. He’s just so depressingly socially awkward and his level of honesty is beyond painful.
His adventures while at school are relentlessly embarrassing – at one point he tries to invite himself to a female classmate’s New Year’s Eve party and she has to say no TWICE. I put down the book for a week at that point. In another important memory Knausgaard refers to his band’s first paid gig at a shopping centre. Before they even finish their first song the manager runs out to shut them up. The bit when Jan Vidar makes eye contact with Karl Ove early in the song, his eyes conveying a message – ‘Too fast! Too fast!’ – was real enough to make me nauseous. Tone deaf might be the best phrase to sum up Karl Ove’s character. But all this nausea could be forgiven. If anything, it was endearing. Everything in these sections of the book, deep in the frame narrative, is felt SO strongly. When he’s in love, the prose has this giddy, staccato rhythm, even though the girl is definitely not right for him, but who cares? I loved reading about the young Karl Ove.
As the plot draws closer to now, he started to really creep me out. There’s this sequence when he takes a break from cleaning his grandmother’s house to pop to the newsagent’s and I start getting uncomfortable when a man runs into the shop ahead of Knausgaard:
‘I met him in the doorway as he was coming out, this time holding an ice cream. Wasn’t that a bit infantile? Leaving the car running to buy an ice cream?’
If the novel were a conversation, I would not know what to say to that. All of the effectiveness of his writing depends on it being left unreplied. He’s entering such a weirdly lifeless, clinical register. Next, he meets the shop assistant and like he does with every woman in this section of the book – to whom he isn’t related – he starts going on about how fit she is:
‘about which there was something Persian, I guessed she came from Iran or Iraq. Despite the round cheeks and full figure, she was attractive. She didn’t so much as give me a glance […] “Rizla?” she enquired, still without meeting my eyes.’
He seems to obsess about eye contact in a way that only the most socially awkward people can. That clinical lens he puts on everything has turned him into an amateur ethnologist/professional pervert, and I am this close to putting down the book again. It’s quite insidious to spring all this weirdness on me so late in the novel, when I have already fallen in love with Karl Ove Knausgaard. Then he spends a while analysing why she put the change on the counter and not in his hand. Topping off his adventure, he monologues internally about ‘the desire to sleep with her, which manifested itself more as a kind of physical…’ etcetera, basically the whole way home. The man is an absolute loser! It’s odd because not a lot has changed, but that is exactly why he is so creepy. As a teenager he got away with misunderstanding boundaries and he certainly saw women as objects. But he was fun! As an adult he has forced all of that from external to internal; I think that’s why his brain is so fucking noisy. The prose becomes so dense and dry and devoid of emotional context. The shop assistant’s eyes aren’t saying too fast or too slow – they are saying nothing because there is no tempo at all. I wasn’t intending to get so drawn into this scene, but it really struck me as a microcosm of all Karl Ove’s loserishness.
I guess the elephant in the piece is that I’m nineteen. There’s a decent chance that the older version of the character strikes me as unempathetic and creepy because I am afraid of getting older and becoming like that. Moreover, I am starting to suspect that the two versions of the character are completely identical, so naturally I would be more forgiving of the one closer to my age. In the second paragraph I really glossed over that bit about the girl he was in love with as a teenager and how he treated her. When I was planning this piece I thought my point would be clear – that I am afraid of growing up and forgetting how to feel properly. Now it seems more like I’m afraid of how much I can forgive in the author, as long as I have already forgiven it in myself. Either way, the sequel, A Man in Love already looks to be a cracker.
Michael Morpedo bears no resemblance to any authors, living or dead.