Karl Ove Knausgaard’s challenging, multivolume novel, “My Struggle,” has improbably become the drink of choice among literary readers seeking something new.
The fourth of its six pieces has just been published, and the question as I turned page one was: Is this where the thrill ends?
Knausgaard says he wrote the first five parts of the autobiographical work in a year. Speed was his method and his aesthetic. So one could wonder if “Book Four” might be the one in which creative fatigue becomes apparent.
Astonishingly, though, “Book Four” is the swiftest, most neatly arced of the books thus far. It avoids the density of “Book One,’’ which began with Knausgaard reeling from the death of his father from alcoholism, or “Book Two,’’ where the author wrestled with being a parent when he hated his own father so much.
In “Book Three,’’ Knausgaard recreated the static, lazy days of boyhood, when it was clear — even then — that something dark would happen to his family.
“Book Four” leaps forward nearly a decade and draws together the demons of son and father into a subtly terrifying narrative. The two men’s needs for affection and oblivion play off and are magnified by each other.
The book is also an often very funny send-up of a young man’s desperate, rabbit-like need to get laid. The tale begins with Karl Ove, as he is known, 18 years old and headed to remote northern Norway to teach school. His plan is to work for a year, save money, then retreat to Spain or Greece and write a novel.
Håfjord, a village of 250, is not exactly ground zero in the war on bourgeoisie values. There are so few people around that Karl Ove’s first guests include some fisherman and teenage students, who come not out of curiosity but boredom.
What follows is a sweet and creepy tale of a young man adrift in his own self-consciousness. Karl Ove is so nervous he pukes before going to teach; he asks for coffee in the teachers’ break room then mocks his own diction. He clearly views himself with the self-regard of a younger teenager.
One of his students, a 13-year-old named Andrea, develops a crush on him, and Karl Ove flirts with her but also keeps his distance. He wants desperately to lose his virginity, but he also does not want to go to jail. In his spare time, the unhappy Karl Ove joins other temps and teachers on excursions to nearby towns, where he drinks himself into blackouts.
“Who are you when you don’t know you exist?” Karl Ove muses, after one of them, which leads to a long flashback of his high school years. “Who were you when you didn’t remember that you existed?”
This question, so antithetical to “My Struggle” as a project, is actually the thrust of nearly all of Karl Ove’s actions in the book. As it cycles into the past, we watch as Karl Ove reacts to his parent’s separation and divorce by drinking. He grits his teeth as his father moons about being love again. Not since Jack Kerouac’s “Big Sur” has a novelist depicted the terrors and highs of oblivion so well.
For a book written quickly, there are also, still, sparkling moments of precision. The prose’s dark even surface breaks, and something magical is revealed out of the sheer tedium of time passing. After a tense family meal, he finds himself drunk and waiting for a night bus:
“Oh, the muted lights of buses at night and the muted sounds. The few passengers, all in their own worlds . . . The drone of the engine. Sitting there and thinking about the best that you know, that which is dearest to your heart, wanting only to be there, out of this world, in transit from one place to another, isn’t it only then you are really present in the world?”
The deeper we plunge into this reminiscence, the more Karl Ove’s philosophy of escapism makes sense. His father, sentimental and glassy as he rides one bender to the next, wounds the son afresh each time he refuses to see the pain he causes him. Meanwhile Karl Ove drinks, knowing there’s something else going on:
“Perhaps the gulf between the person I was and the one I became when I drank was too great. Perhaps it was impossible for a man to have such a wide gulf inside him. 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.”
Only the self-conscious can feel shame. “My Struggle” is aptly named, then, because it is an epic attempt to drown shame in the very thing which gives it its strength: self-consciousness. It is, after all, a book full of weeping, nocturnal emissions, and selfish behavior.
Ultimately these gestures at teenage slapstick feel like misdirection. Like all the preceding volumes, “Book Four” is a family story. Here is a young man, burning with shame over what his father has become, yet mimicking the man’s evolution without awareness of where his behavior leads him.
As he drinks and takes one more woman to bed, Karl Ove tells himself his goal is art; he says he is on a quest to lose his virginity. But really he is like a man in an eden fighting with the god who has put him there. And that god is not a deity, but his father.
By Karl Ove Knausgaard
Translated, from the Norwegian,
by Don Bartlett
Archipelago, 350 pp., $27
John Freeman is the author of “How to Read a Novelist.’’