Fjord of the Dolls: A Cold Review of Dancing in the Dark by Karl Ove Knausgaard
This is my first book of Knausgaard and the honest reviews say this book is a disappointment compared to his others in the My Struggle series. Maybe the problem was I wasn’t stinking drunk when I read it and maybe one needs to be stinking drunk to appreciate his aesthetic.
Knausgaard loyalists who say his work is about the human soul might tell me to continue with others to be convinced. I’m skeptical because I suspect that the problems in this one will haunt each book of the series. Why? Because nobody sharply develops their writing over a series to the degree that would be required to bring this up to timbre.
Also, to note, this book has one of the dumbest last sentences I’ve ever read.
The characters are simple. Karl Ove, the alcoholic son of an alcoholic father has inherited two things from dad: his journaling and his drinking. Karl drinks throughout the book, nearly all the time, and we’re talking blackout drunk where he wakes up not remembering. Karl also has a strong interest in girls, and I mean girls, not women, who range from about age 13 to age 17, mostly. He is 18 when we meet him and we also go back in time to when he was 16, but that’s irrelevant; he prefers leering at girls two to three years younger than his current age.
The plot is equally simple.
The first half of the book: K.O. tries to get laid.
The second half of the book: K.O. can’t get laid because of premature ejaculation,
let’s call it his shortcoming.
It took Knausgaard an indecent number of pages to publicize this. At the end of the book, he briefly “gets it in” so to speak. Hurrah? It had better be hurrah because whether he can becomes the sole driving force of the novel. The other forces are languid statements: I want to be a writer; I want a drink; I want another drink; I want to have a girl — whose requirements beyond being a teen are proximity and his preference for exotic girls from Denmark or Iceland.
What happens over all these nearly 550 pages with a font nearly as large as an easy reader? The answer is long sections, most 9 or 10 pages each, of soulless, benumbing dialogue. K.O.goes to grandma’s house and talks about dinner and smoking. K.O. goes to dad’s and talks about his girlfriend and dinner. K.O. goes to mum’s and talks about dinner. K.O. goes to school and argues with students. K.O. goes to a party and drinks too much. K.O. lusts after a teen. Just put these topics on fan blades and start ‘er up. Each time one spins by devote another 9 or 10 pages to it. Spice it up with the dropping of late 80s band names and voila, you’ve discovered the Knausgaardian knack.
What is Knausgaard attempting to do with this book? The answer for dummies is that he’s playing Proust, only because the series is so long. It is clearly not Proust.
This is Proust:
Undoubtedly what is thus palpitating in the depths of my being must be the image, the visual memory which, being linked to that taste, has tried to follow it into my conscious mind. But its struggles are too far off, too much confused; scarcely can I perceive the colourless reflection in which are blended the uncapturable whirling medley of radiant hues, and I cannot distinguish its form, cannot invite it, as the one possible interpreter, to translate to me the evidence of its contemporary, its inseparable paramour, the taste of cake soaked in tea; cannot ask it to inform me what special circumstance is in question, of what period in my past life.
This is Knausgaard:
Across from me sat a lovely fair-haired girl, perhaps one or two years younger than me, she had her satchel on the seat, and I imagined she went to the gymnas in Finnsnes and was on her way home. She had looked at me when I got onto the bus, and now, as the driver shifted into first gear and pulled away with a jerk, she turned to look at me again. Not lingeringly, no more than a glance, and barely a fleeting one at that, but still it was enough to give me a stiffie.
It’s perhaps ignoble to compare. Proust is flow and sensitivity, with words that are surprising, specific, and unique. The usual takes on a brilliantly perceived and considered quality. The Knausgaard remains flavorless. The writing is bland passive voice. We don’t trust that the author can notice the extraordinary. The argument will be that he’s doing this on purpose, or that he’s an expert at recording as is. Ok, fair enough, most beginner writers who transcribe overheard dialogue verbatim do this and we know how that works out. I’ll add more examples and then we’ll see where we stand regarding an idea of literary care.
“‘Get away with you,’ I said….The bell will go soon.’” The bell will go? Or, “I eyed her slim firm backside, formed to perfection….” This about a teen will simply seem creepy some readers. Or, “…while I was sitting there the first raindrops began to pitter-patter on the windowpanes. I turned and watched them hitting the tarmac at first without leaving a mark, as though it wasn’t really happening, then a few seconds later the dark wetness spread as the heavens opened. It poured down, stripes of rain cut through the air with such force that I could see the raindrops bouncing off the tarmac. The water gushed out of the drainpipes from the gutters and down the hill along the side of the building opposite. A hard drumming sound came from the windows….” It’s not only tough to see raindrops hit pavement when they leave no mark. What exactly is along the side of the building opposite, the hill or the gutters. Here, I think, it’s almost a soft form of a zeugma. He seems to think that it’s important to tell us that he turned to watch since that detail adds so much to the scene. At any rate, he certainly seems to have an all-seeing eye from his position inside the room. And then we have to sift through the overused cliches.
If Knausgaard fails at Proust, and I think he does, what else acts upon his style. I’m tempted to say R. L. Stine (more on that in a bit) but perhaps it’s some other Norwegian writer I have not read. I think more likely, and he mentions this early in the book, his goal in part is to emulate Hemingway’s Garden of Eden. This late book is quite good, certainly not his best, but Hemingway appears to have been working to figure out a new voice that he didn’t quite nail down. Again, Knausgaard just doesn’t seem to have the great writer’s ear for lyricism and punch found with Hemingway. On the positive side, Knausgaard has a perceptible (no pun on the main character’s premature ejaculation intended here).
At the worst, which is often, the writing in DitD is too much like teen-lit in its superficiality and emphasis on unclear character and scenes. He identifies and fights the monster at the end, his shortcoming, but this flops quickly. The book simply lacks that which characterizes great works, namely artistry, use of language, intellectual depth, the unexpected or the marvelous, an eye for seeing the uncommon, and of course there are others. Instead, I find a flattening. Every conversation is rendered over the usual 9 or 10 pages, and these are as sharp as a kitchen sponge. I offer the idea that simply copying or rewriting an old journal or recalling an exact conversation verbatim makes for a deadening read. Here is an example.
She smiled and looked me in the eye. I lowered my gaze and took another swig of wine.
‘Because you’re interested in literature, aren’t you?’ she continued.
‘Sort of,’ I said. ‘Among other things.’
‘I am too,’ she said. ‘And I’ve never read as much as when I was your age.’
‘Right,’ I said.
‘I ploughed through everything in sight. It was a kind of existential search. I think. Which was at its most intense then.’
‘Mm’ I said. [sic]
This is basic. K.O.’s mum and dad the drunk are divorced, meaning his mum and dad are divorced, not his dad and drinking. K.O. accepts a one year stint teaching in the north of Norway at a town called Håjford where everybody knows everybody’s business. He teaches high school and middle school-age kids — all the more fodder for his eighteen-year-old ogling of young girls wherein the unintended subtext is that a groomer might seek out such a position. We find out that K.O. must be a nightmare downstairs neighbor in that he blasts Led Zeppelin all day. The book then flashes back to a time when K.O. was 16 and this is a long haul of repetitions about meet girl, kiss, leave girl, talk with mum or dad or grandma. Here’s an exciting conversation with grandma.
‘There we are. They’re done,’ grandma said, and placed two rolls on a plate she put on the table in front of me. Then she sat down.
She had forgotten to bring a knife and the cheese slicer.
I got up to fetch them.
‘What’s the matter? she said. ‘Have I forgotten something?”
‘Knife and cheese slicer,’ I said.
‘You stay put. I’ll get them!’
She went to the drawer and placed them next to me.
So, at least we got that important scene settled. Notice the pure excitement with which grandma responds, indicated by an exclamation point. Did I ever tell you about the joke of a traveling salesman who goes to a house and has to sleep in the barn? Oh wait, that’s a different story of a cheese slicer.
What does K.O. do when he’s not lusting after teens? He drinks. In one scene, he drinks two bottles of wine, followed by three more bottles of wine. He says, “At weekends I drank.”
And later he wonders, “Why didn’t they drink? Why didn’t everyone drink?” And even later with his friend there is the conversation, “’We haven’t got any more wine,’ Vilde said. ‘Fancy coming with me to buy some more bottles?’”
As we trudge forward, page after page, our old friends the cliches continually arise to greet us. Rain always pitter-patters, light pours in, people kill time, people try to make ends meet, people have a grin on their face. If there is a soul, or truth to this book, it is one of the tried-and-true phrase book of overused cliches. And I suppose another truth is found in the main story as represented by the many “Parents gone, bae come over” memes.
There is, to be more generous, writing to rival R. L. Stine as found in his series Goosebumps. To set this up, K.O. has put money in a plastic bag that he tossed on a shoe on the floor. His mother thought it was trash and believes she tossed in the burning barrel.
‘Where did you throw it?’
‘In the barrel. Where we burn paper.’
‘Have you burned it? How could you? Have you burned the money?”
I shook my hands in the air. Then I dashed down the hall, slipped on a pair of shoes and ran up the slope.
There was the bag.
But was there money in it?
I snatched at it and peered inside.
Oh, thank God. There it was.
One would have to work hard to be more flatfooted and literal. I rate it about 2nd grade on the Flesch-Kincaid readability scale. In fact, why not add a quote from Stine for comparison, this from Attack of the Jack-O’-Lanterns.
“Hey,” I said. “What’s up guys?”
Tabby made a disgusted face and pointed a finger at me. “Drew, you have something hanging from your nose,” she said.
“Oh!” I shot my hand up and rubbed the bottom of my nose. Nothing there.
“Sorry,” Tabby snickered. “It only looked like you did.”
Tabby and Lee both laughed.
Stine snuck in an exclamation point in this quote, whereas Knausgaard missed a couple of opportunities in his quote.
Even when the writing is more adult, don’t think about it too hard or you’ll be disappointed. For example, he writes, “A seagull was sitting on the ridge of our roof and surveying the scene.” Anyone who knows seagulls knows they don’t sit, they perch on two feet. Sometimes Knausgaard tries to be literary, I guess, and he ends up with verbal ejaculations like this:
“We don’t live our lives alone, but that doesn’t mean we see those alongside whom we live our lives.”
All of this proves to me that “smart readers” who eschew all-plot novels a la Clive Cussler or Suzanne Collins are more than happy to accept their parallel all-character mullock.
And my use of this UK dialect is a segue into a severe criticism of the translation. We get little sense of Norwegian beyond place names. Instead, we seem to have a Norfolk, UK translator translating Norwegian into British, oddly. The book is rife with words like “dialled,” “plonk,” “prat,” “fancy,” as in fancy doing things?, “snoggered,” “nobble,” “skiving,” and “It’ll tot up.” The Britspeak seriously detracts from the sense this is Norway and that these are Norwegian characters speaking. How in the world does this make any sense? Isn’t this against the unwritten code of translation or something?
All in all, DitD is Heidi-ish bowlegged bildungsroman and don’t start panting about possible sex scenes. K.O. snogs and then blunderspunks in his britches as soon as he sees a breast. So, as far as this book verifies, the long and hard thing that a Norwegian wife gets on her wedding night is a new last name. Will I read more books by Knausgaard? If I’m eventually snowed in at a cabin in Longyearbyen, the world’s most northern town, and all there is to read is K.O.’s series, I might, but I’m promising nothing.