Boyhood Island begins with a scene from Karl Ove Knausgaard’s childhood that he can’t possibly remember. He is an infant, and his parents, still quite young, are arriving at the place that will serve as boyhood home until early adolescence. The scene lasts only a few pages, but its inclusion in this novel is a reminder to the reader, and perhaps to himself, that this book is not autobiography, or even memoir. We are reading a novel, a novel generated by the materials of the novelist’s own life, but a novel all the same. This may be nonfiction, but Knausgaard is imposing an arc on his own life. In the vocabulary of silly American movie blockbusters, this volume is the prequel. Or in the parlance of the golden age of Hollywood, this book functions as a giant flashback.
Narrative regression—whether in Star Wars or in high literature—usually functions in the opposite way to our usual understanding of narrative. We have been given the ending, now we are going back to the beginning, with the ending in mind. Such a beginning, in many cases, only has narrative value if we know the ending. Otherwise meaningless incidents take on narrative significance. Small gestures, a word said in anger, a lost swimming cap, a glass of wine too many, are all freighted with the knowledge of what will happen twenty, thirty years later. In Aristotle’s classic understanding of the beginning, middle and end of any story, these beginnings become the middle, or even in some rare cases the end. And thus Knausgaard puts his beginning squarely in the middle of his own autobiographical arc.
Perhaps Star Wars comes to mind, however bizarre a connection that might be, because we discover in Book 3, that, much like George Lucas’s space opera, My Struggle is a six-volume meditation on the Oedipus Complex that began in medias res. A Death in the Family covered the gruesome death of Knausgaard’s father from alcoholism in its purest, most suicidal form. That novel hinted at his father’s abuse of his sons, his near near manic need for control. Book 3 takes us back to those moments when a television becomes the battleground to maintain ironclad domination over a small boy. Sons mount their defiance in the only way that they know how, using only the petty, yet strangely vicious weapons afforded to offspring. The mother is a warm presence, and as readers we long for the absence of the father so that we can enjoy her comforting embrace in peace.
The novel should not be understood only in these overly earnest terms, however: I laughed long and hard while reading this book. Much of the book can be understood as a coming of age story of the artist, a Küntslerroman, and a hilarious and beautiful one at that. Knausgaard does not shy away from the most embarrassing moments of his own childhood. A good chunk of the novel is about his kindergarten year, and he captures all of the hilarity of such an early age. First encounters with porn, first girlfriends, his own self-satisfaction at his literary skills in elementary school: much of the novel reads like relentless self-mockery. He also perfectly renders the intensely sensual world that children live in, the way that their lack of clearly developed social priorities allow them to be in the physical world in a way that adults—with their constant social preoccupations and anxieties—rarely can. The pop-culture antecedent in the English speaking world is The Wonder Years, but Knausgaard writes with a white-hot honesty that that sticky-sweet piece of sitcom nostalgia was never able to achieve.
Layered among these aspects of the novel is a meditation on a profound generational split. The radical shift between the World War 2 generation (Knausgaard’s grandparents) and the Baby Boomers (Knausgaard’s parents) makes for a haunting leitmotif within the novel. Especially on Knaugaard’s mother’s side, we see an earlier, more rural, agrarian community that put a lot of emphasis on the extended family. Knausgaard’s parents, for good and for ill, are moving into the consumer-based culture that framed much of the boomers’ early adulthood. Neighborhood developments replace farms, nuclear families replace extended family, and work animals are discarded in favor of pets. Knausgaard is only a few years older than myself, and like much of my generation, he seems to be reaching middle-age, looking at his grandparents and parents, and asking “What the hell happened?”
Before I read Knausgaard’s work, I was tempted to dismiss My Struggle as a bizarrely ambitious work of utter narcissism, a self-indulgent hymn celebrating everything that was wrong with my generation and the one that came after it. After having read the first three volumes of Min Kamp, I’ve come to the conclusion that these books are an important and honest look at our current age, and at my own generation. Knausgaard’s own life might be the canvas, but our social zeitgeist is what is actually being rendered. We stand on the cusp of a new age, and Knausgaard’s alchemical blend of the elements of autobiography and fiction may be the perfect artistic herald. Much like the Romantic poets anticipated and participated in an age of revolution, upheaval, migration, chaos, and backlash, Knausgaard’s narrative art provides perspective on an age when we are reconceiving the concept of the individual self yet again.
Nathan Elliott works in Georgia, lives in Newfoundland, and spends much of his time taking care of a small, beautiful boy.