Dancing in the Dark – Karl Ove Knausgaard

Karl Ove Knausgaard

Much evidence suggests that being a teenage boy must be one of the most wretched states. It appears to be a time of both extreme depravity and insecurity for many; compulsively masturbating in a manky bedroom while regularly having your efforts to get off with a real, live girl rebuked. It is a state which can only be altered by finally being relieved of one’s virginity. At the same time your little pals are in the same boat, so you all lie about copping off with birds, call them sluts, accuse each other of having tiny penises in the name of ‘banter’ while an anxious little voice at the back of your head asks ‘What if I’m gay?!’ Terrible, terrible stuff and many great works of modern literature – from Portnoy’s Complaint to dear old Adrian Mole – will attest to this. And here, in Knausgaard’s Dancing in the Dark, the forth novel in his autobiographical six novel cycle, we have the Nordic teen–boy misery memoir.

Of course, as we know, Knausgaard is very handsome (it is remarked upon by an acquaintance every 40 pages or so in all his books, while being confirmed by almost every single interviewer, male and female) so pulling at the local disco in Kristiansand, or any of his football trips abroad, is not a problem. Knausgaard’s complaint, as it were, is premature ejaculation. To his deep shame, every time he gets near a naked girl, the show is over before it has begun. This inability to lose his virginity haunts him throughout the book.

Knausgaard believes that the reason he finds it so difficult to do the deed is because he elevates women so highly, describing them as angels and living for their eyes and smiles (but mainly their breasts and thighs.) This may be true, but he can still treat individual girls pretty appallingly, dancing with one poor girlfriend to Lady in Red at the local hotel (she was wearing a red dress – smooth!) before abruptly dumping her when they get back to his mother’s, ordering her to sleep in his brothers room instead of his own. So far, so normal in terms of cruel adolescent behaviour, and as usual Knausgaard is willing to depict himself in the most unflattering light. The following quote has been highlighted before in other reviews, and amusingly demonstrates Knausgaard’s willingness to depict the teenage Karl Ove in all his gauche glory; “Her breasts were big and her legs long, what more could I want?”

Unlike A Death in the Family or A Man in Love, there is much less reflection on the past from the position of the present. It flips around a little within those adolescent years – its Knausgaard after all, don’t expect a linear narrative – but doesn’t stray too far from them, only occasionally inserting observations or additional information, such as extracts from the diary found after his father’s death. However, even without outright reflection or analysis, his carefully constructed prose conveys clearly what he wants us to tell us about his youth.

The parallels between his father’s tragic alcoholism and Karl Ove’s own black out inducing binges are carefully drawn. The fact that both behaviours are evolving at the same time makes for a squeamish scenario where Karl Ove is embarrassed by his dad’s behaviour when boozing, while hoping he gets drunk so he can help himself to the wine without his dad noticing. The detailed description of his father’s wedding day is classic Knausgaard. The post wedding lunch is a sad little affair at a local restaurant where a pissed Karl Ove falls asleep in a toilet, missing the main meal. This is followed by a drinking session at his father’s flat where the bride and groom have an argument and the embarrassed guests flee in a taxi. Funny yet disturbing, his description is unflinching, with the young Karl Ove as quick to feel shame and self-loathing as the man will be (it is a major theme, or indeed the main theme, of the whole multi-volume enterprise.) The next morning he is disgusted at his behaviour:

“I knew how drunkenness appeared in the eyes of the sober and was horrified, everyone had seen how drunk I had been at my father’s wedding. That he had also been drunk didn’t help because he hadn’t shown it until right at the end when we were alone in his flat and all his emotions were flowing freely.
I had brought shame on them.
That was what I had done.
What good is it that I only want the best?”

Alongside his sexual insecurities and drinking, he is also typically teenage in the lousy way he treats his mother, even though it is obvious he loves and respects her. He frequently spends all his wages or the child support money he directly receives from his father on records, and then berates his mother if she cannot afford to buy him a new typewriter or send him away on a football trip. At one point he throws a party for all his classmates where somebody kicks a hole in the bathroom door, vomit flies everywhere and the kitchen table is attacked with sharp knives. Again, he lays bare to us what a little shit he was, and the book is all the more engaging for it.

While Dancing in the Dark relates Knausgaard’s very average teenage experiences, it is also obvious that there is something special about him. At sixteen he calls in at the local newspaper and asks if he can write about music. He is given a short interview and hired on the spot to be their chief reviewer of new releases (although didn’t there always seem to be more opportunities like this for talented kids in the past than there is today?) When he is eighteen he takes a job teaching in a remote island in Northern Norway, where he compares his frail limbs to the strong, bulky bodies of the local hard-drinking fisherman. While he might be insecure about his physical masculinity, at eighteen he is fully formed in terms of his ambition and regard for his talent, and has no hesitation in describing himself to these men as a writer. However, unlike many eighteen year olds proclaiming to be writers, he actually does write, forgoing parties to bash out short stories on his typewriter.

As with A Death in the Family, his love of music is carefully detailed, with favourite bands and records making regular appearances throughout. His era is the mid-eighties and U2, Simple Minds, Husker Du, Led Zeppelin and REM all get the Karl Ove seal of approval. However, as with every young music fan, he finds that your favourite bands will let you down, or fall out of favour. Simple Minds are perhaps his most treasured group, and he is bitterly disappointed with their performance when the Scots synth poppers visit Norway, as the following extract attests:

“Leaving the concert, I was, however, somewhat disappointed, not least with Jim Kerr, who had become quite flabby and actually stopped the gig when a fan ran onto the stage and pinched his red beret. He crouched down at the edge of the stage and said they wouldn’t play any more unless he got his hat back. I couldn’t believe my ears and from then on it didn’t matter how good the songs were, for me Simple Minds were a thing on the past.”

The title Dancing in the Dark, while most likely intended to reflect the searching and stumbling we do in adolescence (and perhaps Karl Ove’s favourite Bruce tune?!) it also refers literally to the dancing that he so loves, both by himself and with friends. Alone in his digs in Northern Norway he dances to Talking Heads:

“When, for example, I played Remain in Light…it ignited every part of my body, me, the world’s least rhythmic eighteen-year-old, sitting there squirming like a snake, to and fro, and I had to have it louder, I turned it up full blast, and then, already up on my feet, yes, then I had to dance, at that moment, even if I was alone. And, towards the end, on top of all this, like a bloody fighter plane above a tiny dancing village, comes Adrian Belew’s overriding guitar, and oh, oh god, I am dancing and happiness fills me to my fingertips and I only wish it could last, that the solo would never land, the sun would never set, life would never end.”

The visceral way he describes the physical, and indeed spiritual, release of moving to music demonstrates that while some of the prose has rightly been described as bland, repetitive or pedestrian, when Knausgaard is on form he is a writer that can punch you in the stomach with the best of them. Roll on volumes five and six.

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