Michael Faber recently rather dismissively reviewed Karl Ove Knausgaard's A Death in the Family. The novel has been widely praised elsewhere, and led another reviewer to write: "I started writing reviews in  and had not
read an author entirely new to me that I believed was
a masterpiece. As I read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle,
I thought that this is perhaps the closest I will ever get." There is a
big difference between Faber's the "bulk of the text, however, consists
of mundane family life described
in microscopic detail. All the dull stuff that most novelists would
omit, Knausgaard leaves in" and Mitchelmore's "something remarkable
emerge[s] from darkness and silence". What accounts for it?
To be fair, Faber's incomprehension ("half the book's bulk seems devoted to activities such as lighting cigarettes, drinking beer, going to the newsagents, making small talk") is not idiotic – it did, however, amuse me that Lee Rourke tweeted: "This review is beyond wrong-headed; utterly, utterly, utterly wrong"! You can see (a version of) Faber's case against the book as soon as you begin reading: it does seem to be no more then lots of cliches plus lots of banalities ("infelicities in the text... merciless specificity", Faber states). Detail piles upon seemingly inconsequential detail, not a lot goes on, but the clue to the fact that this is a misreading is spelt out within the text itself. Faber's cluelessness does, however, show very clearly what the critical priorities of most novelists and reviewers are: the tyranny of the well-turned phrase and bon mot; the realist's dream of the fully rounded character. They are all bastard children of Flaubert and Dickens who seem to think that literature can be equated with good manners. It is like a lover of classical music going to a punk concert and reporting back that it was a bit shouty. It is not an opinion one should take seriously.
Faber sees something praiseworthy in how the novel starts: it "begins with a grand meditation on post-mortem microbes worthy of Jim Crace's Being Dead." It begins, in short, with a clear attempt by the author to help the reader attune to what will follow. A Death in the Family does not begin startlingly well and then just descend into trivia. The odd, disconcerting, haunting opening, immediately foregrounding Knausgaard's focus on death and his relationship with his father, plays on through the rest of the quotidian exposition like a minor chord, a discordant humming, constantly in the background, beneath the banal. The detail, here, quivers with what Freud called the unheimlich. Inside and underneath "mundane family life described in microscopic detail" is the mundanity of death; a mundanity which, in its specificity, undoes us all, and which this shockingly good novel makes its theme whilst, simultaneously, holding the detail of life in rare and lucid focus.