‘Real time’ in Fiction

A Death in the Family by Karl Ove KnausgaardI read an extract from A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard that concerns itself with cleaning up the house where the narrator’s dad had been living, and had just died.

The approach the author takes is to bring a cast of characters together in the house and to give them a task. The task is to clean up the house and restore it to a state where there is no decay, dirt or detritus of any kind. The mats, furniture, clothing and personal affects must be taken to the skip; the walls and floor must be scoured; and entropy must be reversed. Information about the death is conveyed using conversation combined with the thoughts of the narrator. There is some action, but almost all of it is related back to the state of the house and the recent bereavement. The only exception to this is the seagull, which provides a little comic relief (it visits every day for the food that Grandma gives it (left-overs from her meals)).

Time seems to pass slowly because of the attention to detail and this is reflected in the experience of the characters. They are wrapped up in the minutiae of their chores. There are not many references to events from other time periods, and these are examined in the thoughts of the narrator in the present rather than conveyed by visiting the past.

If there was less detail about the domestic chores, the effect would be to speed up the pace of the piece and to dissipate the tension within it.

The tension lies in the fear that Dad is not dead and that he will walk in on them going through (and disposing of) his stuff. There is also a certain amount of tension in the narrator’s thoughts about living in that house as a child (relating to the toilet flushing itself). It’s the feelings that bring the tension, not the events. It’s all, as they say, in the mind.

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