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book review

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s fourth book in his six-part memoir focuses on his late teenage years and his attempts to lose his virginity.CHESTER HIGGINS JR/The New York Times

Karl Ove Knausgaard's six-volume autobiographical novel, My Struggle, lives up to the hype and hyperbole. Having inhaled the first four instalments in the past month, I can confirm that it is staggeringly good. To my mind, it's the first truly monumental literary production of the 21st century. In a new millennium filled with literary sensations, it's the first to truly deserve our attention and reward it. But the question that has puzzled even Knausgaard's most enthusiastic reviewers haunts me, too. Why is it so staggeringly good? What makes it feel so significant?

Its design is simple, even modest. These novels have the elegance of a table or a hinge: a few uncomplicated parts, nothing fancy. Knausgaard's method is betrayal, basically. He gives away his personal secrets and those of his closest family members, undisguised by any fictional apparatus, naming names. The previous three volumes gave us his father's alcoholism, his wife's manic depression and his stepmother's drinking. The latest to be translated, Dancing in the Dark, focuses on Knausgaard's late teenage years and, in the spirit of teenagedom, is fixated on sex. Here, in a book absolutely packed with erections, the writer's eponymous struggle is primarily with premature ejaculation. If any of this sounds risqué or titillating – like a highbrow Fifty Shades of Grey – it's not. Readers who flock to Knausgaard for Jerry Springer-style gossip and raunch will be as disappointed as those who bought James Joyce's Ulysses for the sex scenes. The secrets revealed are shameful and embarrassing, but also excruciatingly commonplace.

And Knausgaard's approach is far from original. This is a book that copies and steals – though, as a thief, Knausgaard is kind of a genius. He dares to pilfer from the most untouchable of literary predecessors. He shows us that Proust doesn't own the zoomed-in, rambling, multivolume autobiography, just as Joyce isn't the only one who can give a literary account of a bowel movement. He shows us that Hitler doesn't hold exclusive rights to the title My Struggle (in Norwegian, Knausgaard's novels are called Min Kamp). He heeds the siren song of fiction – Write like Hemingway! It's easy and sounds cool! – and somehow gets away with it. In a scene in Dancing in the Dark, the young Knausgaard reads Hemingway's story Indian Camp and decides to adopt its "very straightforward" manner, but to apply it "to today's world." No fuss, no muss, literary style established, and it's on to the next erection.

The mature Knausgaard doesn't deviate from this path: He writes straightforwardly and he writes about today's world. Perhaps it's here, in its contemporaneity, its unfussy nowness, that the Knausgaardian magic lies. In one sense, My Struggle is exactly what the digital age was supposed to have killed off: an extraordinarily long, detailed, basically plotless, diffuse, serious, weighty literary novel. But it somehow manages to be absolutely addictive – Zadie Smith got it right when she compared it to crack. There's a lesson here. Yes, we are distracted, by a million gadgets and screens, by zillions of bite-sized info-nuggets. But we are also unbelievably curious and willing to put our lives on hold for something that rewards our curiosity. We don't want one episode per week, we want a whole series in one night! We don't want a tidy novel with a contrived plot and plastic characters – we want a man's entire life, every relationship, entirely unadorned and true, every thought, every second, all of it! Fans disappointed with Knausgaard's third volume, Boyhood Island, will find Dancing in the Dark a return to form. In the first two books, Knausgaard wrote without any sense of an audience, with no inkling that his words would become a sensation. Completed before any part of My Struggle had been published, those books have a free and improvised structure: A childhood memory gives way to a digression on a painting, which leads to a conversation with a friend, which moves on to the present and the moment of writing. By the third volume, Knausgaard is aware he's being watched and is much more guarded in his movements. Boyhood Island is hermetic: a chronological sequence with almost no intrusions from the writer. In Dancing in the Dark, the middle-aged Knausgaard returns, breaking up the action to mock his younger self, to question the accuracy of his memories and occasionally to question the ethical and artistic merits of his autobiographical undertaking.

In the fourth volume it's not only the author who is remembering. By this point in the series, his memories are also our memories. As the 18-year-old Knausgaard sits down to write his first short story, he settles on an incident we've already encountered many hundreds of pages before: two boys spying on strangers rooting around in a garbage dump. As he remembers, we remember. Many Knausgaard fans have reported the eerie sensation that eventually My Struggle starts to feel as if its their own biography. This is another element of the Knausgaard magic – the incredible intimacy that comes from shared experience, the dizzying sensation of remembering in parallel.

Knausgaard works hard to cast this spell of intimacy, but takes equal delight in breaking it. Whenever you start to identify too strongly with him he does something to remind you that you're not him – and that your readerly voyeurism is as ethically fraught as his writerly betrayals. In the finale of this volume, we are rewarded, after 550 pages, with a description of the moment when Knausgaard finally loses his virginity. He and his girlfriend are drunk out of their minds, in a tent at a music festival, their fornication punctuated by vomited wine. It's unseemly, disgusting and extremely unsexy. Here Knausgaard flips the focus and has some questions for us: Why are you so interested in my life? What about my book do you find so addictive? Why do you keep reading?

Adam Hammond teaches English literature at the University of Guelph. His book Literature in the Digital Age: A Critical Introduction will be published by Cambridge University Press later this year.