24 November 2017

Nicole Krauss' Dark Forest of Fiction

Reading Nicole Krauss reminds me of the “Sound of Music” lyric: how do you solve a problem like Maria? How do you explain a literary enigma like Nicole Krauss? Her debut novel, Man Walks Into a Room, was as polished as a fifth novel, absorbing and compelling.  History of Love, her second novel, was sheer genius. Great House, which I confess I liked the least, but admired, is another often abstract, metaphorical treatment of the nature of self ,and also the writing life. Common themes.  
            Forest Dark is no exception. Brilliant in the writing, touching and metaphysical, Krauss once again employs two primary characters who seem to have nothing in common to weave, or perhaps unravel, a mysterious web. She places this contemplative novel, frankly more contemplation than storytelling, in Israel, reflecting the turmoil there as well as in her own life.
            But really, it's the unstoppable force and momentum of life that we want to control, and with which we’re locked in a struggle of wills that we can never win.
            In the seven years since her last novel, her marriage to the equally brilliant and enigmatic Jonathan Safran Foer ended. Krauss, like her fictional doppelgänger, spent time in Israel, the place where history confronts spirituality. She centers the novel on this perpetual search for truths, and uses as her alter ego an old man named Epstein, nearing the end of his life and trying to separate the wheat from his chaff in order to slip gracefully into ash.
            What story there is has much to do with the concept of time. Our lives a matter of choices, in the moment, and the historical context, and the people we encounter – not at all linear and maybe not a matter of destiny. That way of seeing time as a wrapper that folds around us.
            Epstein is in the midst of divesting himself of his earthly, and very valuable, belongings, while at the same time, a man seems to have fallen off the balcony of the Tel Aviv Hilton, except there is no record of it. The writer-narrator feels compelled to investigate, in search of a story, so she leaves husband and children to head to the holy land, where she meets a third enigmatic characters who wants her to complete the unfinished works of Kafka, whom, he claims, never died when and where he was said to die, but lived covertly in Israel for many years.
            To write is, in a sense, to seek to understand, and so it is always something that happens after the fact, is always a process of sifting through the past, and the results of this, if one is lucky, are permanent marks on a page.
            Complex? Yes. Although in the hands of a fantastically skilled writer, mesmerizing. Who are these characters? Where are they in time and how do they connect? What is the truth?
            The great Philip Roth commended the novel and some reviewers suggest the style is Rothian [their word]. He often uses a writer, most famously Zuckerman, but has also used a character named Epstein to serve as narrator and facilitator, and some of the style certainly sparks comparison.  
            Narrative cannot sustain formlessness any more than light can sustain darkness – it is the antithesis of formlessness, and so it can never truly communicate it. Chaos is the one truth that narrative must always betray, for in the creation of its delicate structures that reveal many truths about life, the portion of truth that has to do with incoherence and disorder must be obscured.
            There is much to marvel at in the writing, and anyone who has experienced the slow death of a marriage, or the pondering of the true meaning of time, or the significance of destiny, these readers will relate. 
            He had slept next to her for thirty-six years, and the mattress felt different without her weight, however slight, and without the rhythm of her breath the dark had no measure.
            My only complaint is an overly lengthy, academic portion of the book where Krauss goes into great length about Kafka’s life and work. Kafka plays a surprising role in the story, and in other of Krauss' novels, but too much here. For the most part, I was fully absorbed, fully suspended my disbelief, and in awe of the writing.

            Recommended for fans of Solnit and Saunders, Roth and Bellow and Faulkner, Murakami and Munro, or those with a penchant for Einstein’s theory of relativity.