Nicole Krauss has serious doubts about the legitimacy of storytelling. This may seem like a surprising crisis for the celebrated author of such novels as “Man Walks Into a Room” and “The History of Love.” But there she is in the early pages of her new novel, “Forest Dark ,” confessing her skepticism about the whole enterprise: “The more I wrote,” she says, “the more suspect the good sense and studied beauty achieved by the mechanisms of narrative seemed to me.”
It’s like a master chef announcing during the first course that she has no faith in cooking. Bon appetit!
You may be tempted to take this confession as false modesty, but beware. “Forest Dark” is, in fact, a novel that resists our presumptions of what a novel should do. Krauss’s chapters reflect her concern that “the cost of administering a form to what was essentially formless was akin to the cost of breaking the spirit of an animal.”
No animals were harmed in the making of this novel.
A hybrid work of fiction, memoir and literary criticism, “Forest Dark” alternates between two distinct stories about two Americans who travel to Tel Aviv searching for something they cannot articulate. In the first story line, a New York lawyer named Epstein is in the final stages of giving away his fortune. “Something had changed in him,” Krauss writes. At 68, he’s newly divorced and grieving the death of his parents. “He began to bestow with the same ferocity with which he had once acquired.” His children are worried; his associates are concerned. “He felt an irresistible longing for lightness — it was a quality, he realized only now, that had been alien to him all his life.”
Krauss describes Epstein’s trip to Israel as a spiritual journey without a map. Not particularly religious, he doesn’t know what he’s looking for, but “his world was making him weary,” a feeling effectively re-created by this novel. Epstein visits a rabbi who assures him that “the finite remembers the infinite.” He donates $2 million to plant a forest in the desert. He funds a movie about the life of King David. And as we learned in the book’s opening, he vanishes in “a final act that was utterly ambiguous.”
Speaking of “utterly ambiguous,” consider the other introspective story woven through the tale of Epstein’s disappearance. These alternating chapters are narrated by a critically acclaimed American novelist named Nicole. Although she’s only 37, she’s suffering a profound crisis, something like Epstein’s, a mixture of writer’s block, insomnia and restlessness. After experiencing a strange sensation of deja vu, she finds herself drawn to the “mystical aura” of the Tel Aviv Hilton, where we hope — in vain — that some kind of actual story may finally begin.
Those who enter this dark forest are fated to wander through a thicket of esoteric reflections on Jewish mysticism, Israel and creation. Krauss can sometimes sound like a modern-day Ralph Waldo Emerson, so long as you don’t push too hard on her orphic pronouncements: “Nature creates form but it also destroys it, and it’s the balance between the two that suffuses nature with such peace.” Indeed, much of this material feels more essayistic than novelistic, except that an essay is meant to deliver us to greater understanding of something besides the author’s pathos.
Eventually, a subplot involving Franz Kafka scurries into the story and offers a bit of cerebral intrigue — along with Krauss’s illuminating commentary on Kafka’s life and work. But that still leaves a lot of room for Nicole to moan about imposing form on the formlessness of narrative. Such writerly consternation may send students at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop into fits of ecstasy, but most readers will be more moved by Nicole’s reflections on the loss of love, on that indeterminate moment when romance evaporates.
“My husband and I had drifted apart,” she writes. “We had lost faith in our marriage. And yet we didn’t know how to act on this understanding, as one does not know how to act on the understanding, for example, that the afterlife does not exist.” Though devoted to their two young children, Nicole and her husband find they no longer have anything else in common. “To my husband, the world was always what it appeared to be,” she writes, “and to me the world was never what it appeared to be.”
Some readers may wonder if there’s a connection between this narrator and the critically acclaimed novelist Nicole Krauss, who also has two sons and is separated from her husband, Jonathan Safran Foer. Nothing in these pages discourages the assumption that Krauss is revealing her own laments about the failure of their marriage, which makes “Forest Dark” feel uncomfortably passive aggressive: an act of relationship revenge with deniability built into its fictive frame.
“In the years that followed, he behaved in ways that continually shocked me despite their near constancy,” Nicole writes of her brainy husband. “We walked away from our marriage side by side, and though afterward both of our sufferings were great, I do believe I could have gone on feeling very much for him all my life, this man with whom I had borne our children, who had poured his love into them, had he not become someone I could no longer recognize.”
For his part, Foer’s recent novel, “Here I Am,” also describes a troubled, ultimately doomed marriage. And last year in a New York Times fashion spread, Foer published his weird email exchanges with Natalie Portman, who was pictured lounging in a bikini — an act that would surely prick any estranged spouse. “It’s almost 6:00 in the morning,” he wrote. “The boys are still asleep. I can hear the guinea pigs stirring, but that might be the residue of a nightmare.”
This is the way our brilliant young writers break up nowadays. Far better than stabbing with a penknife, but still uncomfortable to watch.
Guinea pigs get a passing reference in “Forest Dark,” and true to the novel’s infatuation with Kafka, the residue of a nightmare sticks to these pages, too. The metamorphosis that Krauss depicts may be more life-affirming than the one immortalized by the genius from Prague, but too little light gets in between these trees.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World.
By Nicole Krauss
Harper. 304 pp. $27.99