Forest Dark, by Nicole Krauss
Full disclosure: I love Nicole Krauss. I have a history with her. It started when I randomly bought The History of Love on the way to live in the Chilean city of Valparaiso, only to realise later that part of the novel is set there. My husband and I have bonded over her. My daughter is named after one of her characters. I am evangelical about her work in the most annoying of ways. I came to this book open, ready and determined to love it. I did not.
I had also assumed this review would centre around around the inevitable comparisons to Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest tome Here I Am. As her ex-husband’s work –– about a pre-divorce Brooklynite coming to terms with his life, broken relationships, his understanding of Judaism and connection to Israel –– bears a certain resemblance to this book (about a pre-divorce Brooklynite coming to terms with her life, broken relationships, her understanding of Judaism and connection to Israel.) But it doesn’t. There is just too much more jaw-to-the-floor strangeness about Forest Dark to waste time on that.
Because this is a novel about how much the author hates novels, hates writing them, and probably hates us for reading them. Or so it seems.*
Under the cover of the “fictional” main character –– lets call her ‘Nicole’ (because that’s her name) –– real Nicole is very open about this. Her character says: “I wanted to write what I wanted to write, however much it offended, bored, challenged or disappointed people.” How’s that for setting out your stall?
You get a sense that she has come to see fiction writing as trifling, and is not prepared to indulge it. Fictional Nicole be-moans that everyone’s an artist these days. In her books she feels the “degree of artifice” has become greater that the “degree of truth.” Even reading stories to her kids at bedtime she feels she’s stifling them by presenting their young minds with such conventional narrative structures.
Instead Nicole Krauss sets about deconstructing the novel and dares her readers to come with her. As Fictional Nicole says: “It is never really a novel that one dreams of writing, but something far more encompassing for which one uses the word novel to mask delusions of grandeur or a hope that lacks clarity.”
And so to the great un-masking. That she has followed this dream so boldly fills me with admiration. It’s an ambitious and fascinating experiment, and I’m slightly in awe. But oh my goodness does it make for a frustrating and joyless read!
“Why had I really come to Tel Aviv?” Fictional Nicole wonders, quite a way into the book. “In a story, a person always needs a reason for the things she does… Narrative cannot sustain formlessness.”
WHY DID YOU COME TO TEL AVIV? I NEED A REASON! I shout at the book.
She goes on, “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.”
It’s at this point I realise it’s going to be a very long haul.
That’s at 23% according to my Kindle. At 41% Fictional Nicole is amazed she’s started questioning hotel housekeepers, “so I might discover that there was a story here after all.” (The housekeeper’s response? “No English.”) At 57% the other main character, Epstein, observes: “And now other things would have to happen.” Uh-huh.
It’s at 63% that I first suspect (perhaps mistakenly) the budding shoots of an actual narrative. (Up to here, Fictional Nicole and Epstein have separately found themselves at the Tel Aviv Hilton, both searching for some indefinable thing, and both being led on some indefinable quest. This is where a delightful supposition about Kafka pops up.)
Nicole Krauss appears to so disdain the narrative form, that Forest Dark often feels more like non-fiction. And not just because of the autobiographical undertones. Some passages –– especially those on Kafka, or the descriptions of Freud’s theories –– feel like university essays. At another time she describes the content of a radio programme, on the multiverse theory, that Fictional Nicole was listening to while doing the dishes:
“That as a result of the gravitational waves that occurred in the first fraction of a second after the Big Bang –– or a series of Big Bang repulsions, as evidence now suggests –– the early universe experienced an inflation that caused an exponential expansion of the dimensions of space to many times the size of our own cosmos, creating completely different universes with unknown physical properties, without stars, perhaps, or atoms, or light, and that, taken all together, these comprise the entirety of space, time, matter, and energy.”
It somewhat stems the narrative flow.
The physicist on the radio, apparently, had a “mesmerizing voice,” perhaps that’s what we’re missing here.
The main trouble is that this language seeps through the whole book. Even a charming anecdote about two kids diving in a swimming pool becomes:
“As for what happened next, I have no explanation for it. Or none beyond the possibility that the laws we cling to in order to assure ourselves that all is as it seems be have occluded a more complex view of the universe, one that forgoes the comfort of squeezing the world to fit the limited reach of our comprehension.”
Spoiler: her brother found an earring.
Only one page later Krauss summarises the same thought with all the concise poetic beauty I love her for: “...the accordion folds tucked beneath the surface of all that appears to be flat.” But these flashes of old Krauss are rarer than I’d like.
That’s not to say there’s nothing to like. It may feel much less lyrical and poetic than her earlier work, as though this decoration has been deemed unnecessary and stripped, but occasionally the odd image flowers up, like this one: “Maya … woke in the night feeling a tremor along the invisible line that still connected her to her father.” Or the perfect precision of her language shines, like here: “Epstein was very polished. He was not refined –– he had no wish to lose his impurities –– but he had been brought to a high shine.” And she paints some wonderfully lucid portraits of intimacy.
And I LOVE, in quite a giddy way, it’s shameless adoption of unlikeability. It a world where both female authors and female characters are under pressure to be ‘likeable’ Nicole Krauss doesn’t seem to care in the slightest. She doesn’t paint herself as someone to like, and, to be honest, she doesn’t seem to like her readers that much either. Are either of these things relevant to the quality of her literature? No. It’s bold. As is the existential quest at the centre of this book.
I admire what she’s trying to do, and I’m very glad she tried to do it. But … I just didn’t enjoy reading it very much. I remain affectionately bewildered by it. I still love Nicole Krauss. If you ask who my favourite author is, it’s still her. Please go out and read Great House, or The History of Love, or even this, but you’ll need a braver, more intellectual, approach than I could manage.
*I’ve since interviewed her about this book, and it’s about none of these things. But still.
Published: 24th August 2017, Bloomsbury.