Nicole Krauss's New Novel Plants a Forest. It Fails to Thrive.

Forest Dark is dazzling and promises insight into, among other things, contemporary Israel, but in the end it doesn’t deliver.

HarperCollins.

HarperCollins.

Observation
Jan. 31 2018
About the author

Jonathan Leaf is a playwright and journalist living in New York.


Now in her early forties, Nicole Krauss has become one of America’s most talked about literary figures—a rare feat for one whose books often grapple seriously with matters Jewish. The author of such acclaimed novels as Great House (named after the 1st-century refuge of learning founded by Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Zakkai) and A History of Love, she has reportedly been translated into 35 languages. Her newest novel, Forest Dark, carries on its cover an enthusiastic blurb from Philip Roth.

Nor is the attention garnered by Krauss—she is regularly depicted as a genius—a mere feat of public relations. She possesses an abundant imagination, an unusual wealth of knowledge, a style at once felicitous and lively, and plentiful wit. She has also mastered all but a few of the novelist’s tricks. By the time you’ve read the opening chapters of Forest Dark, with the title’s quietly knowing allusion to Dante’s Inferno, you might well think you’re in the hands of the one singular hope of American fiction. Only later are you likely to be struck by what’s absent.

The tale related by Krauss in Forest Dark has two strands that seem destined to intersect, since both are partly set at the same hotel in Israel (the Tel Aviv Hilton). The first concerns Jules Epstein, a once highly successful New York lawyer now facing old age and mortality. In Israel, Epstein is shedding his assets as he treks about the country seeking a sense of meaning and permanence. This draws him to a rabbi who has organized an ascetic religious retreat in northern Israel.

Epstein eventually sours on the rabbi and his group, but, spiritually awakened by his experience of their devotion and religious fervor, he decides to sell a Renaissance painting he owns in order to help fund the planting of a forest on a treeless plain in the Negev. Before the painting can be delivered to a New York auction house, however, it is picked up by the doorman of Epstein’s upper-east-side apartment building and then lost in Central Park when the doorman becomes distracted by the flight of a hawk.

Does this mean that the forest will not be planted? We never learn, one way or another. Nor do we learn anything more about Epstein himself, despite hints that something significant has happened to him.

Interwoven with this strand is the second, more elaborately developed strand, this one about a famous female novelist named Nicole. Having conceived the idée fixe that someone may have committed suicide at the Tel Aviv Hilton, she decides to leave her husband and young children in Brooklyn—in 2005, Krauss and her now-former husband, the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything Is Illuminated and most recently Here I Am), attracted much gossip for their purchase of a 7,670-square-foot mansion in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, now on the market for $14 million—and jets off to the Holy Land in search of answers.

But no sooner does she arrive in Israel than she experiences some sort of midlife crisis and loses interest in the subject. Gradually she becomes enmeshed with a film producer who may or may not be a former Mossad agent and who wants her to adapt for the screen an unpublished play by Kafka. This leads the pair to a literary executrix who possesses Kafka’s personal papers and unpublished musings.

For reasons never explained, the two collaborators come under the scrutiny of the Israeli government, and for reasons even more inscrutable the novelist is then arrested and confined to a cabin in the desert that, it is suggested, was once Kafka’s own. Stranded, desperate for food and water, she finally manages to escape her confinement, and, after convalescing from these traumatic events in an Israeli hospital, returns to Brooklyn. Now separated from her husband, she takes up with a new lover.

 

What, if anything, does all this add up to? How are the two stories connected, and, if they’re not connected, why has the reader been led on for so many pages, guided by increasingly purposeless expectations? Did Jules Epstein die a suicide, or was he murdered, in the Tel Aviv Hilton? Are he and Nicole linked by the fact that each is a lost soul hungry for purpose and belonging—two locked existential cabinets to which the state of Israel somehow carries the key? Or does it not? Both go to Israel and then go missing—so, is the intended message that Israel is a place where personality inevitably dissolves before the mightiness of the past and its fraught legacy? Or is it that the nation of Israel is itself faced by an identity crisis? Or that human curiosity and desire are dead ends at which the road and the night sky eventually become indistinguishable one from the other?

Symbolism? Magic realism? Neither? To compound the seeming aimlessness of the plot, Forest Dark offers many long digressions, some of which are genuinely brilliant and may remind some readers of Milan Kundera or perhaps even Dostoyevsky. Plainly, for Krauss as for them, the novel is a medium not only for storytelling but also for philosophical questioning. In these segments, she reveals that she has read and thought seriously about the books of the Hebrew Bible, about the arguments for God’s existence and the implications of the idea that He is absent, about the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, and many other weighty topics.

As it happens, this may help explain Krauss’s preoccupation with Kafka, which bears some similarity to Philip Roth’s preoccupation with Anne Frank in The Ghost Writer, from which a part of the second story in Forest Dark has been rather blatantly purloined. Roth’s admiration was founded in an awareness that Frank’s talent was not only uncommonly precocious but, while as self-reflective as Roth’s own, was also thoroughly humane, steeped in an awareness of transcendent meaning missing in Roth’s own writing. For her part, Krauss possesses a highly refined set of skills that she can deploy as a storyteller but appears to wish she could also be a Kafka—that is, an artist who responds to metaphysical questions without the need for windy philosophical disquisitions. Kafka’s stories do not ponder life’s perversity; they present it to us directly.

 

In any case, although Krauss certainly gives evidence of having mastered her philosophical sources, what robs her disquisitions of enduring significance is that she appears not to have anything of her own to contribute to their elucidation. Nor is the intellectual prowess displayed in Krauss’s philosophical meditations of any greater help when she turns eventually to the subject of Zionism. On this, too, she is informed and knowledgeable, and her character’s thoughts about the Jewish state are far from the shallow anti-Israel moral preening of a novelist like Michael Chabon. Even so, those thoughts do not rise to the level of a coherent perspective; at times, indeed, they give way entirely to petulant outbursts of revulsion at the obstinate refusal of the country, and of some, many, or all of its Jews to live up to Nicole’s elevated standards of human conduct. One characteristic passage:

[I]t began to grate how Israelis don’t have any manners, how they have no personal space, no respect for anything, and doesn’t anyone do anything in Tel Aviv aside from sitting around talking and going to the beach? The city really is a shithole, isn’t it, everything that isn’t new is falling apart, the whole place smells of cat piss, there’s a sewage problem right under the window and no one can come for a week, and actually Israelis are impossible to deal with, so stubborn and intractable, so damn rude, and it turns out that most of them don’t care for anything Jewish; their grandparents and parents ran as far away from it as they could, and the ones who do care, they’re over the top, those settlers, totally out of their minds, and frankly the whole country is a bunch of Arab-hating racists.

To be sure, it’s not evident that this is meant to reflect the totality of Krauss’s own views. Rather, what she thinks about Israel shares something with almost all of her ideas: we find ourselves lost in a mass of verbiage in which a thousand notions are rehearsed but their larger meaning remains thoroughly disconnected, like the meanderings of an overeducated graduate student with the gift of gab but a perfect inability to reason himself to a conclusion about anything.

These flaws, moreover, are nothing new. Krauss’s novels have repeatedly featured disjointed narratives, and by now her characters have taken on a slightly warmed-over air. The figure of a fatherly old man has appeared before, as has a fictional alter ego. She has even made prior use of the image of someone wandering alone in a desert. Krauss is still young enough to surprise us as a writer, proving herself to be the lasting talent that she is hailed as being. But, as of now, her accomplishments are like her somewhat peculiar view of the Holy Land: dazzling yet strangely without light, drenched in learning but devoid of intelligible lessons, an alternately grand and vulgar buffet that leaves one hungry.

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More about: American Jewish literature, Arts & Culture, Nicole Krauss