Book Review: Incredible narratives

In Nicole Krauss’s fourth novel, two intertwining tales lead the story’s characters to a Tel Aviv hotel.

Forest Dark  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Forest Dark
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As Forest Dark, Nicole Krauss’s fourth novel, opens, 68-yearold Jules Epstein is drifting.
His parents have died, he has divorced his wife, and has retired from his law firm. Always on top of everything, Epstein has lost interest in striving as well as pleasure, and begun giving away his money and his material possessions.
On the first anniversary of his parents’ deaths, he decides to return to Israel, the land of his birth, “drawn back by a tangle of allegiances.” Soon after he checks into the Tel Aviv Hilton, his favorite hotel, Epstein runs into a rabbi he knew casually in New York, visits a school in Safed and finds himself on the set of a film about King David.
Nicole, the other main character in Forest Dark, is unhappily married in Brooklyn, has writer’s block, insomnia and anxiety. Mesmerized by a story about a man falling from the balcony of the Tel Aviv Hilton, a hotel she remembers with something less than affection, she flies to Israel, where a man named Eliezer Friedman (who may or may not be a professor of literature, a former Mossad agent, or “a door-to-door kiddush cup salesman”) enlists her in a project that has something to do with the life, death, manuscripts and letters of Franz Kafka.
Presented in alternating chapters, the quests of Jules and Nicole are, well, incredible.
And that’s the point. An internationally renowned novelist, the fictional Nicole, we learn, has lost her faith in narrative. The truth that narrative “must always betray,” Nicole maintains, is the reality of chaos, incoherence, and disorder in the world. In fiction, as in “real life,” our minds labor to produce coherence at any cost, invariably by producing credible stories.
Perhaps because Nicole does not want to relinquish narrative “or live without its consolations,” she strains to find it “merely elusive,” even though “it should have felt impossible.” And so, Nicole, and in his own way, Jules, search for a balance between creating and destroying form and formlessness “that suffuses nature with such peace.”
This is heady stuff. And Forest Dark is, at times, a heady novel. Fortunately, especially for those of us who are less than thrilled at the prospect of yet another writer writing about writing, it is also a tour de force of (you guessed it) storytelling by a splendid stylist.
By turns hilarious, haunting, poignant, and powerful, filled with reflections about mysticism, Jewish history, the existence of other universes and mothers who save their babies’ teeth, Forest Dark is a delight to read and a remarkable meditation on the meaning of life.
Some examples. With the Sabbath, Rabbi Klausner tells Epstein, God created menucha, a “unique positive” connoting not just rest, but tranquility, serenity and peace, “and the world was complete.” According to Klausner, tzimtzum, a key concept in the Kabbala, explains the paradox of God’s simultaneous presence and absence in the world: after deciding to create the heavens and the earth, God withdrew, then filled the void he had left. This primordial event, Klausner asserts, is ongoing.
Far less abstractly, Krauss describes the evolving attitudes of 21st century Jewish- Americans who visit Israel. For Nicole, the “never-ending argument” among Israelis who take the time to dispute the way the world appears, is “a relief.” At first, the narrator of the Epstein chapters explains, Jewish tourists fall in love with “the urgency and the argument and the warmth” in cafes and taxi cabs. “They find Tel Aviv so sexy, the sea and the strength” and the sense that “everything still matters and is worth fighting for.” Most of all, tourists think “this is where we come from as they duck through the tunnels under the Western Wall... scale Masada, hike the Judean, come to the Kinneret.”
In time, however, the “strength starts to stink of aggression, and the directness becomes pushy, it begins to grate how Israelis don’t have any manners, no respect for personal space, no respect for anything.”
But the narrator also tells us that as Epstein stands shirtless before the sea, he feels an “exuberance, a bird-like freedom,” drinking in “This lightness. This hunger. This ancientness.”
You may well remember these passages – I did – near the end of the novel when Nicole reveals that Kafka believed that the expulsion from the Garden of Eden was not a punishment for eating from the Tree of Knowledge, but for failing to eat from the Tree of Life. Had Adam and Eve made that choice, they and their descendants “would have woken to the presence of the eternal within us, to what Kafka called ‘the indestructible,’” and may have “stopped pretending that knowledge can be an end itself.”
Or, then again, I can hear Nicole Krauss saying, maybe Kafka and the narrator of Forest Dark have got it all wrong. 
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.