Thursday, July 29, 2021

Book 295: Forest Dark

"All day long people busy themselves with understanding every manner of thing under the sun—themselves, other people, the causes of cancer, the symphonies of Mahler, ancient catastrophes. But I was going in another direction now. Swimming against the forceful current of understanding, the other way. Later there would be other, larger failures to understand—so many that one can only see a deliberateness in it: a stubbornness that lay at the bottom like the granite floor of a lake, so that the more clear and transparent things became, the more my refusal showed through. I didn’t want to see things as they were. I had grown tired of that."

Dates read: February 10-15, 2019

Rating: 5/10

When I was a kid, I frequently complained that something that was happening wasn't fair. And I was right! Life isn't fair. Nor is it really logical. We tend to impose narrative on our experiences once they're safely in the rearview. We shave off the parts that don't quite make sense, that don't fit. But how much good do we really do ourselves with this kind of approach? What if some things are just beyond understanding?

Nicole Krauss' Forest Dark tells two stories, that maybe intersect in the smallest, most casual way at the end but then again maybe don't. Both concern American Jewish people making trips to Israel, but their purposes could not be more different. Jules Epstein is a retired lawyer, who after a lifetime of doing the things he was supposed to do (be successful in business, get married and start a family) starts to come apart in the wake of his own parents' death. He divorces his wife, starts to give away his money...and then one day he goes to an event where a charismatic rabbi speaks. He goes to Israel, determined to do something to honor the memory of his mother and father, and encounters the rabbi again. Nicole, on the other hand, is a writer and the mother of two young children. She feels uncertain, of her life choices and marriage, and so decides to return to a favorite familiar place: the Hilton in Tel Aviv, where she spent happy hours as a child, ostensibly to work on her next book.

Both become involved in quests, of sorts. Jules becomes involved a movie that the rabbi, and more specifically, the rabbi's young and attractive daughter, is trying to make about the life of the biblical David. Nicole, for her part, is introduced to a man that wants her to work on a book about the life of Franz Kafka...who he contends didn't die under the circumstances generally accepted, but lived on for several decades in Israel. Both stories take unexpected twists and turns...and only one character returns to the United States.

This book is as much, maybe more, a writing exercise as an actual book. She subverts the expectations we bring in to picking up a novel: she herself is a character in the book, the narratives we expect to join or at least parallel never do, and she refuses to tell a story with any structure in the traditional sense. Instead, we get two stories that, to be perfectly frank, make no real sense and have nothing to do with each other besides the broadest of descriptions. But she's clearly making a point: as people, in the stories we tell to others and and want to have told to us, we create a narrative. There's a set-up, build-up, climax, and denouement. But actual life, as it's being lived? Has precious little of that. We sand away the rough edges, omit details, inflate the importance of events to make it fit into the package we expect it to conform to.

The problem is that this becomes obvious not too far into the book, and then I felt stuck just finishing the book for the sake of finishing it without any actual investment in the people depicted or the events related. Which isn't to say that Krauss isn't a good writer...despite the fact that this book did not do it for me, her actual prose quality is high, and at moments the book seems like it might take off. There's a sub-story about a doorman who loses a painting he was supposed to sell that's told with skill and stuck in my memory even several weeks after I turned the last page. I'd be open to reading other work by Krauss, I've heard good things about her writing, but this book fell flat for me. If you're looking for something to give you material to noodle over about the ultimate chaos of life and the futility of our efforts to impose meaning on it, this might be for you. If not, though, skip it.

One year ago, I was reading: Pope Joan

Two years ago, I was reading: Money Rock

Three years ago, I was reading: Shantaram

Four years ago, I was reading: Notes on a Scandal

Five years ago, I was reading: Masha Regina

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