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26 September 2017

Forest Dark: an impressive meditation on identity and the human condition

Nicole Krauss's novel is defiantly and brilliantly novel.

By Douglas Kennedy

The “decline and fall” story is one of the great templates of American literature. Given the hyper-mercantilism of our capitalism, we hold a special place for those tales in which an individual who “has it all” throws it away through recklessness or self-destruction – or, more chillingly, simply walks away from decades of accumulation and abandons his ability to exert influence.

In our culture, money is the way we always keep score. To divest oneself of the material trappings of wealth is never perceived as some sort of positive Pauline conversion. Rather, it is considered a deranged existential act, a self-sabotaging refutation of the fundamental objective of American life: winning.

Jules Epstein has always been perceived to be one of New York’s chosen power brokers. A lawyer with his hands on all metropolitan levers of influence, he’s a man who, as described in Nicole Krauss’s new novel, “in life… had taken up the whole room. He wasn’t large, only uncontainable. There was too much of him; he constantly overspilled himself.”

Epstein made big money. Epstein collected serious art. Epstein manipulated and controlled. Epstein paid for friends’ children to go to university. Epstein bequeathed many complexes to his own children. Epstein never forgot that his origins were beyond humble, as his parents “had washed up on the shores of Palestine after the war and conceived him under a burned-out bulb that they had not enough money to replace”.

He was a true exemplar of emigrant triumph within New World social Darwinism. So why, in his late sixties, did he begin to unravel the entire intricate fabric of his life? Why did he give away most of his art to museums? Why the divorce from his wife after more than 35 years? Why the flight to Israel? Initially Epstein retreated to the ugly confines of the Tev Aviv Hilton, and then to an apartment of dismal despair, from which he disappeared, presumed dead, after taking a taxi ride along the Dead Sea road and getting dropped off on the edge of the desert.

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Meanwhile, an American woman novelist – conceived in the same Hilton hotel, “in the wake of the Yom Kippur War” – arrives in Tel Aviv amid her own personal upheaval. Her decade-long marriage has hit what seems to be a fatal trough. She sees her husband “sinking in his separate sea. In our own ways, we had come to understand that 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.”

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Alone in Tel Aviv, back at the Hilton, this writer finds herself juggling several concurrent plot lines. There’s her pending separation and the absence of her children back in Brooklyn. There’s a Mossad man-turned-literary academic named Eliezer Friedman. There’s Franz Kafka, beginning to impinge on her personal narrative, alongside manifold questions on the nature of Jewish identity. And then there is the overarching mystery that is the disappearance of Jules Epstein.

In the hands of a lesser writer, these disparate strands might prove unwieldy, over-egged. But Krauss is an exceptional fictional shape-shifter and Forest Dark, which comes seven years after her last book, Great House, is that rare species: a novel of ideas in which the cerebral never impinges on the human mess that underscores the external and internal landscapes of a riveting narrative.

Note her use of telling anecdote and detail; how skilfully she sketches the way Epstein’s growing alienation with the massive edifice that is his life hinges on the case of his missing overcoat, taken by a Palestinian diplomat at a power-broker event for Mahmoud Abbas in New York. Or how the novelist finds herself obsessed with the discovery that Kafka might not have died in Prague, but faked his demise and snuck away to the then Palestine. And how Epstein’s realisation that he had lost the “ballast” that kept him afloat in life intriguingly mirrors the novelist’s recognition that she has been acting out a familial scenario that she accepted without much conscious cognizance.

When is the moment when you fall out of a marriage? When, like Epstein (and the novelist’s own vertiginous journey into the desert), do you consider falling out of the existence you have so carefully constructed?

Call it a meditation on identity – personal, national, theological, tribal – that poses thorny questions about the mire that is the modern human condition. Call it an existential mystery about the enigma that is yourself and your fragile place in the world. With its lean architecture and its pared yet resonant narrative voice, Forest Dark tantalises and compels. Krauss cannily has you speculating on life’s larger conundrums while getting you simultaneously to turn the page. This is as original and impressive a work of fiction as I have encountered in years; a welcome reminder of how a novel can be defiantly and brilliantly novel

Forest Dark
Nicole Krauss
Bloomsbury, 304pp, £16.99