I began reading Nicole Krauss’ new novel, “Forest Dark,” with interest, especially because the hardback copy I picked up from the library had a blurb on the front cover from the author of one of my favorite books.
“A brilliant novel. I am full of admiration,” wrote Philip Roth.
Really? Who gets blurbed on the front cover by the author of “American Pastoral”?
It’s easy to see why once one gets inside this winding tale of dual protagonists, or should I say dueling protagonists, as their narratives hopscotch from one to the other without — what seems at first — any connection at all.
But a connection there is, an existential angst, a feeling of separation, disconnection from friends, families, history, the world.
The book opens with Jules Epstein consciously emptying out his world, selling off all of his truly prized possessions after a lifetime of acquiring them and reconfiguring his will as his collection of fine art and artifacts becomes smaller and smaller.
Then one day, after a high-level political event, someone takes his cashmere coat (by mistake?) from the coat room and leaves him in an ill-fitting cloth coat. Also gone is his phone, with its thousands of family photos, and a cherished book by an Israeli poet about a man alone facing God — a gift from his daughter.
He has been reduced to the specter of a homeless person, wandering without roots, without possessions, unmoored.
Is it just coincidence that his coat was switched by a Palestinian? One of
Mahmoud Abbas’ so-called “henchmen,” who he sees getting into a limo that “floated down Fifty-Eighth Street”?
The second chapter, “Out in the Blue,” opens with the second protagonist, Nicole, a troubled writer. Are we to believe it is Krauss, the author? Perhaps, but that is left ambiguous. This is a novel, after all.
Nicole is a writer in search of a novel, who, like Epstein, is experiencing an existential crisis, and flees New York and her family for Israel. Both escape to the Tel Aviv Hilton.
Within their narratives lie what seem like rambling blocks of flashbacks and interlacing anecdotes that touch on this angst — the questioning of life, existence, faith, reality and even the possibility of the multiverse introduced early on in one of Nicole’s chapters. In that chapter, she ponders string theory branes, cosmology, the Big Bang and “the theological ramifications of multiverse theories.”
In both narratives, the history and legacy of the characters’ Jewishness, their roots and religion, is pondered. As the book progresses, they both dodge and duck that identity the more it comes into play.
By about page 50, stark black-and-white photos are introduced that relate to the narrative, but they have no identifying text to place them solidly in it. They illustrate the text but also feel intrusive and foreboding.
In that sense, and also because there is buried in the narrative a sense of darkness and dread — a fear of the unknown or the unknowable built against a deep-set backdrop of the Holocaust — the book began to remind me in many ways of W.G. Sebald’s “Austerlitz.” That novel also has an unidentified narrator (Sebald himself?) who relates the story of an enigmatic man who the narrator runs into again and again over a period of decades and relates the story of his life.
Austerlitz was, as a boy, rescued from the Holocaust via the Kindertransport. Part of the mystery of the story is his finally unraveling this past.
Krauss’ use of images gives the book a similar feel, although the images in “Forest Dark” are of only two buildings key to the story: the Tel Aviv Hilton and an apartment that holds the disputed papers of Franz Kafka, himself a writer of existential angst who figures prominently in Nicole’s odyssey.
During his journey, Epstein meets Menachem Klausner, a rabbi who
influences his path, while Nicole’s path takes a turn when she encounters Eliezer Friedman. Both instances spin the narrative out into somewhat mystical storylines where, inevitably, the two seek guidance. In the absence of concrete answers, only open-ended mystery remains, in which they both find a sort of understanding or inner peace.
Tolstoy once said there are only two plots in fiction: A stranger comes to town and someone goes on a journey.
Krauss seems to have combined the two universal plotlines, as both Epstein and Nicole go on a journey to and within Israel. And in both of their narratives a stranger comes to town, intersects with their lives and influences their respective paths forward.
I was also reminded of the tagline of the movie “The Wizard of Oz,” wherein Dorothy goes on a journey and meets four strangers who influence her path of self-discovery: “There’s no place like home.” But where is home — a word that Nicole breaks down lexicographically early on in the book?
While Epstein and Nicole seek answers to their respective crises, their stories touch on and echo each other’s, with recurring themes about literature, language, the sea, the desert, birds, loss and recovery, Israel,
Zionism and, of course, forests, as well as what it means to be Jewish.
The novel is a wonder of interwoven themes, thoughts, anecdotes, people and places, all of which combine into a richly colored fabric that, like a hammock, supports the story of two people trying to navigate the dark forest of the self.
Susan C. Ingram is a staff writer for the Baltimore Jewish Times, a Jewish News-affiliated publication.