I must confess that at the midpoint of Nicole Krauss’ novel Forest Dark I found myself rather lost – i was scrabbling around in the dense bracken of words that echoed on and on, drifting between the endless themes and symmetries and metafictions that lay before me.
Perhaps that is a little bit of an overstatement, but just like Krauss, I too feel the first canto of Dante’s Inferno is one of the most evocative sentences in history, one that is most certainly worthy of investigation in a story:
“Midway upon the journey of my life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost”
* Endless other translations are available.
Because the characters of Forest Dark are lost, the way ahead seemingly hidden. They transverse a multitude of realities, drifting further from their ordinary lives into something less defined – somewhere where purpose fractures, time slows and bends, and realities collapse into another like stars falling in on themselves. For Forest Dark aims at something a little more exploratory than a stroll down a way-one narrative street – it is a lot more open-ended than that – it is multiple routes on multiple maps, so it’s not a surprise that one might find themselves a little lost when navigating this book.
Sounds complicated doesn’t it, well, it is and it isn’t. The hazards of reviewing a novel like this suddenly become quite evident: This novel is more of a ‘novel’ in one sense of the word than most other material I have reviewed lately. What helps me to explain by what I mean by that has been articulated by Paul Beatty who, explaining the sharp, whirlwind satire of his book ‘The Sellout’ said that novels are meant to be by definition, novel. As obvious as that sounds, as a book reviewer I don’t believe I actually read many novel novels – the expectations and pressures of navigating the publishing industry can quickly wipe away the adventurous from manuscripts in favour of something a little more comfortable for the reader.
And Forest Dark is a novel novel. It plays with form and narrative and time in a way that shows the writer has great skill in her craft. Forest Dark doesn’t sit back on the obvious. We have two characters: one is Jules Epstein who is divorced and entering old age who is questioning his style of living and seeking a way forward in his life; and the other, seemingly called Nicole (but only if you manage to spot the one mention of this name in the book) is a writer who has writer’s block and has fallen out of love with her husband. Epstein’s actions are described in the third person, whilst Nicole’s are spoken in the first, meaning that one story could be the product of the writer and the other, her thoughts of a story, or not, who knows. Epstein travels to Tel Aviv like Nicole does too and both start to seek new inspiration in their lives: Epstein embarking on a new minimalist style of living by giving away his possessions, relocating to a tiny dingey flat and eventually disappearing on the eve of a big, new idea; while Nicole runs into a mysterious Friedman whilst escaping from her stifling family home and is told the secret that Kafka did not die in Prague in 1924, but emigrated to Israel and completed a number of other works there that happen to be in a suitcase in a lady’s living room. The two characters follow each other to Tel Aviv to the desert, close but never meeting, like they are in opposing parallel universes.
So there is a lot going on, but also, there isn’t. The book is surprisingly quiet. Epstein is introduced, in the first chapter, as he has gone missing, so one might think that this might be the drive of the plot, but we skip back a few months earlier to watch the character and we find no real resolution as to where he has disappeared too. Characters drift in and out of Epstein’s life, but mainly he is alone and thinking. On top of this Nicole is thinking. Kafka is introduced as if he may be the main drive of the plot, but this too fizzles off into something else altogether – the suitcase containing the secret manuscripts acts as an almost comical plot device. It is the trigger of the reader’s wonder, but it is deliberately neglected. The reader wonders around just like the characters seeking full stops that never really come. Another question hanging over the book is whether the writer Nicole is the author Nicole and so the second ‘story’ something more like autobiographical prose. Even if this isn’t the case it is deliberately played with.
So we have a character that may be lost forever, but we don’t know; a narrator that may be the author; a narrator that may be the creator of the other character; or simply two unrelated characters following similar paths, but never quite meeting, as well as that there is a rewriting of Kafka’s late life – quite a lot to take in.
No wonder I got a little lost, but the truth is that getting lost isn’t necessarily a bad thing in this case. Afterall, it is a prevailing theme in the book. Kafka was the master of the aimless plot, of the eerie and the uncanny, and that sense of unease. This is poured into the novel and certainly is experienced by the reader upon reading it. Does this make for an enjoyable read? I guess not in the beach novel sense of enjoyable, but then cosiness is not the point of this novel. This novel is embodying the lost – the lost characters, wandering Jews of Israel, the lost in Kafka and his works, the lost author and the lost reader. The novel emcompasses the best of intelligent writing and asks for an intelligent reader to see it through. I think this novel attains the status of an ‘author’s novel’ – one likely to be appreciated by writers for its craft and experimental quality. As a reader I found I liked the novel more on completion because on completion of Forest Dark, you can sense the elements coming together and providing an overall tone of ‘lostness’, but also, a strange sense of freedom in this state. On closing the book you can start to see the wood for the trees.
Nicole Krauss has been hailed by the New York Times as ‘one of America’s most important novelists’. She is the author of the international bestsellers, Great House, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Orange Prize, and The History of Love, which won the Saroyan Prize for International Literature and France’s Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger, and was short-listed for the Orange, Médicis, and Femina prizes. Her first novel, Man Walks Into a Room, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book of the Year. In 2007, she was selected as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists, and in 2010 she was chosen by the New Yorker for their ‘Twenty Under Forty’ list. Her fiction has been published in the New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire, and Best American Short Stories, and her books have been translated into more than thirty-five languages. Her new novel, Forest Dark, will be published in autumn 2017.
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Review by Jessica Gregory
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