September 2017

Noted

‘Forest Dark’ by Nicole Krauss

By Stephanie Bishop
Cover of Forest Dark
Bloomsbury; $24.99

In the novels of Nicole Krauss, objects of personal significance – a book, a writing desk, a coat – have a habit of being lost, only to turn up later in someone else’s life, in another country. Narratives accumulate around these items and the effect is one of doubleness, with Krauss attending to the history of these lost things while simultaneously tracing their mysterious reappearance in the present. In the process, a set of characters are linked through their contact with the given objects. Krauss’ new novel, Forest Dark, relies on a similar logic, with key items anchoring lives that otherwise seek to float free of their human bonds.

First, there is Jules Epstein, a wealthy New Yorker undergoing something of a sea change. A lawyer by trade, he suddenly finds himself drawn to the inner life. He gives away his possessions, takes to reading the works of a mystical poet, and eventually disappears to the Tel Aviv Hilton. During his departure, he is harried by the loss of his coat the previous day.

We cut from Epstein to a female writer in New York who is struggling in a failing marriage and frustrated by a novel that is going nowhere. Exhausted and lonely, she returns home one day only to be overcome by a sense that she is already there in the house, and that she is “inhabiting two separate planes of existence”. This unnamed writer soon fixes upon the possibility that her life as she knows it is an illusion being dreamed by another version of herself. This dreaming self, she is certain, could only exist in the Tel Aviv Hilton. She packs a suitcase and books a flight.

The novel proceeds by switching between these two characters, and the pleasure of the book rests largely in the high level of disjuncture. Neither of them knows quite what they are looking for, only what they are seeking to escape. And if they are linked by anything, it is the abstract desire for transformation, for contact with a force larger than themselves. Ultimately, both seek this in the Israeli desert.

But the journey proves more fraught for the writer, and towards the end, after discovering a mysterious coat in a shack, she has an epiphany, realising that what she has sought and missed is the transformative possibility of kairos, “the passing instant when an opening occurs that must be driven through with force”. Yet if she fears the loss of this type of opportunity, it is precisely the appearance of such moments that Forest Dark so elegantly charts. The result is a strangely moving work, charged with the idea of potential and the difficulty of grasping it.

Stephanie Bishop

Stephanie Bishop is a professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia. Her latest novel is The Anniversary.

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