Reviewed by Rinne Lim
By Nicole Krauss
304 pp. Harper.
“We would like nothing more than to annul the knowledge that came to us when we ate in the Garden of Eden, but as we are unable to do so, we create rationalizations, of which the world is now full. ‘It is possible that the whole invisible world,’ Kafka mused, ‘might be nothing more than the rationalization of a man wanting to find rest for a moment.’ Rest how? By pretending that knowledge can be an end in itself.”
The maxim, “never judge a book by its cover,” must be amended to include also, “and never by its title too,” in the advent of Nicole Krauss’s new novel Forest Dark. The book announces its presence with its striking yellow and blue green facade, but nothing about its outward appearance hints at the unrelenting, 290-paged journey its readers will sign themselves up for should they pick up this book—and Forest Dark truly is a journey, from New York skyscrapers to Israeli seas and deserts, from comfort to the unknown, from unraveling the past to securing the future, from the deepest crevices of the self to the infinite that lies beyond the reach of human understanding.
Jules Epstein, a sixty-eight-year-old partner at a New York legal firm, has built and tailored for himself a life and reputation that perfectly suited his noble ideals, refined tastes, and commanding personality. In his Manhattan penthouse, he is surrounded by his amassed luxury, items which had, over time, become a sort of tangible criteria and representation of his life’s successes; and it seemed like Epstein had every reason to be secure in his own skin. However, after his parents’ death and after the imminent divorce finally saw the light of day, Epstein sensed a hollowing out from within him; but the hollow left in its place a lightness hitherto unknown to Epstein, who, over the course of his life, has made it his business to acquire everything that he could. And so, wanting this lightness, Epstein then freely hands out all his wealth and possessions and travels to Tel Aviv, Israel, where his search for legacy leads him right into the heart of something greater.
In the same journey to revival, Nicole (side note: this is the first and only fiction novel I’ve encountered wherein the author uses her name in the work—for the protagonist, no less), a young novelist, sets afoot also to Tel Aviv, specifically the Tel Aviv Hilton, to recover from a period of stagnation, in her writing and in her marriage. But when she was approached by Eliezer Friedman, a retired literature professor, Nicole is suddenly let in on an incredulous secret: that the celebrated novelist Franz Kafka did not die as history dictates so, but rather he passed away thirty-five years after his supposed death, as Anshel Paleg, a mere gardener, in Palestine. With this knowledge, will Nicole, then, accept Friedman’s task to give Kafka’s unfinished manuscripts the proper ending they so deserved?
Forest Dark’s two protagonists, albeit coming from quite diverse backgrounds, fundamentally shared the same fate: the emptying out of oneself, the detachment, and the eventual exodus to find what has only been glimpsed or promised, as Abraham did, as the Israelites did. The question always was, in the very end: did we reach the Promised Land, or had paradise been with us all along?
In my hands and before my eyes, the novel transformed and mutated so fast and in so many ways: sometimes it was a fiction novel to me; but other times, due to the rawness with which Nicole Krauss approaches prose, I was able to recognize the book as a memoir, an autobiography, an archaeological artifact; and still, other times, it revealed itself to be a lesson in history and, ultimately, a collection of radical theories about the mechanics of human experience and emotion. This dynamic aspect of the novel may prove to either be a welcomed creativity or an insurmountable fault; but it all boils down to whether the reader considers himself or herself an adventurous and resilient recipient to Nicole Krauss’s visionary ideas.
Nicole Krauss’s Forest Dark is not an easy book to peruse. A catalyst for philosophical thought, the novel demands a reader’s full attention and beckons deep consideration. But, it is just as it should be, for as author Nicole Krauss hollows out the novel’s characters in preparation for their transcendence, so must we readers be brought out of ourselves as well, to make room for what is to come.
Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss is now available at select Fully Booked stores. To reserve a copy, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When she is not causing ruckuses and explosions in the laboratory, Rinne likes to write about everything and nothing at all. She continues to hope that, someday, mathematical formulas would beckon to her attention and imagination as eagerly as writing and literature do.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]