Forest Dark: A Novel by Nicole Krauss (New York: Harper, 2017. 295 pp)
Nicole Krauss is an American novelist whose works include, Great House, 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. Krauss was selected as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists and was chosen by The New Yorker for their “Twenty Under Forty” list.
The Masks We Wear
I wear a mask in public. It shrouds just enough of my imperfections; it accentuates elements of who I believe others would like me to be. Is “public me” really me?
Does anyone outside my wife and kids know “private me”? I bet my friends would affirm their understanding of my personal ontology. And I wouldn’t argue with them. But even still, subtle shades of a mask round out the edges and make me presentable like a carpenter taking sandpaper to his creation or a faint cologne to mask a scent untoward.
Most of us want to believe who we are is who we are when no one is around. But I’m not convinced each representation of ourselves is just as valid.
This question of identity rests at the base of Nicole Krauss’ latest experimental novel, Forest Dark.
Two Sides. One Coin.
Told from the perspective of two characters, Forest Dark explores the nature of Jewishness and social mores in the blistering urban landscape of Tel Aviv.
Both characters end where they begin, but the journey to understanding themselves makes all the difference.
One character, Epstein, lives lavishly in New York but escapes to Israel on a whim, his meandering around the Hilton Tel Aviv connects him with a rabbi who encourages him to look deeper into his lineage. This rabbi also connects him with a relative looking to shoot a biblical epic covering the life of David. Luckily, Epstein has the funds to assist in this film endeavor. Epstein’s journey gains velocity around questions of lineage and what it means for his identity.
“Naturally; Klausner is a big name in Davidic genealogy. Not quite the same clout as Epstein, mind you. Unless one of your ancestors pulled the name out of thin air, which seems unlikely, then the chain of begetting that led to you backs right up to the King of Israel” (23).
The other character, Nicole, leverages her familial connections with Tel Aviv to escape her failing marriage. While staying at the Hilton, she encounters a local academic looking for a writer of her caliber to rescue the lost writings of Franz Kafka, outrageously believed to be hidden underneath the cat dander in a floor-level apartment. Perhaps the mission of discovering these literary gems can unlock something in her failing personal life.
“At night my husband would turn his back to me and go to sleep on his side of the bed, and I would turn my back to him and go to sleep on mine, and because we could no way across to the other, because we had confused lack of desire to cross with fear of crossing with inability to cross, we each went to sleep reaching for another place that was not here. And only in the morning, when one of our children slid into our our bed, still warm from sleep, were we repaired to the place where we were and reminded of our strong attachment to it (127-128).
What is our Mask?
While these characters operate separately, and Forest Dark doesn’t telegraph any clear hints at a link between these two characters, I’m struck by core identity similarities between the characters despite external differences, as if these characters wear masks to hide their true Jewish identities.
As such, Forest Dark operates as a contemplation of the human condition. Who are we? How do we act? What makes us genuine? Perhaps we are essentially the same, even if our flesh masks those similarities. Perhaps, Krauss ponders, our identities draw from a divine source and pull us together.
“To create man, God had to remove Himself, and one could say that the defining feature of humanity is that lack. It’s a lack that haunts us because, being God’s creation, we contain a memory of the infinite, which fills us with longing. But the same lack is also what allows for free will. The act of breaking God’s command not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge can be interpreted as a rejection of obedience in favor of free choice and the pursuit of autonomous knowledge” (106).
Forest Dark is a challenging read and not for anyone looking for the next page turner. But if you are a fan of introspection, this book lets you dive deep.
Verdict: 3 out of 5