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|Nicole Krauss is a hell
of a writer, that much is for sure. Her prose is lyrical and smart
without being overly complicated or intentionally obtuse. She does
tend, especially in this book, to wander a bit into the miasma of
her characters' minds, sometimes stalling what would otherwise be
a compelling scene or chapter, but even those lulls are haunting in
their stunning complexity.
Like her last novel, History of Love,
the narrative here revolves around an object; in this case a giant
writing desk. It's also told almost as four separate stories, all
of which are intertwined throughout different decades by said desk
and the characters that come in contact with it. Unlike her last novel,
there is not even a hint of humor to be had anywhere in this book.
Tragedy and sorrow weigh upon it like an anvil, crushing the light
from between the pages and honestly made it hard some mornings to
pick the thing up just to witness another characters' humiliation,
disappointment or rejection. Each of what is essentially a chapter
concentrates on a separate string of the story, doubling back on itself
with the same characters half way through the book. It's not a new
convention by any means, but because revelations, and in a few cases
who the hell the characters are at all, happen deep into some strings,
it is utterly compelling to stick around to figure out how things
tie together. It is amazing how Krauss can drop you in the middle
of scenes with no concept about what's happening and instantly make
It's not to say sadness on a grand scale plays well always. Sometimes
I found myself having to pause in the face of overwhelming sorrow
that seemed almost over the top and obscene in its pervasiveness.
Seriously how could a cadre of characters be so affected by life?
Do they sit there every day wondering what new wave of depression
will wash over them? I suppose the word for it is “heavy.” Heavy with
family drama, heavy with lies and redemption, heavy with Judaism.
Why the last is important, of course, is because the Jews invented
the term “bittersweet.” So even in times when characters seem to have
what they want, to have that success or the life that most would consider
a good life, there is that undercurrent of scorched earth
and pain in every positive (which are few and far between). I mean
any time you mix the Holocaust with Pinochet’s secret police, Alzheimer’s
and suicide, you’re talking all sorts of mishegas.
The impressive thing here is that Krauss manages to wend a pretty
compelling mystery around this deep tale of shared woe. She could
have taken the easy way out and just explored the relationships and
whatnot, but with the desk as the talisman, she drives the four separate
narratives forward by unraveling the mysteries of the different characters’
stories and where and how that damn desk fits in and why it enters
and then leaves that characters' lives. She rounds out these characters
by jamming tons of description and probing psychological dossiers
into a minimal number of pages. It may be a bit bleak and at times
blacker than black, but this should definitely (re)establish Krauss
as one of the best young authors out there for people who give shit
about that kind of thing.
Other titles by Nicole Krauss:
The History of Love
Walks Into a Room