May 26, 2019

Wrestling With the Real and Unreal

Near the beginning of Nicole Krauss’ novel “Forest Dark,” she presents readers with a startling image. A man hurdles off the side of the Hilton hotel in Tel Aviv, plunging to his death. Nicole, a writer and one of two characters whose parallel stories form the backbone of the novel, is shaken by this image, shared with her by a family member. It’s a moment that changes the course of her life, and maybe even ours — except that we never really know whether it actually happened.

Similar to Krauss’ previous works, “Forest Dark” makes readers feel as if they constantly are perched on a precipice, waiting to drop or to be pulled in either direction. And yet they never fall. A sense of the importance of boundary dwelling permeates the narrative, giving the old cliché of living on the edge a new and more complex meaning. And like the characters in the novel, we can hardly be sure of what is real and not real.

Nicole and Jules Epstein, the other main character, are remarkably adept at refusing to choose between the real and the unreal. Epstein is a 68-year-old man dealing with the death of his parents, the end of his 30-year marriage and his recent retirement from an illustrious law career in New York. In the wake of losing such important aspects of his life, all so precious in their finitude, he travels to Israel looking for opportunities to give away his wealth and to honor his parents’ memory.

Epstein’s search is not for certainty, but for its opposite. “He did not wish to be sure. He had lost his trust in it.” He remains instead in the liminal space between knowing and not knowing. And, consequently, so do we. Krauss is a masterful storyteller who pulls us into the inner world of her characters to such a degree that we, like them, lose our sense of boundary.

“Forest Dark” makes readers feel as if they constantly are perched on a precipice, waiting to drop or to be pulled in either direction. And yet they never fall.

Did a man really hurl himself from balcony of the Hilton? Is Epstein really, as one passionate American rabbi in Tel Aviv suggests, part of the dynastic line of King David? Does Eliezer Friedman, an Israeli professor who enlists Nicole’s help in a project involving Kafka’s lost manuscripts, really exist?

Readers of Krauss’ novels “Great House” and “The History of Love” will recall her history of writing unsettling fiction that compels us to question so much of what we hold true and dear. But where “Great House” is more fragmented and withholds the detailed and cohesive narratives we crave, “Forest Dark” instead doubles down on the importance of storytelling. Yet while the novel tells two stories — the stories of Epstein and Nicole never intersect — the more detailed they become, the harder they are to believe. And that’s exactly where Krauss wants us.

Nicole is 39 years old. A prolific author of Jewish novels, she now struggles to write. She finds it difficult to continue the charade of marriage and family life even as she loves her family immeasurably. She is two parts of a divided self, and each side fears reconciling with the other, seemingly incompatible side. The story of the man falling to his death causes her to feel a sensation of the Freudian unheimlich, that uncanny sense of something being both familiar (like one’s home) and unfamiliar, and which Freud categorizes as an anxiety that emerges from “something repressed that recurs.” She leaves her family indefinitely and stays at the Tel Aviv Hilton for months, hoping that there, in the place where she was conceived by her parents, she will write again.

In Tel Aviv, Nicole is both home and not home. Her origin story begins there, but Tel Aviv was only a place her family visited each year. It wasn’t home. Or was it? Nicole feels more comfortable with people in Israel, “because everything could be touched, so little was hidden or held back, people were hungry to engage with whatever the other had to offer, however messy and intense, and this openness made [her] feel alive and less alone.”

Is that not the definition of home? Like all good works of Jewish fiction, “Forest Dark” raises more questions than it gives answers. This question of home is a familiar one to the Jewish people, and much like the characters in the novel have difficulty choosing between conflicting identities, our diasporic history suggests that we, too, have difficulty choosing. We say “next year in Israel” during Passover, highlighting the collective dream of returning to the Jewish homeland. But the reality is that Jews are no longer in a Diaspora. We are, instead, at home wherever we are. And yet the idea of Israel as symbolic homeland persists.

But is a symbolic home any less real and meaningful than a physical home?

Krauss’ characters, caught up in questions of home and identity, recoil from choosing between such polarities. The fear is, justifiably, that abandoning the threshold and choosing one side over another will result in being bound to that decision, being forced to reject the lovely chaos that accompanies failing to choose. Nicole does not accept one home over another. While the place that one has always been is certainly home, in another sense home only becomes home “if one goes away from it, since it’s only with distance, only in the return, that we are able to recognize it as the place that shelters our true self.”

The idea of return — to one’s self or to one’s home — is important in this novel. Krauss grounds this idea in Jewish history, recalling that for ancient Jews, “the world was always both hidden and revealed.” It is a history to which we are bound, and the theme of binding appears over and over in the novel.

The pressure not just to make one’s parents but also one’s whole people proud leads Nicole to feel that her writing, which “had begun as an act of freedom,” had become “another form of binding.” She recalls that Isaac, the very first Jewish child, was bound and nearly sacrificed for something his father Abraham saw as more important than him. And since that moment, “the question of how to go on binding has hung in the air.”

Nicole’s musings on the education of her son, whose mind does not “follow familiar patterns” and whose “urgent, strange questions about the world revealed it anew” to her, epitomize the paradoxical nature of being bound to something larger than us. As his parents educate him in conventional ways contrary to the way his little mind works, they see his brilliance die out. His thoughts surprise them less and less. And as Nicole reads to her children the stories of Noah or Jonah or Odysseus, it seems to her that those beautiful tales — stories that tell our past and our future — are “also a form of binding.”

The burden of being bound to stories that define our identity is heavy. But I wonder if it’s a heaviness we can’t do without. Nicole suggests that what people “really long for, even more than love or happiness, is coherence.” Stories, even those with more questions than answers, give us this coherence even, and perhaps especially, in their incoherence.

Monica Osborne is a scholar of Jewish literature and culture. She is the author of “The Midrashic Impulse and the Contemporary Literary Response to Trauma.”