The Custom of the Country

Nicole Krauss
Nicole Krauss; drawing by David Levine


Nicole Krauss’s first novel, Man Walks into a Room, published in 2002 when she was twenty-eight, begins as an astute portrayal of an Upper West Side couple, a Columbia University professor and his social worker wife, whose lives are shattered after the husband undergoes an operation to remove a tumor from his brain. The husband remembers nothing that happened to him after the age of twelve but his cognitive faculties are left intact. Nevertheless, he allows himself to be recruited for a project that is designed to enable people to “communicate and share more clearly,” and attain “true empathy” by transferring one person’s memories to another. At this point, the book turns into grade-B science fiction. Nicole Krauss is also a poet and has been short-listed for the Yale Younger Poets’ Prize, and has been named by The New Yorker as one of the best of young American writers.

Her second novel, The History of Love, is not, in my view, an improvement over the first. However, no less an authority than J.M. Coetzee, the great master of modern fiction, has written in a comment on the book jacket that the novel is “charming, tender, and wholly original,” and the review of History in the daily New York Times was close to rapturous. It has also been announced that Alfonso Cuarón, the director of Harry Potter and the Prince of Azkaban and Y tu mamá también, has included filming History among his projects for 2006. Sometimes the resemblance between a film and the novel on which it was based turns out to be distant. But even if the filmmaker follows Krauss’s text, he may still succeed in reshaping it and getting rid of the many absurdities that now mar it.

History consists of two loosely connected stories, both told during October 2000. The simpler one concerns Alma Singer, a fifteen-year-old girl living in Brooklyn with her widowed mother and younger brother, who has been called Bird ever since, on his sixth birthday, “he took a running leap out of a second-floor window and tried to fly.” Bird is passionate about Judaism and the Jewish religion; he thinks he may be a lamed vovnik,* or even the Messiah; at the age of twelve and a half, he still wets his bed; he is in therapy with a Doctor Vishnubakat. One might wonder whether Bird had been inspired by J.D. Salinger’s stories of the Glass family, but Seymour’s recent avatar, the compulsive and relentlessly cute Oskar Schell (in Krauss’s husband Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), may, as a New York Times reviewer has also remarked, be a nearer relative. Alma’s story takes the form of a memoir, which is supplemented by excerpts from Bird’s diary, some of them inserted in Alma’s text and some standing on their own. Alma has set a task for herself—she is determined to find…

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