In an essay about short story collections called “Only Collect,” Peter Ho Davies discusses two different ways a writer might put together such a book. There is the way of Davies’s first book, The Ugliest House in the World (1997), “assembled under the not very edifying organizing principle of ‘all the good stuff I happen to have right now.’” Although any group of stories by the same author is sure to include similarities, the stories in this type of collection are usually diverse, and when they were written over a long period of time, or when among the author’s intentions was to experiment broadly or to show imaginative and stylistic range, perhaps even very much so. As Davies points out, it is not uncommon for this kind of assortment to be called “uneven,” with reviewers unable to resist dividing hits from misses—something perhaps even more likely if the writer is one whose literary reputation was made as a novelist. (Reviewer A, on the debut collection by a notable American novelist: “Two or three are excellent; none are total misses.” About the same book, Reviewer B writes that, a month after she first read them, two of the ten stories have stayed with her in the way of great fiction that “haunts the mind” and “lingers in the reader beyond understanding”—in her view, “a pretty good score for any collection of short fiction.”)
Davies writes that for his next book, Equal Love (2000), he
set out…to shape and define the links between my stories, to write essentially the second and more interesting kind of collection, a linked collection—in my case a thematically linked collection concerned with the various relations between parents and children.
Of course, there are many ways a group of short stories might be linked, the most obvious being the use of one or more of the same characters, or characters whose lives are in one aspect or another related. Famous early examples are Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, published in 1919, and a book that took inspiration from it, Hemingway’s In Our Time, which came out five years later. Other links might have to do with pattern or structure (from Joyce’s Dubliners, Davies took the idea of having the ages of major characters in Equal Love increase as the stories progress), or with various echoes and parallels, some planned and others of which the writer might not have been immediately aware.
Another kind of link Davies mentions is ethnicity: the Dubliners of Joyce, the Jewish-American characters in Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus. More recent examples are the Indians and Indian-Americans who people Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, and the African-American community of Washington, D.C., in Edward P. Jones’s Lost in the City. Noting how the stories in such collections are often not only about community but also about the fragmenting of those communities, “a whole that is also in parts,” Davies, a British writer of Welsh and Chinese descent, fancies the short story collection as perhaps “an especially American form, a reflection of the melting pot.”
Although the ten stories in Nicole Krauss’s new book, To Be a Man, are also about community—the same (fragmented) Jewish community that has been central to her earlier work—the collection fits more neatly into Davies’s first category than into his second. Of the seven stories that were published previously, one appeared in 2002, the same year as Krauss’s first novel, Man Walks Into a Room, and another this October, three years after the publication of her fourth and most recent novel, Forest Dark.
Davies is hardly alone in believing that a mixed bag of stories is less interesting than a linked collection. Book publishers know only too well that short fiction of any kind is a tough sell. This has long been so. Writing in The New Yorker in 1927, Dorothy Parker lamented how the feeling of being “cheated” when offered a book of stories had blinded readers to the fact that Hemingway the short story writer was greater than Hemingway the novelist. It was the ecstatic reception of his debut novel, The Sun Also Rises, that made him a literary lion; In Our Time, published about a year earlier, “caused about as much stir in literary circles as an incompleted dogfight on upper Riverside Drive”:
People take up a book of short stories and say, “Oh, what’s this? Just a lot of those short things?” and put it right down again. Only yesterday afternoon, at four o’clock sharp, I saw and heard a woman do that to Ernest Hemingway’s new book, Men Without Women. She had been one of those most excited about his novel.
Literature, it appears, is here measured by a yard-stick.
I wonder what Parker made of D.H. Lawrence’s review of In Our Time, which asserted that it was not a book of stories at all but “a fragmentary novel.” In any case, in our time, and by any measure, it appears that the linked collection has it all over the other kind. Most desirable: a set of stories sufficiently interrelated so that they can be marketed as a novel. Novels-in-stories like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge and its sequel, Olive, Again, have won both critical praise and a large readership.
I did not read the copy on the back of the advance edition of To Be a Man until I had read the book, and when I did it surprised me. According to the publisher, the stories explore “what it means to be in a couple, and to be a man and a woman in that perplexing relationship.” It’s not that this isn’t true; couples do appear in the stories, though their relationships are, I would say, complicated rather than perplexing, as most relationships between men and women are. But it hadn’t occurred to me that this was what the book was “about.” In other descriptive copy I’ve seen, “in that perplexing relationship” has been inflated to “and the arising tensions that have existed in all relationships from the very beginning of time,” and the stories are said to “mirror one another and resonate” in such a way “that the book almost feels like a novel.” This I did find perplexing. Also telling. Note the punch-pulling “almost.” Certain mirrorings and resonances notwithstanding, the book does not feel at all like a novel. Here is fear of the yardstick striking again.
Man Walks Into a Room, about a young college professor who suffers a brain tumor that leaves him unable to remember anything about his life past the age of twelve, introduced Krauss as a novelist of ample intelligence, imagination, and ambition. The book takes on serious questions about the role of memory in the creation of a person’s identity and what it might mean to be forced to begin a second life after such a devastating loss of self. As intriguingly as the man’s story begins, though, it seemed to me that Krauss proceeded to paint herself into a corner. The only important relationship in his life is with his wife—the person who, besides himself, is most affected by his catastrophe and whom amnesia has transformed into a complete stranger to him—but that relationship is allowed to dissolve before the book is halfway through. A scientific experiment for which the man volunteers dominates the remainder of the narrative and twists it into something like science fiction.
As events grow in improbability, you can sense the writer groping rather than aiming toward a conclusion. The book ends up feeling more like a case study than like a fully realized novel—the story of a condition, albeit a dramatic one, but not persuasively that of a real human being. I thought the novel could have benefited from an additional perspective, that of the wife being the most promising possibility, but by the time we do hear from her it’s too little too late and more jarring than enlightening. This was one of those reading experiences when I found myself admiring the writing without being much stirred by it. But that admiration was keen enough to make me want to read more of Krauss.
Krauss’s second novel, The History of Love (2005), reveals, to an even greater degree than her first, a fertile imagination and an abundance of sharp literary skills. And here (as also, it will turn out, in each of her following novels) Krauss does use the device of alternate voices in the way I thought her previous novel cried out for. One narrative belongs to Leo, an elderly Polish Holocaust survivor living a lonely retiree’s life in Manhattan, a former locksmith who also happens to be the unrecognized author of a great novel, composed in his youth but lost for decades, called The History of Love. Written originally in Yiddish, Leo’s novel tells the true story of the love of his life, his young sweetheart Alma, who escaped from Poland to America several years before Leo himself arrived only to learn that she had married another man. It is also revealed that when Alma and Leo parted she had been pregnant with their child, a son, who has grown up to be a distinguished Jewish-American novelist.
The long, tangled saga of Leo’s manuscript is key to Krauss’s plot and of fanatical significance to the narrator of the book’s parallel story, a bright, resourceful, and immensely likable fourteen-year-old Jewish girl from Brooklyn who is also—and not, we discover, by coincidence—named Alma. Each of these characters can be enjoyable company at times, but too often they sink into stereotype, or even, in the case of Leo, cloying ethnic caricature, and the plot that braids their stories is so unlikely, so full of clichés, so unnecessarily convoluted, that the book’s spell is repeatedly broken. Like its predecessor, The History of Love traces an arc from engaging to not quite satisfying, lapsing into a largely predictable YA tale that struck several critics as inauthentic and mawkish. And yet, to echo Leo’s favorite expression, the book made Krauss a best-selling literary star, delighting readers all over the world, and remains the work for which she is most known today.
If it was in the hopes of winning such popular success that Krauss wrote the kind of novel she did—the kind known to appeal to that large crowd of readers who love a good “colorful” ethnic tearjerker and an innocent but smart and spunky juvenile narrator—there is evidence she may have had some regrets. In Forest Dark (2017), a character named Nicole, like Krauss an internationally known Jewish-American novelist from Brooklyn who, again like Krauss, is the alienated wife of a man who is also a writer and the father of her two sons—says:
I wanted to write what I wanted to write, however much it offended, bored, challenged, or disappointed people, and disliked the part of myself that wished to please. I’d tried to rid myself of it, and on a certain level had succeeded: my previous novel had bored, challenged, and disappointed an impressive number of readers. But because the book, like the ones before it, was still undeniably Jewish, filled with Jewish characters and the echoes of two thousand years of Jewish history, I’d avoided sloughing off the pride of my landsmen. If anything, I’d managed to increase it, as part of me must have secretly hoped to do.
Going on to describe encounters with some Israeli fans, she expresses nothing but dismay at their overwrought responses to a book that, though unnamed, is recognizably The History of Love.
“Not a grown-up book for grown-up readers.” I might have agreed with James Wood’s verdict, but I closed The History of Love wanting once again to read more of Krauss. And indeed, to read Great House (2010) after History is to see a writer grow up.
Although it was a finalist for the National Book Award, Great House did not inspire the kind of ardent love in readers as did The History of Love, no doubt boring, challenging, or disappointing many who had been hoping for another book just like it. But, as noted by an impressive number of critics, Great House is by far the better novel, artistically and intellectually more ambitious, emotionally deeper, and composed with a much surer hand. Instead of a lost manuscript, it is a piece of furniture that connects this book’s several narratives: a gargantuan writing desk that passes from the possession of one character to another. Structured as a series of alternating confessional monologues, the book is a puzzle that demands some work to piece together along the way—work that makes the experience of reading only more engrossing.
It would not be inaccurate to call Great House a collection of linked stories, with the most conspicuous link being, of course, the physical object of the desk. But there are thematic and spiritual links as well. The stories of these very different characters—among them an American novelist whose life is upended after the desk is removed from her Manhattan apartment, an elderly Londoner who discovers a shocking secret from his late wife’s past, a retired Israeli prosecutor consumed by hostility toward his inscrutable estranged son, and a family ruled by a daunting patriarch whose passion is the recovery of Jewish belongings looted by Nazis—echo and enhance one another in a sumptuously textured plot moving among three continents and spanning many decades.
Together they form an anthology of suffering: life-altering experiences of loss and displacement, of heartbreak and disillusionment and anguished remembrance. They are about the existential anxieties common to modern human experience in general and to Holocaust-haunted Jewish experience in particular. And they are about obligation: to family, to community, to history, and to the dead—above all, to the murdered dead.
In Forest Dark, there are two alternating perspectives, one of which belongs to the autofictional Nicole and the other to a rich and cultivated retired attorney named Jules Epstein. Each of these intense and incisively drawn characters is a New Yorker who leaves home for Israel, steered there by a dramatic midlife crisis precipitated by a loss of faith in what had once sustained them: marriage, family, culture, work, and high professional achievement. Each is troubled by the sense of having lost his or her way, of something missing from a seemingly bright and enviable existence, something perceived to be essential to life’s meaning and true worth.
The same detailed development of story and character that enriched Great House can be found in Forest Dark, but the latter contains more of what Javier Marías has described as the once traditional but now uncommon practice of literary thinking, the action of the novel being periodically paused to accommodate meditative digressions on a range of subjects, from aspects of biblical history to what it means to write fiction to Freud’s theory of the uncanny and the idea of the possible existence of a multiverse.
Although the autobiographical elements of Nicole’s narrative have been often noted, and Krauss herself has expressed admiration for such writers as W.G. Sebald, Karl Ove Knausgaard, and Rachel Cusk, this should not overshadow what remarkable powers of imagination went into the making of Forest Dark. To take the most prominent example, there is Krauss’s audacious invention of a counterlife of Franz Kafka, propounded by an enigmatic Israeli academic whom Nicole meets in Tel Aviv, and according to which, instead of dying of tuberculosis in an Austrian sanatorium in 1924, the great writer contrived to fake his death and escape his angst-filled European existence to live out his days pseudonymously as a gardener in Palestine.
It is anything but rare for a novelist to begin a career with a highly promising book that is followed by several weaker ones. Krauss, on the other hand, has been moving along the opposite path, going from strength to strength and producing, with Forest Dark, her most accomplished novel yet.
William Faulkner once mused that, like the failed poet he confessed to be, “maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.” And maybe not, but anyone who has tried all three forms knows just what Faulkner was getting at. (It is perhaps worth mentioning that Krauss, too, began her writing career as a poet.) In “Only Collect,” Davies observes that, while many a contemporary novel can be faulted for having a disappointing ending yet still be judged a fine work, the same could never be said of a short story. Presumably George Saunders also had this in mind when he wrote, in an essay about story writing, “The land of the short story is a brutal land, a land very similar, in its strictness, to the land of the joke.” It is a principle of creative-writing teachers that, before even attempting to write a novel, every aspiring fiction writer should learn to write a good short story. Sounds reasonable. Except that, try as they might, many novelists, including some very successful ones, never do achieve this.
There are many pleasures to be had from reading the stories in To Be a Man, though I suspect the main effect for many Krauss admirers will be impatience to get their hands on her next full-length work. Written over the years that produced the novels, the stories reflect those books’ interests and fixations, and the title story, whose main character is the middle-aged mother of two boys, a divorced Jewish-American woman possessed of an astute intellect and a pensive nature, seems a lot like the Nicole section of Forest Dark.
It is impossible to read “Zusya on the Roof,” about an elderly man named Brodman who has a near-death experience that pitches him into psychic upheaval, without feeling the presence of The History of Love’s Leo. And in Brodman’s tormented examination of his long life of discontent, in particular in regard to his Jewish heritage and the way it has bound and burdened him—“Who might he have been, had it been given to him to choose? But his chance had passed. He had allowed himself to be crushed by duty. He had failed to fully become himself, had instead given in to ancient pressures”—we are deep in Krauss territory.
That potent figure so familiar to us from the novels—a difficult, egotistical father—makes several appearances. In “I Am Asleep but My Heart Is Awake,” an American woman obeys her late father’s wish that she visit the Tel Aviv apartment he has bequeathed her, a place she had not even known existed. She is staying there alone one night when a stranger claiming to be her father’s old friend lets himself in with a key. As he makes himself at home, the baffled woman wonders if perhaps her father had arranged for him to be there, either “to watch over me, or to pass something on to me…some message or sign of what to do now that he was gone.” If, that is, the man exists at all and isn’t rather the hallucination he ultimately seems to be. Here and in other stories, as often in her novels, Krauss likes to blur the line between real and unreal. Encounters with mysterious or otherworldly characters, implausible events, parallel worlds, and striking coincidences bring to mind the fictions of writers like Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami, as does the sense of dreamlike disorientation and dislocation often experienced by a confessional narrator. What the man ends up doing is obsessing, unnerving, and exhausting the woman, until she at last recognizes him as the obstacle and burden that she knows will be with her for “a very long time.”
In two stories, cinema has an important part. The narrator of “Seeing Ershadi,” a professional dancer, watches Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry and is enthralled by the face of an actor named Homayoun Ershadi at the precise moment when it conveys a man “pushed to the brink of hopelessness.” Later, on a trip to Kyoto, she glimpses a man she believes is Ershadi: same face, same expression. If it seems far-fetched that any of this could spark the kind of profound, compassionate love the woman claims she now feels for the actor, an even more improbable development occurs when an actress who is a friend of hers declares, “The exact same thing happened to me.” After listening to the actress’s Ershadi story, the narrator finds herself questioning not only the meaning of her own encounter with the actor but her dedication to her artistic vocation as well.
“Seeing Ershadi” is a strange and evocative story that, while straining credulity, manages to ring emotionally true. In another, less convincing one, “Amour,” we are asked to believe that one of the characters can recall every detail, from dialogue to camera angles, of numerous movies she saw decades ago. One day she explains to an old friend (the narrator) how it was seeing one particular film, in which an elderly man devotes himself to the care of his invalided wife, that opened her eyes to what was lacking in her own beloved fiancé, thus impelling her to leave him. (Though it is never stated, the film is Michael Haneke’s Amour.)
What puzzled me about “Amour” was the setting: “one of the refugee camps.” How this woman and the narrator have come to be behind barbed wire and what turned these ordinary, privileged Americans—and apparently many of their fellow citizens—into refugees is never explained beyond a vague mention of “myriad collapses and disintegrations.” That they are in a place of grievous suffering is made vivid enough, but if there was a good reason to use it as a backdrop for a love story that did not in any way require such a setting, I could not see it.
I had a similar problem reading “Future Emergencies,” which begins with authorities’ informing New Yorkers that everyone will shortly be needing a gas mask but without specifying the impending danger. People respond by picking up masks at distribution centers and getting on with their lives. (How likely is that?) The main story here centers on a tour guide at the Metropolitan Museum who has been living for several years with an older Frenchman who was once her professor, and now finds herself struggling with a question familiar enough to people in romantic relationships: Should I stay or should I go? Again, this couple’s story might just as well have been told without the business of the gas masks or the tease of the reason for them. (“The whole thing had been some sort of test,” we are eventually told.)
The use of both the refugee camp and the gas masks seemed to me like examples of the hook that writers are often encouraged to sink into the reader’s mind with their opening sentences. That device can serve a story well, of course, but since Krauss never engages with the difficult reality of either of these extreme situations, the hook ends up dangling like an upside-down question mark: Was it because the writer lacked confidence that the relationship story she wanted to tell was interesting enough in itself that she felt the need for some sensational context?
Female as well as male power is represented in the collection, with deft capturings of that thrilling but perilous moment when a girl sees herself for the first time through adult men’s eyes. “It’s her curiosity in her own power, its reach and its limit, that frightens me,” a mother tells us, in “Switzerland,” observing her twelve-year-old’s response to the way strange men look at her—and having just related a frightening story about where such boldness had led a sexually precocious schoolgirl she once knew.
In “End Days,” a California high school senior must come to terms with her parents’ decision that twenty-five years of marriage are enough. Amicable for husband and wife, the divorce afflicts their daughter with “what she knew would long remain, might always remain, a disorder in her heart.” Her inner tumult is intensified by her own recent breakup with a boyfriend and by the desperate battle raging outdoors to beat back encroaching wildfires.
Tasked with delivering paperwork to the rabbi who had performed the ceremony for her parents’ get, she finds herself alone with a different rabbi, his young assistant. As they chat, she catches him looking at her bare legs, “and the knowledge that such nakedness had never before been glimpsed in that kitchen gave her a sudden sense of power.” What she does with that power brings to a culmination this beautifully evolving story with its novel’s worth of insight about love, family, and desire and an ending that one could not have foreseen but that feels completely inevitable. Unlike so often elsewhere in Krauss’s fiction, at no point in the narrative are we asked to suspend disbelief in order to fully understand or enjoy it. It is the collection’s shining example of just how much enchantment this capable writer can make out of ordinary people, dear ordinary people living their sweet messy everyday lives.