Courtesy of W.W. Norton
Nicole Krauss, she of the single most hyperbolic blurb in the history of publishing has a new novel, Great House, that's a finalist for this year's surprisingly un-Franzened National Book Award. And enjoy the simple charm of that Krauss–House rhyme while you can, for long gone is the humor and quirk of The History of Love. Ms. Krauss, it would appear, has discovered Bolano, and decided to try her hand in this "terror of every waking moment" project.
It was then, looking at his strange face, that I knew a door had opened, but not the kind of door my father had imagined…Another wave of nausea came over me, nausea mixed with happiness and also relief, because I sensed that one chapter of my life had ended and another was about to begin.
Great House is four narratives that spin, at varying concentric distances, around a central gravitational point, which is the large desk at which her characters sit to write letters, novels, and sometimes poems. As one voice describes it, "an enormous, foreboding thing that bore down on the occupants of the room it inhabited, pretending to be inanimate but, like a Venus flytrap, ready to pounce on them and digest them via one of it's many little terrible drawers." Can you imagine, readers? Where others find utility in a desk's vacancies, with their convenient knobs or handles and capacity for storage, in Great House we envision the roll-top like a starving maw, pens for teeth, the thing bloodhungry and terrible.
And while there's no denying that she's capable of gorgeous sentences and deeply felt moments, painting from a rich, vibrant palette of human emotion, there's something a little bit…off about Krauss's foray into the somber. Around page 81 I began to count the number of times characters suddenly saw “something” in another’s character that they “hadn’t seen before.” They were many. Likewise will characters glance over their shoulders, struck by pangs of regret, often “suddenly.” And while such meaning-making relies on the unknown for its dramatic force, too often Krauss steps in and tames these pesky mysteries before we're given any chance. For example:
I hadn’t thought about it until just now, but the night Daniel rang our bell in the winter of 1970 was the end of November, the same time of year she died twenty-seven years later. I don’t know what that’s supposed to tell you; nothing, except that we take comfort in the symmetries we find in life because they suggest a design where there is none.
Even if the narrator can't quite put his finger on meaning, rest assured that Krauss knows exactly what this coincidence should tell us, this nicely Hallmarkish habit of ours to find symmetries suggestive of a design to transcend and trump our own. But why, one wonders, the claim to incomprehension beforehand? Why create mystery if only to deflate that mystery by the very rules you've written? This is meaning-making—every novel's ultimate goal—of the sort that less presents mystery as holds your hand and leads along mystery's winding path, pointing and explaining as she goes, ensuring that you not miss any of the sights. At some point, however, as with a child of, say, six or seven years, we begin to resent hand-holding and wonder when the author will believe enough in us that we can go unsupervised.
Only much later did I come to understand that the young man…was the same age as the son she gave away. How he must have reminded her of her own child, and what it would have been like with him. How moving those days with Daniel must have been for her, in ways he himself could never have grasped.
The result with Great House is a reading experience not too unlike being the only person on a Greyhound bus. You look around and wonder how much more trial, conflict, danger, in short, life, the bus was designed to hold. Meanwhile the bus driver’s eyes are there in his convex mirror, watching your reaction as he speaks non-stop into his microphone. On your left, please notice how this reminds us of that. On your right, see how moving it must have been, which, trust me, nobody could possibly grasp on their own.
Though credit Krauss for resisting the neat bowties that could very easily have wrapped this novel's plot in the end. Also credit how by the novel's final third, Krauss has dispensed with the most flagrant of her projections and cleared some elbow room around her characters, nearly enough for readers to inhabit. But for too long the conversation of this book is like one with an expert in her field, too eager to share her authority. Because here the field is living, the active process of operating in our world as bloody, suspicious, and frightened human beings. And so who will be our experts? And how, more importantly, can their art function to exercise our faculties of living, so that we become more expert ourselves?
Kyle Beachy can be found on the web—where else?—at kylebeachy.com.