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Empty Rooms: On Nicole Krauss | The Nation

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Empty Rooms: On Nicole Krauss

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Nadia, then, is not so much a courtroom witness as a gumshoe investigating her own loosely defined mystery. She senses as much while reflecting on Varsky's stuff, delivered to her apartment by an anonymous moving crew a few weeks after their meeting:

Great House
By Nicole Krauss.
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About the Author

Alexandra Schwartz
Alexandra Schwartz is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker.

Also by the Author

Because nobody else thinks like her.

The slowly panic-making power of Renata Adler’s novels Speedboat and Pitch Dark.

Sometimes I would look around at his furniture, the sofa, desk, coffee table, bookshelves, and chairs, and be filled with a crushing despair, and sometimes just an oblique sadness, and sometimes I would look at it all and become convinced that it amounted to a riddle, a riddle he had left me that I was supposed to crack.

Krauss has a weakness for glaring symbolism, and there can't be much doubt as to which of these objects will serve as the enigma of Nadia's story. Long after Varsky has returned to Pinochet's bloody Chile and disappeared in a flurry of rumors, his desk remains the centerpiece of her life. Nadia writes a career's worth of novels at the desk until suddenly, in 1999, Leah Weisz, a young Israeli woman claiming to be Varsky's daughter, arrives to retrieve it without any explanation. Its absence leaves Nadia stranded in the same state of "crushing despair" its presence had initially provoked, a depression like "the grips of a monster that seemed to have sprung from nowhere and made me a stranger to myself." When therapy and medication fail to lift her mood, Nadia takes off for Jerusalem—her quest, and the book's, finally launched.

Except that it isn't, or at least not quite. Great House is structured as a series of lengthy, rambling monologues, some voices recurring in both of its sections, others appearing only once. The first voice to speak after Nadia's belongs to Aaron, a gruff, petulant Israeli whose battalion commander's diction grows shrill and then slack as he mentally rages against his younger son. Aside from the marked coincidence of that son's being a judge, Aaron has no apparent connection to Nadia or her desk. Neither does Izzy, a young American woman studying at Oxford, though Izzy's relationship with Leah Weisz's brother, Yoav, leads to the introduction of Weisz's father into the mystery. The elder Weisz has made his fortune tracking down lost objects for others while scouring the globe to locate the contents of his father's Budapest study, raided by the Nazis in 1944. The quest has turned him into a de facto sleuth armed with the Havisham-ish conviction that "unlike people...the inanimate doesn't simply disappear." Whether there's much truth to that, Weisz's unwavering dedication to his mission points to a motive for his daughter's interference in Nadia's life.

The desk resurfaces in the recollections of Arthur Bender, an elderly Englishman whose wife, Lotte, owned the desk in the years after she escaped from Poland as a Kindertransport chaperone. Lotte was a good match for the desk, if not for the bumbling, adoring Arthur. Forbiddingly cryptic, she spent her life writing fiction that never received much attention—not that she minded. The model of Krauss's favorite trope, the writer satisfied by her work alone, Lotte composed sinister little allegories like "Children Are Terrible for Gardens," the story of a landscape artist who collaborates with a totalitarian government when it begins to bury children in the park he has designed. For Arthur, remembering his first encounters with the desk in the London apartment Lotte rented before they were married, its presence exerts the same terrible influence over his life and imagination as its absence does over Nadia's:

In that simple, small room it overshadowed everything else like some sort of grotesque, threatening monster, clinging to most of one wall and bullying the other pathetic bits of furniture to the far corner, where they seemed to cling together, as if under some sinister magnetic force. It was made of dark wood and above the writing surface was a wall of drawers, drawers of totally impractical sizes, like the desk of a medieval sorcerer. Except that every last drawer was empty...which somehow made the desk, the specter of that enormous desk, really more like a ship than a desk, a ship riding a pitch-black sea in the dead of a moonless night with no hope of land in any direction, seem even more unnerving.

Arthur imagines the desk waiting for him "like a Trojan horse," and he asks Lotte to keep it out of his sight in the home they later share. Monster, medieval sorcerer, ship and even, recalled years after Varsky inexplicably materializes on the Benders' doorstep and still more inexplicably leaves with the hated thing, "a Venus flytrap, ready to pounce on [its prey] and digest them via one of its many little terrible drawers": the barrage of associations strains to convey a sense of horror that's clearly meant to gain potency by virtue of its nebulousness. Yet the more Arthur searches for the right metaphor to animate the desk as a psychosexual nemesis—"it was," he adds, as if the point was ever in doubt, "a very masculine desk"—the stronger the reader's suspicion that the desk's true function in his world, not to mention in the book, isn't that of an enigma or puzzle piece. The desk is simply a Rorschach blot, its meaning as vague and changeable as the whim of its beholder and, like the psychological pop quiz, ultimately bogus, a symbol neutered by its wild malleability and under whose weight Great House begins to sag.

* * *

After two novels given to scrupulously tidy conceits, Krauss's attempt to loosen the constraints on her fiction would seem a welcome development. But the weakness of Great House lies in Krauss's habit of swinging from the evocative to the overcharged and filling any gaps in strict meaning with great gusts of portentousness to create a suggestive atmosphere. (Suggestive of what, aside from a thick smog of dread? Pass over it, as Aaron says when the going gets tough.) Early on, Nadia recalls the first time she took a walk after being left by R. "By the time I got home I was exhausted but I felt that I had purged myself of something," she says, and the cop-out of "something," empty rather than evocative, reverberates in the texture of Krauss's prose. Krauss is at her best when conjuring precise, unexpected details to bring a world into focus, like the "three strands of [his] mother's hair" that Weisz finds in his parents' plundered Budapest house, to say nothing of the "charcoal [of] a man sodomizing a donkey" scrawled on its wall. Nadia's tendency toward ambiguity doesn't work for Krauss. She's bound to step in and tamp it down or, better yet, unfurl a moral that could apply to her project, as she does toward the end of Nadia's saga:

Maybe you sense that I am coming to the end, that the story that has been hurtling toward you from the start is about to turn the bend in the road and collide with you at last. Yes, I wanted to weep and gnash my teeth, Your Honor, to beg your forgiveness, but what came out was a story. I wanted to be judged on what I did with my life, but now I will be judged by how I described it. But perhaps that is right, after all.... Only before God do we stand without stories. But I am not a believer, Your Honor.

If this seems more than a bit overwrought, it might be best not to dwell on the fact that the plot point that causes Nadia's "hurtling" story to "collide" with her silent listener's is, incredibly, a car crash. An author who feels the need to package a primer on the power of narrative into the heart of her novel can't have much trust in her readers. Krauss doesn't want to take the risk that we'll mistake the message at the core of her novel, but books that self-consciously venerate storytellers and storytelling while patronizing readers in the process don't do themselves, or their craft, a service. Reductive and facile, they are too often dulled by didacticism, the worst advocates for the qualities they deem most important. When Arthur abruptly ends a litany of typically unwieldy and pedestrian metaphors that veer from atoms to train stations to circus tents with the question "so what hope did we really have of ever making sense of ourselves, let alone one another"—or when Aaron thinks, "Death is waiting just around the corner for me. If we leave things like this it's not I who will pay the price"—it becomes even more tempting to cut through the treacle and self-pity and shout, as Leo Gursky did with such aplomb, "WAKE UP, YOU DUMKOP!"

Where is the humor, the wry self-awareness that rounded out the pathos of Leo's battles against age, loneliness and loss to make him a compelling presence on the page? Where, for that matter, is that vast spectrum of emotion beyond disappointment, repressed anger and a foreboding sense of loss? Arthur dismisses a certain grim restaurant he eats in as being "populated by zombies"; he could just as well be describing Great House. Krauss seems to be trying to suppress her gift for humor along with the particular insights humor can convey in an effort to establish Great House as a truly serious work, one that can't be assailed, as The History of Love was, for being awash in sentimentality. Yet the act of suppression breeds an artificially flattened tone, a tense, prolonged numbness that is too studied to be true either to life or to the characters trapped into expressing themselves in its truncated register. The very refusal to traverse broad regions of emotional territory for fear of veering into sentimentality only constitutes a different kind of sentimentality, one rooted in the idea that petty tragedy and inevitable estrangement are life's two essential, unremitting conditions.

"But emptiness didn't mean apathy," Izzy remarks of the depression she suffers at Oxford; "anxiety, loneliness, and despair seemed to lurk around every corner, waiting to sabotage my physical progress down the street." Izzy's situation is elevated to a philosophy to which each of the narrators of Great House invariably subscribes. Their homogeneity stems from Krauss's limited use of her interspersed monologues, a scheme that should grant ample opportunity to play characters' different voices off one another to add new dimensions to the narrative as, yes, different rooms can add unexpected complexity to a house. Instead, the uniformity of tone that permeates the novel is a surprising shortcoming for an author whose earlier books came alive in large part through her characters' distinctive ways of expressing themselves. Particularly egregious is Krauss's treatment of the women of Great House, all of whom are pointedly childless, haunted by son stand-ins and smothered in a placid bleakness that can be poignant on the individual level but maddening when imposed as some kind of melancholic female burden. When Nadia (whose ex-husband, to make the point even starker, nicknames her Nada) arrives in Jerusalem to search for the Weisz clan, I found myself wondering how the premise of her individuality could be sustained if she were confronted with herself in the form of Izzy, whose even, analytical penchant for self-effacement had become all but indistinguishable from Nadia's.

Was Krauss aware of the problem? Izzy does disappear from the novel after a single monologue, though not before pointing to the quality missing from the fictional realm she and her fellow characters inhabit. "He awakened a hunger in me," Izzy says of Yoav, "not just for him, but also for the magnitude of life, for the extremes of all it has been given us to feel. A hunger and also courage." "All it has been given us to feel." The phrase makes a show of raising the question of agency in order to dodge it just as glibly: been given us to feel by what? Nature? The divine? Scientists with a special yen for Proust? Still, as we're operating in the restricted scope of the novel, Izzy's curiosity to explore what exists beyond the boundaries that so constrain her and the other characters' experience amounts to taking her author to task. The desk is a mysterious conceit, but it's far from a genuine mystery; it fails to suggest anything as strange and profound as "the magnitude of life." Like Miranda upon seeing Ferdinand, Izzy has looked beyond Krauss's manufactured gloom and glimpsed a slice of her own, astonishing world. 'Tis new to her, perhaps, but surely not to Krauss, who has made use of its expansive contradictions before to moving effect. It remains for Krauss to allow her characters, and herself, the courage to explore.

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