Kabbalists explain creation as the deliberate retreat of God to make space for the rest of us. “When it arose in God’s will to create the world, He first withdrew Himself and in the void that was left, He created the world,” explains Rabbi Menachem Klausner, the persistent, shambling resident theologian in Nicole Krauss’s protean new novel, Forest Dark. “This is why,” Klausner continues, “the rabbis tell us that a broken heart…has a vacancy, and the vacancy has the potential to be filled with the infinite.”
Brokenness and attempted repair animate Forest Dark. Krauss presents two stories that run parallel to each other in alternating chapters, never intersecting or overtly acknowledging the other. That the stories never ultimately merge is as much a philosophical as a narrative choice: Though we live among others and even derive meaning from them, Krauss suggests, all constructions of the self are, in the end, solitary.
Forest Dark’s first story concerns an aging New York lawyer, Jules Epstein, who is in the midst of an existential reckoning. Written in the third person, Epstein’s story serves as an anchor for the febrile, fantastical second account, narrated by a writer named Nicole who, like the Nicole who has written this book, is a successful middle-aged novelist who has been living in Brooklyn with her husband and two children. Both Epstein and Nicole have left New York for Tel Aviv, he ahead of her, and both have decamped to the massive beachfront redoubt of the Tel Aviv Hilton.
Epstein’s life “unspooled from [Tel Aviv],” the city of his birth, and he has been drawn back after the death of his parents. Nicole, whose domestic life is unraveling and whose work life is faltering, is there, ostensibly, in search of a story: She’s heard that someone fell to his death from a balcony at the hotel, a place where she’d spent summers as a child. It’s an odd story to chase, though the metaphor of the falling man makes a certain emotional sense. It also leaves the reader wondering: Was it Jules Epstein?
Epstein is a familiar type, a thick-skinned, tough-talking, combative, self-made, fabulously wealthy Jewish New Yorker. Belief is anathema to him—he’s a realist, with a realist’s fetish for the tangible, which often comes down to the things that he can buy. Which is why, when Epstein leaves his firm, divorces his wife, and starts divesting himself of all the things by which success is measured, people think he is ill, or depressed, or nuts. How else to explain his sudden lack of interest in money and the monuments to himself that he has built with it—the museum-quality art collection, the Bentley, the upscale real estate—to remind himself and others that he is important and real? And who is he to those around him if not a man of great means, a writer of checks in large denominations to philanthropies and family members? It is poignant and instructive to watch them want nothing more for Epstein than for him to stay the same.