There’s something about Nicole Krauss that, while I like her work, bothers me.
I’ve enjoyed Nicole Krauss’ writing ever since I read her first novel, Man Walks Into A Room. I was fascinated by her insights into memory loss and what that does to a relationship, because I’d seen what Alzheimer’s Disease had done to my family at the time, and while her novel was about memory loss of a different sort, many of the repercussions were the same. I loved that book, and immediately fantasized about being the one allowed to adapt it into a screenplay.
I enjoyed her second novel, A History of Love, too. But this story had less of an impact on me because of the voice and style she chose to tell it. Perhaps it was because I was used to her husband Jonathan Safran Foer’s style, and it seemed very much like him (making the reading experience visual by using things like lists and charts as part of the narrative, etc), but I felt like she was doing a ventriloquist act. While I enjoyed the characters (particularly the brother, who I thought was underused), and appreciated the story she was trying to tell, it didn’t feel like a natural progression from Man Walks Into a Room, nor did it sound like her voice from what I’d gathered from short stories of hers I’d read.
So, I recently picked up her latest novel, Great House, because I respect her talent as a writer, and was hoping that this book would be more her own. Great House tells the stories of three groups of people that are all connected by an old desk. Once again, Krauss is adept at capturing certain emotional situations – getting older, memory loss, life as a writer – with precision and elegance. There were passages where I recognized myself in what she was describing so much that I had to put the book down, because my heart was racing. The problem I have with this book, though, is that it’s told from the point of view of three different characters, but they all pretty much sound the same, and they all sound “literary.” Rather than have distinct voices with the distinct cadences that come with being at different stages in life, or different education levels, they all sound the same level of poetic and have the same self-awareness.
What’s strange is that, looking back, her first novel was probably really rough. But it also seemed to be a book that wasn’t trying so hard. It was telling an interesting story in an insightful way with characters I cared about, and I loved it. It seems, though, that once that book did so well, her subsequent novels seem to be trying so hard to be art that they forget to be stories. In A History of Love, all the characters are bound together by a manuscript they have in common. In Great House, there’s the desk. She seems to be settling into a formula where story doesn’t matter (There’ll be this central thing that unites the characters, which will allow me to tell the story Magnolia-style, being really insightful about characters and emotions, but not having anything actually happen except that someone, you know, ends up with this thing). Which is interesting, considering that Man Walks Into a Room told a story that was also insightful, and her short story, “Future Emergencies”, managed to tell a story that was bigger than her characters – it was about the post-9/11 world.
Thing is, I really do love Nicole Krauss’ writing. I just wish she put it to better use. I wish she would get out of her comfort zone a little more and risk sounding a little less polished. I’ll probably pick up her next novel, too, but if it’s about a disparate group of people bound together by a central object, I quit.
Next on Teresa’s Bookshelf: Fables Vol. 3: Storybook Love by Bill Willingham, art by Mark Buckingham
Currently Reading: Wild Nights! by Joyce Carol Oates, and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins