8 Summer Paperbacks
Forest Dark takes its title from The Inferno, wherein Dante finds himself in murky woods because "the straightforward pathway had been lost."
In alternating chapters, Nicole Krauss gives us dual protagonists who have abandoned their own once-clear roads. Jules, a wealthy 68-year-old Manhattan attorney and savant, startles his family by divesting himself of his law partnership and selling off all his possessions, including his vast art collection. He abruptly leaves for Israel to find a memorial site for his parents and investigate this question: "What else was there still to learn about himself?" Nicole, a lauded but blocked novelist, has left her young sons and a foundering marriage in Brooklyn to take up residence in the Tel Aviv Hilton, where she was conceived, convinced it's the only place she can rekindle her creative spark.
Whether the two ever cross paths—or even inhabit the same plane of reality—is open to interpretation; Krauss resists easy resolution as deftly as she eschews traditional plot. But what the characters do have in common is a sense, as Nicole puts it, that in their lives "the degree of artifice was greater than the degree of truth." Can their sojourns shift that balance? At first, the answer appears to be no: In the course of their parallel adventures, existential confusion only deepens, until they find themselves literally lost in the desert.
The author, who shares some of her heroine's biographical circumstances, started as a poet, which may explain why she writes insight and revelation better than just about anyone working today. Her handling of domestic entropy is uniquely devastating and invites readers to draw comparisons to her real-life divorce from writer Jonathan Safran Foer.
Krauss isn't the first novelist to embed herself in her own work: Philip Roth notably played with the device in the novels Deception and Operation Shylock, and Foer's 2016 Here I Am contains what appear to be autobiographical elements, among them a painful breakup. Such self-reference can read as clever or meta, but in Krauss's hands it feels like radical honesty, personal and searing.
While Krauss's genius has long been evident, of her four books this one cuts closest to the bone. The woods may be dark, but Krauss's gorgeous sentences light our way through.