"To paint a leaf," wrote Nicole Krauss, queen of literary Brooklyn, in her cloying but popular second novel The History of Love, "you have to sacrifice the whole landscape. It might seem like you're limiting yourself at first, but after a while you realise that having a quarter-of-an-inch of something you have a better chance of holding onto a certain feeling of the universe than if you pretended to be doing the whole sky." Krauss is the kind of writer for whom holding onto a certain feeling is the main thing, and the feeling she wants to hold onto is one of Jewishness.
In that second novel, whose imitations of Isaac Babel and Bruno Schultz transcend self-consciousness and make a break for burlesque, Judaism is an aesthetic - a stickily sentimental one at that. Its characters are collections of cartoonish tics, all embarked on cracked quests for love, all operating under the sort of restricted perspective identified as being especially conducive to a creamy consistency of mood.
Leo Gursky, an aged Polish writer living in New York, makes a point of being observed every day, deliberately dropping small change in public or asking to try on unlikely footwear in shoe shops in order to avoid dying unnoticed. But guess what: unknown to him, a novel he wrote is out there in the world, changing each life it touches. Across town a 14-year-old girl obsessively hones her outdoor survival skills and plays romantic intermediary for her widowed and distracted mother. The Holocaust is invoked as a kind of Shakespearean tempest, a plot device for acquainting strange bedfellows. Characters are not above saying "Oy vey" and breaking into riotous Jewish dances.
These, then, are people of the book in a rather diminished sense, mere assemblages of fictional archetypes; and indeed, at the novel's finale it is implied that literature itself redeems them. James Wood, writing in the LRB, found Krauss's distillation of literary Jewishisms to be so unsavoury that it amounted to "minstrelsy, pure and simple".
In her latest work the author takes most of her cues from gentile authors, presumably to Wood's relief. Thomas Bernhard gets a namecheck; WG Sebald's hypnotic travelogues are a clear influence at several points and the swaggering ghost of Roberto Bolaño is evoked more or less explicitly to lend proceedings a dash of sex appeal. The result is a bitterer brew than her previous sickly concoction, which is an improvement, but it still has a synthetic flavour. And that leaf-painting approach to capturing a sense of the universe remains in effect. In The History of Love it resulted in kitsch. Applied here in the context of Israel's military history, it takes on an air of evasiveness.
To be fair, Great House does supply its own commentary on some of these issues. The significance of its title isn't explained until the penultimate chapter, and if that makes it a twist, consider this a spoiler warning.
When the Romans sacked the Second Temple of Jerusalem in the first century, legend has it that the great rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai asked himself in anguish: "What is a Jew without Jerusalem? How can you be a Jew without a nation?" His answer was to rebuild Jerusalem in the mind. The school that grew up around his teachings became known as the Great House, after the verse in the Books of Kings: "He burned the house of God, the king's house, and all the houses of Jerusalem; even every great house he burned with fire." Over the centuries that followed the Jewish people preserved the fragments of that Great House - in effect, the whole body of Jewish culture - in their memories, each retaining "a pattern on the wall, a knot in the wood of the door, a memory of how light fell across the floor," as the sinister antiques dealer who flits through the novel's pages explains. "But if every Jewish memory were put together, every last holy fragment joined up again as one, the House would be built again".
It happens that the antiques dealer, whose name is Weisz, is trying to reconstruct a remembered sanctuary of his own - his father's study in Hungary, whose contents were stolen by the Nazis. Weisz scours the world for his father's missing furniture and reassembles it in Israel. That, we guess, is where the parallel task of assembling all those Jewish memories is also meant to be taking place. We only catch glimpses of Weisz's personal project, which comes into focus towards the end of the novel. Nevertheless, it is this strange quest which is supposed to invest the preceding narrations with meaning and dignity, to make their reflections on irrational compulsion and the ironies of finite perspective add up to something.
As it is, for most of its duration Great House presents itself as an intensely humourless accursed-object story, rather in the manner of WW Jacobs' much-parodied tale The Monkey's Paw. The fateful item in this case is 19-drawer desk which seems to make the writers who inherit it morose and difficult to live with. We trace its progress through four loosely connected narratives, each of which revolves around some niggling loss or absence, each of which is finally seen to have contained its own pattern on the wall or knot of wood in the door.
The desk first crops up in the possession of Daniel Varksy, a Jewish poet from Chile who bears a family resemblance to the punkish "visceral realists" in Bolaño's The Savage Detectives. Varksy makes an indelible impression on a New York novelist called Nadia, then leaves her his furniture and promptly vanishes, as Bolaño did himself for a time, into the darkness of the Pinochet regime. In the years that follow Nadia writes several novels with the help of her new possession, meanwhile withdrawing from life and allowing her marriage to break down through neglect. In time she convinces herself that she is a "fraud, who hid a poverty of spirit behind a mountain of words". As a gesture of atonement, Nadia forfeits the fateful writing table to a young Israeli woman who presents herself as Varsky's daughter, before setting out on her own quest to reconnect with Varsky's legacy.
Other episodes introduce us to the desk's previous owner, Lotte Berg, a novelist and Holocaust survivor who refuses to admit her British husband into the depths of her memory. We also meet Isabel, an Oxford graduate student whose love affair with one of Weisz's children allows us to observe how his implacable pursuit of furniture has deformed the lives of his family. Throughout, the desk is described in thunderous style: "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 its many little terrible drawers". The more Krauss vamps on this theme, the harder it is to take seriously.
A fourth strand in the plot is never explicitly connected to the desk. A grieving widower, who speaks in a soured version of Leo Gursky's Yiddish comedian voice, addresses Dov, a prodigal son who has returned to Israel after a long absence. Dov, we learn, had many things wrong with him: he was intense and inward, literary and neurasthenic. He drove his aggressively hearty father to distraction. His final withdrawal came after seeing a comrade die in the 1973 war. But Dov returns to his father as a kind of angel of mercy, to help him wrestle with the riddle of mortality.
"The Jews, who have made so much of life, have never known what to make of death," his father confesses. "[A]sk a Jew what happens when he dies and you'll see the miserable condition of a man left alone to grapple. A man lost and confused. Wandering blindly."
Perhaps this void is just another piece of Judaism's missing furniture. The father can't resist noting a further irony, however: "Having been denied an answer - having been denied an answer while at the same time being cursed as a people who for thousands of years have aroused in others a murderous hate - the Jew has no choice but to live with death every day." The deaths in Israel, of course, are the results of Palestinian attacks; the father narrowly avoids a bomb blast on a bus.
Yet Palestinians themselves don't have a place in Great House, except as parts of the tragic condition of Judaism. They're part of that ancient curse; part of a feeling of the universe. Only one Arab appears in the novel - Nadia notices a street sweeper as she rides a motorcycle through the streets of Jerusalem. He isn't a character so much as a piece of decor. One starts to wonder at the claustrophobia of Krauss's narrative strategy, at the sensation one has of being cooped up in one solipsist's skull after another. Even when the camera pulls back, so to speak, to reveal the big picture, it turns out to contain nothing but a few sad leaves. Perhaps she should get out of the house more.
Ed Lake is the deputy editor of The Review.
Full Dark, No Stars
Hodder & Stoughton
For all the chills of his oeuvre, you can't help warming to Stephen King. His forewords are cosy chats, offering his "constant reader" insights into what he was attempting in the pages that follow. In Full Dark, No Stars, he announces that, for him, the most frightening thing in the world is other people.
Not his best work but tense and enjoyable nonetheless, this book maps out King's unsettling vision in four novellas. The first is a piece of American gothic involving a domestic murder in Nebraska. King serves up a characteristic mixture of probing psychology and vengeful, killer ghost-rats.
After that, barring an appearance by the Devil in "Fair Extension", it is the humans who supply the horror. This approach has a fortunate side effect. Decent endings have often eluded King, but here he makes a good fist of them. Tragedy usually does not conclude with explosions or inter-dimensional showdowns. The nightmare, as the protagonists of this collection find, continues in guilt at the choices they must live with.
Player One is classic Douglas Coupland: five people are stranded in the cocktail lounge of a Toronto airport hotel when the price of oil hits $250 a barrel, causing widespread panic. The new twist here is that the author submitted this text as his essay for the 2010 Massey Lectures, a yearly presentation delivered by a significant writer or academic in Canada.
As with most Coupland novels, the narrative soon takes a back seat to his endless cataloguing of pop culture (Cancun holidays and frozen Lean Cuisine dinners) while he also muses about the big questions (death, God and the nature of time). Yet his 13th novel leaves the impression of an older, wiser and more world-weary author. As his mid-life bartender observes: "When you're young, you feel like life hasn't yet begun... but suddenly you're old, and the scheduled life never arrived."
And where his characters were once preoccupied with the fear of nuclear disaster, post-9/11, tragedy has become almost banal: "the entire world has now turned into the Twin Towers, and it will never feel normal ever again".