Nicole Krauss' fourth novel, a cerebral, dual-stranded tale of disillusionment and spiritual quest, proves heavy going for its characters — and its readers. Her two protagonists, a powerful, 68-year-old Manhattan attorney and philanthropist named Jules Epstein, and a celebrated novelist on the cusp of 40 named Nicole, have come to question the aridity of their lives. Both believe they'll find relief and transformation in Israel, a land of "never-ending argument" that also offers them abundant time and light in which to examine things more deeply.
Following the deaths of his parents in close succession, something in Epstein snaps. He sheds the trappings of his old life — his wife of 36 years, his law practice, his fortune, his Henri Matisse and his John Singer Sargent, his fancy Patek Philippe watch — with the same aggressive drive he used to acquire them.
Meanwhile, Nicole, thrown off course by her failing marriage and writer's block, has lost her faith in "the unassailability of love" and "the power of narrative." Forest Dark, a strained metafictional novel that questions the very act of shaping a story, is her response to her midlife crisis. The novel's Nicole (as opposed to Krauss) tells us in an overly contrived, tricky author's note at the end — which is to say: in a postscript to the novel we've just read — that she excuses her characters from all liability, and that her book takes its title from Dante's potent lines: "Midway upon the journey of our life/I found myself within a forest dark,/For the straightforward pathway had been lost."
Unable to find consolation in their usual outlets — love, wealth and power, writing — these two strivers drop everything and head, impulsively and compulsively, to the Tel Aviv Hilton, an important landmark in both their lives. In Israel, each falls under the spell of a scruffy mentor who promises to take them to higher spiritual realms. Rabbi Klausner, a proselytizer of Jewish mysticism, tries to convince Epstein that he's a descendant of King David. Eliezer Friedman, a retired literature professor who may have ties to the Mossad, insists that Nicole is just the person to write the true story of Franz Kafka's late life — which he claims did not end with tuberculosis in Prague when he was 40, but continued for decades under a pseudonym in Palestine.
Their stories alternate but run on parallel tracks, never intersecting. Epstein's third-person tale, which opens with news of his disappearance after three months in Tel Aviv, follows more traditional narrative conventions and proves the far more engaging strand.
Nicole's first-person confessional, dense with metaphysical reflections, is more problematic. "What if it isn't us who move through space, but space that moves through us, spun on the loom of our minds?" she asks ponderously. Kafka, long a presence in her fiction, plays a much larger role here, very little of it fascinating. At one point, explaining how she had come to find her life, and even her writing, "binding," Nicole declares, "I wanted to write what I wanted to write, however much it offended, bored, challenged, or disappointed people, and disliked the part of myself that wished to please." Readers will find themselves yearning for the part of Nicole Krauss that wished to please — and did — with novels like The History of Love, featuring an eminently charming 80-year-old imp, Leo Gursky.
Fortunately, interspersed with numbing meditations on the multiverse (don't ask), Forest Dark has its bright spots, including its portrait of a scrappy but enticing Israel, and the bizarre Kafkaesque turn that Nicole's spiritual odyssey takes. Interestingly, like her ex-husband Jonathan Safran Foer's recent post-divorce novel, Here I Am, Krauss' new novel sends its characters to Israel in search of change. Both books discuss God's question to Adam and Abraham — "Where are you?" But while Foer answers with his title, Krauss' response is more ironic: The question even shows up in an iPhone message released "into the cloud," though it never reaches Epstein, its intended recipient.
With Forest Dark, Krauss gives us a pretty good sense of where she is, trying to write her way out of the woods of midlife disillusionment by exploring trails leading to glades of deeper meaning and satisfaction. It's a worthy pursuit, but let's hope she finds a compass to navigate her way back to the warmth and heart of her more compelling work.