All of Krauss’s favourite themes and preoccupations are here: memory, solitude, the inner life of an elderly Jewish man, the meditations on Israel and on what it means to be Jewish in the homeland and in the diaspora. We’re reminded, reading them, why she’s so often spoken of in the same breath as Philip Roth ... But Krauss has opted for something much more interesting, and the novel that emerges is a book of mirrors, a dazzling and fascinating meditation on fiction itself, and on doubleness and echoes ... There have been a great many novels about writing novels and it’s a difficult trick to pull off, but it’s testament to Krauss’s formidable skill as a writer that this one feels entirely original. This isn’t to suggest perfection: the narrative momentum grinds to a halt for a while following Nicole’s arrival in Tel Aviv, during an extended meditation on Kafka that veers dangerously close to an academic essay. But there’s no such thing as a perfect novel, any more than there’s such a thing as a perfect life. One of the great pleasures of reading a writer’s body of work lies in seeing the progression from one book to the next, and Forest Dark finds Krauss at the top of her game. It is blazingly intelligent, elegantly written and a remarkable achievement.
...[a] strange and beguiling novel, a mystery that operates on grounds simultaneously literary and existential ... Krauss marshals facts from Kafka’s biography — his long-standing interest in Zionism, his Hebrew lessons, a failed plan to immigrate in 1923 — to brilliantly unspool this alternate history ... The themes of doubling and entrapment in this novel may be reminiscent of Kafka, but the scenario itself calls to mind the work of a more recent forefather: Philip Roth. His entire body of work, but especially the Nathan Zuckerman novels, plays with similar questions of Jewish history, identity, and obligation ... It has become conventional for writers to suggest identification with their narrators while at the same time coyly denying it. Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, and Rachel Cusk have all recently used this trope. The effect is like looking into a warped mirror: The reflection is easily perceived, the distortion less so. The technique can veer dangerously close to solipsism. Look at me, these writers seem to be saying, this is my life, or at least I want you to perceive it as such. Krauss, however, uses it self-consciously as an echo of Kafka, emphasizing her doppelgänger’s own entrapment in an existentially bewildering predicament. Look at me, she says: I could be you ... What Forest Dark shows — with its bold reimagining of Kafka’s life, as well as its intimations that Nicole’s life might be something other than what she thinks it is — is that the distinction between authentic and inauthentic might not be as important as we believe. It’s a perfectly Kafkaesque vision, almost uncanny enough to be sublime.
It might be tempting to conflate the character Nicole with the author named on the book jacket. But Krauss — like W. G. Sebald, whose work haunts these pages, and like many other writers before her — toys with identity as a means to lure us into a story (or two), and not, to my mind, to reveal intimate details ... Forest Dark is a novel that, mercifully, embraces and even celebrates not, for once, having answers ... And yet, and yet. What about doing some honor to the truth of incoherence? Krauss manages it by granting two high-achieving American Jews — why Jews? people, vulnerable human beings — a break from themselves. Israel, impossible and messy as it is, becomes a conduit for new possibilities. Detours. Blessed dead ends ... Elias Canetti once wrote of Kafka that he sought, above all, to preserve his freedom to fail. In this spirit, Krauss, an incisive and creative interpreter of Kafka, allows Nicole and Epstein to regain their own freedom to fail. This particular freedom should never be taken lightly. It’s a great gift not only to her characters, but to her readers.
Those who enter this dark forest are fated to wander through a thicket of esoteric reflections on Jewish mysticism, Israel and creation. Krauss can sometimes sound like a modern-day Ralph Waldo Emerson, so long as you don’t push too hard on her orphic pronouncements...Indeed, much of this material feels more essayistic than novelistic, except that an essay is meant to deliver us to greater understanding of something besides the author’s pathos. Eventually, a subplot involving Franz Kafka scurries into the story and offers a bit of cerebral intrigue — along with Krauss’s illuminating commentary on Kafka’s life and work. But that still leaves a lot of room for Nicole to moan about imposing form on the formlessness of narrative. Such writerly consternation may send students at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop into fits of ecstasy, but most readers will be more moved by Nicole’s reflections on the loss of love, on that indeterminate moment when romance evaporates ... Nothing in these pages discourages the assumption that Krauss is revealing her own laments about the failure of their marriage, which makes Forest Dark feel uncomfortably passive aggressive: an act of relationship revenge with deniability built into its fictive frame.
How thrilling...to open Forest Dark, Krauss’s new novel, and find not only an insistence on its own formlessness but a general refusal to please … It is, at heart, a story about the present. Both Epstein and Nicole have to pick up the pieces of their broken marriages and figure out how to start over. They may be in Israel, but their journey of reinvention is a thoroughly American one … In Forest Dark she has written a book that is not lovely; it is original and, for the most part, strong. By shrugging off her previous shortcuts to authority, she has expanded her own, as an author.
Forest Dark is really two novellas, connected by the theme of questing for meaning. Both of Krauss’s Jewish characters are struggling with life, and both decide to go to Israel to try to gain fresh perspective and puzzle out their problems ... Nicole is a profoundly introspective character, and Krauss plugs us directly into her brain with long, dense passages about everything from her weird sensation of being in two places at once to love and fidelity to her theories on narrative structure ... If you only had to read that once to understand it, and you liked what it means, you’ll probably love this novel. As well, if you possess more than a passing knowledge of Kafka’s work, you’ll probably get a kick out of what often reads like an inside joke for Kakfa fans.
Forest Dark is a richly layered masterpiece; creative, profound, insightful, deeply serious, effortlessly elegant, both human and humane. Krauss is a poet and a philosopher, and this latest work does what only the very best fiction can do — startles, challenges and enlightens the reader, while showing the familiar world anew ... To get lost in Forest Dark is to wonder. It is a pleasure and a privilege to read, confronting our estrangement from the unknown, 'which once lay glittering at the farthest edge of our gaze, channelling our fear but also our hope and longing.'
The two separate plotlines about these two questers — Nicole and Epstein —ultimately intersect, but that's the only predictable aspect of this scramble of a novel. There are digressions here into Franz Kafka, René Descartes, Sigmund Freud, fairy tales and film. Sections of the novel are walled off from each another, as disconnected as that row-after-row of rooms in the Tel Aviv Hilton. Readers should just go along for the choppy ride, because the pleasure of Krauss' writing isn't located in the story. Instead, it's the wayward precision of her language that draws us into the desert, 'the forest dark' and other contemplative places where illumination occurs.
In Forest Dark, Nicole – who shares numerous biographical details with Krauss and reminds one of those narrating doubles in Philip Roth – tells us that she can’t write because 'in my work and my life,' 'I had become distrustful of all the possible shapes that I might give things' ... She gets there by channeling Kafka – himself forever frustrated by the sense that our lives are partial and incomplete, while forever hopeful that we might someday walk through the door separating us from the eternal ... That fantasy is necessarily implausible, just as the second and shorter part of Krauss’ novel is less successful than the first... But Krauss’ intrepid journey into this forest reveals great secrets, involving the tales we tell as we whistle in the dark.
Unfortunately, the Nicole sections of Forest Dark suffer from a humorless tone and a foregrounded self-regard in which both writer and character seem to think themselves more insightful than they actually are ... Superficial and self-satisfied, these passages seem intoxicated with their own Intro to Philosophy-style pontification ... This disappointing narrative comes off as all the more unfortunate when one considers that the other half of the book is more engaging and dynamically written ... Ultimately, the novel itself loses its way amid rambling solipsism and forced plot twists. Given the critical and popular success of her three previous novels, one hopes that Krauss' fifth book will see her finding her way again.
Forest Dark draws conspicuously on the works of Philip Roth — confession, writerly self-dramatization, metafictional communion with dead writers — but Krauss eschews Roth’s slapstick humor, self-lacerating irony, and libidinal impulses for a therapeutic model of redemption. It’s odd to see Roth marshaled to shore up a novel that reads like self-help ... The Epstein sections deliver some comic relief (not that they’re funny), a succession of dizzy epiphanies, and didactic digressions on art and Jewish tradition. But mostly they serve as a counterpoint to the Nicole sections ... This is the first time I’ve come across a work of autofiction that’s at heart an elaborate project of self-flattery ... Forest Dark suffers from the imbalance between the grandiosity of its conceits and the smallness of Nicole’s personal problems, at least in the way she discloses them.
Forest Dark is brilliant, inventive and ambitious. It is also meandering, aloof and forbidding. Although it will reward you, you’ll have to work for it ... Brainy conceits are not automatically wise ones. It’s risky for an author to ask readers to care about reading about a writer who has nothing to say to her readers. If 'Nicole' is finding all this novel business to be drudgery, can Krauss expect much more from us? Ultimately, that’s where this experiment runs onto shaky ground. It will be fascinating to some, but many will finish Forest Dark with a shrug. Though beautifully told and fiendishly conceived, it stays at a remove, a treat for the mind but not the heart.
Krauss’ preoccupations are obvious and on full display: the near-impossibility of long-term romantic love, the historical and political weight of Jewish identity, the way objects carry a sense of their past owners, and the existence of knowledge beyond human comprehension. The last of these is where Forest Dark lingers. The book isn’t exactly magical, but its protagonists are considering how to make sense of the world and make room for mystery … While Forest Dark by no means completely embraces chaos, it welcomes it more than most mainstream novels. But through the book’s layers of narrative technique—multiple juxtaposed plot lines, point-of-view shifts, books within books, real literary history mixed with imagined literary history (all approaches familiar to Krauss’ fans)—she never comes off as experimental. She remains accessible through all of the risks she takes, which might be her greatest feat.
Like the poem from which it borrows its title, Forest Dark is also epic, though in its own way: quiet, eerie, touchingly inchoate. It is an epic of loneliness, a testimony of and to longing that remains unfulfilled ... How all of this turns out is not really the point. Krauss has always been a writer interested in the hidden, spiritual dimension of things, and her work concerns itself with the mystical, the metaphysical, the mysterious. The secret inner life of people, places, and objects preoccupies her far more than the directly observable ... The novel starts out with a great deal of texture, with meticulously arranged details; it presents, initially, as a keenly observed and reported chronicle of two accomplished but unfulfilled lives. But as it progresses, and especially as it nears the end, it abandons any pretense of interest in connecting threads and cause-and-effect payoffs. This could be annoying, perhaps, but Krauss’s great, fearless gift is to work a motif until its essence reverberates throughout ... beautiful and complex but subtle and so closer to truth. It is perhaps not particularly believable, but it is elegant and shimmering, a slant of light shining long enough to make us wonder.
Nicole Krauss' fourth novel, a cerebral, dual-stranded tale of disillusionment and spiritual quest, proves heavy going for its characters — and its readers ... 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 ... 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 ... 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.
Though the story at times might feel meandering, Krauss is always in control. The myriad literary allusions and her ruminations on the nature of story and on boundaries of all sorts—including those of reality—deepen the journeys of her two main characters. Like Krauss’ previous books Great House and The History of Love, Forest Dark slowly builds to a powerful emotional crescendo and an ending that feels revelatory. Haunting and reflective, poetic and wise, this is another masterful work from one of America’s best writers.
The tangled necessity of such doubleness is one of Krauss’s core themes and the key to her characters’ quests: how we are at once shaped and confined by the forms we require for life, be they stories, relationships, or places. Krauss enters deeply into the ideas of form and formlessness, and sometimes these excursions dead-end into arid regions of metaphysical inquiry. But the austerity is largely met, or at least freshened, by a countervailing, vivifying impulse ... Structure is necessary for life, also for reformed life. One of the gifts that it provides is a plan for organizing ourselves, sometimes against the very objects we have become, so we can spring forward with opposed concentration, as Nicole and Epstein begin to spring, and Krauss does too.
In Krauss’ triumphant new novel, she reprises the themes of loss and quest, and continues the structure of dual protagonists whose trajectories may eventually align ... brief summary may make these plotlines seem confusing and wildly improbable, but Krauss makes it all work with her usual deft hand. There is no obvious intersection between Jules and Nicole, but we are offered hints ... in Forest Dark, Nicole Krauss has once again mastered a light touch in pursuit of weighty themes.
...[a] searching and intelligent novel ... By design, both of these stories drift and undulate like sand dunes, allowing Ms. Krauss to eloquently ruminate on marriage, memory, scripture, storytelling and of course Kafka. One of the steep pleasures of Forest Dark is how unabashedly bookish it is, a tendency that would seem to work against the novel’s embrace of uncertainty and intuition ... a book that’s as slippery as it is impassioned.
Novels have trained us to imbue coincidences with significance, but Forest Dark creates them only to insist on their randomness ... Admittedly, the ties between the Nicole and Epstein sections of Forest Dark can feel both too obvious and exasperatingly elliptical. In a novel about boundaries and form, the ones that define its own structure seem oddly arbitrary, as if two separate novels have been grafted onto one another with uncertain purpose (though perhaps this is the point) ... In its many metanarrative features, Forest Dark can feel like the novelistic equivalent of René Magritte’s pipe painting: ce n’est pas un roman ... Forest Dark, like other recent novels that press on the limits of fiction’s fictionality, only makes this pursuit more extreme. The randomness and significant insignificance that was once confined merely to description here expand into plot and character, into the workings of narrative itself. After all, fiction isn’t defined merely by reality’s absence. There are stories to tell about chaos too.
As both seekers end up alone in the desert, Epstein in ecstasy, Nicole in wonder-struck peril, Krauss reflects with singing emotion and sagacity on Jewish history; war; the ancient, plundered forests of the Middle East; and the paradoxes of being. A resounding look at the enigmas of the self and the persistence of the past.
Krauss, as ever, writes beautifully about complex themes, and she has a keen eye for the way Israel’s culture, slower but more alert to violence, requires its American characters to reboot their perceptions. Her big questions don’t always provoke big effects, though, and much of the drama she establishes for her two characters feels dry, with her riffs on Kafka and Judaism more essayistic than novelistic. And though the novel never promised high drama, its low boil makes it harder to inspire the reader to draw connections within her braided narrative. An ambitiously high-concept tale that mainly idles in a contemplative register.
Krauss’s elegant, provocative, and mesmerizing novel is her best yet. Rich in profound insights and emotional resonance ... Vivid, intelligent, and often humorous, this novel is a fascinating tour de force.