The author of The History of Love) plunges into the struggle to understand what it is to be a man and what it is to be a woman, and the arising tensions that have existed from the very beginning of time. Set in our contemporary moment, and moving across the globe from Switzerland, Japan, and New York City to Tel Aviv, Los Angeles, and South America, the stories in To Be a Man feature male characters as fathers, lovers, friends, children, seducers, and even a lost husband who may never have been a husband at all.
If you’ve followed Krauss from novel to novel—it’s probably obvious that I have—to read this new collection of stories written and published over the past 20 years is a bit like flipping through a photo album of Krauss’ writerly obsessions, the pages full of reflections of characters and cities and themes that feel hauntingly (and sometimes thrillingly) familiar ... Krauss’ New York, her Tel Aviv, are vividly captured in this newest book, a continuation of maps she has been drawing for years. Many of the stories explore the intersections of Jewish history and contemporary Jewish life. Stylistically, active scenes are often deprioritized for a kind of meditative, scenic mindscape across which time and memory flow freely, a technique deployed in Forest Dark. Several stories have an elliptical, fragmented structure that implicate the reader in the process of piecing the narrative together ... This is not to suggest that the stories in To Be a Man read like testing grounds for Krauss’ novels, or drafts of questions that find their deepest expression in those longer works ... a collection of wonders, though how those wonders resonate for each reader will be different depending on their relationship to her work. But for fans and newcomers alike, To Be a Man offers the pleasure of being in the company of Krauss’ surprising, challenging mind, tugged along by an imagination that’s ever curious about the limits and possibilities of fiction, of time, and of love.
Ralph Ellison said that 'some people are your relatives but others are your ancestors, and you choose the ones you want to have as ancestors.' I returned to this idea again and again while reading Nicole Krauss’s superb new collection, To Be a Man. In each of these moving stories, we feel the weight not only of family, but of history and faith and leaving a legacy, pressing down on every one of her characters. Birth and death, joy and mourning, love and heartbreak — these too animate the collection. But as a writer Krauss is less interested in describing life’s grand explosions than she is in showing how people make sense of the rubble ... Despite the common threads, Krauss still somehow seems to have invented a new form for each novel, each story — their characters so fully realized that Krauss’s deft authorial hand is rarely evident. Her characters seem to dictate how their own stories ought to be told ... Krauss’s refusal to adhere to formal conventions, in time frame or plot resolution, for example, gives her stories a certain energy, consistently conjuring an aura of both intimacy and vastness ... Krauss’s stories capture characters at moments in their lives when they’re hungry for experience and open to possibilities, and that openness extends to the stories themselves: narratives too urgent and alive for neat plotlines, simplistic resolutions or easy answers.
There are many pleasures to be had from reading the stories in To Be a Man, though I suspect the main effect for many Krauss admirers will be impatience to get their hands on her next full-length work ... That potent figure so familiar to us from the novels—a difficult, egotistical father—makes several appearances ... 'Seeing Ershadi' is a strange and evocative story that, while straining credulity, manages to ring emotionally true. In another, less convincing one, 'Amour,' we are asked to believe that one of the characters can recall every detail, from dialogue to camera angles, of numerous movies she saw decades ago ... What puzzled me about 'Amour' was the setting: 'one of the refugee camps' ... That they are in a place of grievous suffering is made vivid enough, but if there was a good reason to use it as a backdrop for a love story that did not in any way require such a setting, I could not see it ... The use of both the refugee camp and the gas masks seemed to me like examples of the hook that writers are often encouraged to sink into the reader’s mind with their opening sentences. That device can serve a story well, of course, but since Krauss never engages with the difficult reality of either of these extreme situations, the hook ends up dangling like an upside-down question mark ... Female as well as male power is represented in the collection, with deft capturings of that thrilling but perilous moment when a girl sees herself for the first time through adult men’s eyes ... Unlike so often elsewhere in Krauss’s fiction, at no point in the narrative [of 'End Days'] are we asked to suspend disbelief in order to fully understand or enjoy it. It is the collection’s shining example of just how much enchantment this capable writer can make out of ordinary people, dear ordinary people living their sweet messy everyday lives.