SURVIVOR: anna karenina (leo tolstoy)*
CHALLENGER: great house (nicole krauss)

i looked forward to curling up with nicole krauss's great house for quite some time. i twinned it with patti smith's just kids in my head when they both kicked up national book award buzz last year (hey, living ladies i might like to read! how often does that happen?), and i began to hope it would be an antidote to that memoir - carefully paced where smith was spastic and awkward, and gracefully detailed where she was sloppy. i had a brief professional encounter with krauss and her writing earlier this year (long after i'd gotten a copy of great house); she seemed lovely, and her writing was confident. this is what most people say about nicole krauss; also encouraging. then i mentioned her to amanda, which was the conversational equivalent of asking her to eat rotten shark; i dedicate this ultimately underwhelmed review, accordingly, to her and the people of iceland. (yeah, iceland's just going to keep coming up.)

great house concerns itself with a monstrous, many-drawered desk which appears in and disappears from the lives of a handful of private, contemplative people. there is a corresponding megadesk in krauss's own life; she inherited it from the previous owner of her house.** ("You'd have to chop it up to get it down the stairs. It was built into the room and all that."). as it moves between owners, great house's desk represents something like emotional inheritance, as krauss told pbs's jeffrey brown:
So I began to think about this idea of the burden of inheritance. Now as I said at the same time I was a new mother, and of course I wasn't writing about furniture, I wasn't writing about physical objects really. I think what I thinking about was the idea of what is it that our parents pass down to us emotionally in terms of moods, griefs, sadnesses, angles at which we view and face the world and what then do we pass down often unknowingly to our children. This became a subject of great intense importance to me as I was facing the idea of bringing up my own child.
some of that comes through in the way characters speak of each other; some of it doesn't. (krauss has also said the desk represents literature, which: likewise.) these men and women all have beautiful things to say about memory, loss, and feelings, but the lack of immediacy in what they say (for it's all recollections; nothing actually happens in great house) is rather frustrating. moreover, these people aren't especially distinguishable from one another or plausible as individual characters; they feel like nicole krauss as a contemplative middle-aged author, or nicole krauss as a contemplative widower, or nicole krauss as a different contemplative widower with an adult son he doesn't especially like, or nicole krauss as a contemplative woman who loves the son of a third widower who...you get my drift. i don't need realism in my fiction - in fact, a good, weird story is often far preferable to me - but i do have to buy the feelings i'm reading about. this explained-rather-than-lived emotional action is the literary equivalent of a ship in a bottle; it's good-looking and i can appreciate the craftsmanship, but...krauss's environments are awfully hermetic.

i do wonder if great house leaves me a bit cold because neither i nor my people have suffered the kind of catastrophic loss these characters describe - while the book isn't exactly about the holocaust, its fingerprints are all over their psyches - but i'm fairly sure that that isn't it. in her new york times review, rebecca newberger goldstein argues that krauss dials us past time and differences like mine with her eye for killer details:
What gives the quickening of life to this elegiac novel and takes the place of the unlikely laughter of [Krauss's previous novel] “The History of Love”? The feat is achieved through exquisitely chosen sensory details that reverberate with emotional intensity. So, for example, here is George Weisz describing how, when his clients speak of their lives before the war, “between their words I see the way the light fell across the wooden floor. . . . I see his mother’s legs move about the kitchen, and the crumbs the housekeeper’s broom missed.” Those crumbs are an artist’s true touch. They demonstrate how Krauss is able, despite the formidable remove of the central characters and the mournfulness of their telling, to ground “Great House” in the shock of immediacy.
at the end of the day, on a line-by-line level, i just don't feel that shock; what krauss calls fiction's "ability to remind us of ourselves, of who we are in our essence, and at the same instant to deliver a revelation" doesn't quite snap into being. great house is impressive, but it never feels real.***

VICTOR: anna karenina, no sweat. never mind the haymakers; one imagines tolstoy could take krauss out by pilfering a few key writing utensils.

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 should krauss have won the national book award?

02 so you've got $6.7 million to spend on a house. where is it (the house, not your money)?

03 have you abandoned furniture? why?

04 where do you do your writing?

05 do you find that lydia davis piece moving?

*previous battle here.

**a comely $6.7 million brownstone in park slope with a rather good-looking sofa. in related news, i wonder if the questionable, massive maroon sofa we left in san francisco in 2003 inspired anyone; i suspect it did not.

***compare this with lydia davis's "happiest moment," a story so removed it should feel coy as a striptease:

If you ask her what is a favourite story she has written, she will hesitate for a long time and then say it may be this story that she read in a book once: an English-language teacher in China asked his Chinese student to say what was the happiest moment in his life. The student hesitated for a long time. At last he smiled with embarrassment and said that his wife had once gone to Beijing and eaten duck there, and she often told him about it, and he would have to say the happiest moment of his life was her trip, and the eating of the duck.


jacob said...

01 as i have read none of the finalists (though i have read earlier books by krauss and carey), it's hard to say, though i've enjoyed the latter more than the former. however, it was hard not to feel good for gordon (and mcpherson press).

02 oh, london, definitely.

04 these days, at home or local cafes. the most memorable writing space, however, was for my undergraduate thesis (in education) - late at night in my friend's biology lab.

05 i love lydia davis's short fiction - it's always at my bedside table. it's also wonderful to read aloud.

Milkmaid's dumb friend said...

01: She seems nice in conversation but withholding humor seems not so nice. 02: Waffle House. Near a petting zoo! I also own the petting zoo. 05: I do. 0?: “I don’t care about solidarity; I care about commonality.  It’s so much more immediate,” as I heard a Haight Street anarchist say.  Jenny and I, I decided, were going to make love on her questionable, massive maroon sofa, wearing separate but equal headphones plugged into the same tape deck, so that we could go up and down in synch to the Eurythmics doing “Sexcrime” at maximum volume… -William T Vollman The Rainbow Stories 0?: Uh-oh, a Huffpo headline I just saw pop up: LACTOSE INTOLERANCE: Nicole Krauss hammers First Milk and Kid Champ [sic] on Twitter over negative reviews explicit and inferred… developing…

kidchamp said...

she's a skinny thing. we could take her and her little safran foer, too.

Amanda said...

01 Never (Lactose intolerance, indeed--FINE WORK, MDF. The "uh-oh" there was particularly inspired, I feel)  
02 I'd probably break that into four houses, or at very least two; if one, Park Slope  
03 Yes (FARE THEE WELL, midcentury chaise); I moved to New York   
04 In my notebook  
05 I do  
06 Many thanks for the dedication, beauty--the people of Iceland (or at least the fairies and elves and gnomes) and I, we're awfully pleased

kidchamp said...

i'm reminded of a convo i had with my jen long ago when the earth was flat:

1: so, you remember peter the deke?
2: um, no. 
1: peter the frat boy?
2: oh, yeah.
1: he's starring in a horror movie. the milkman. the alumni magazine says he's the villain...i think peter's the milkman. 
2: maybe it's a red herring, maybe he's the victim.
1: or the hero. maybe osteoporosis is the real killer.

[phone goes dead]

anonymous said...

01. I liked History of Love, but that's as far as my experience goes.
02. I'm with Amanda - I'll split it up and take apartments in Prague and Athens and a little craftsman in LA. If there is enough left over, I'd like a vacation house near a river, readily accessible for long weekends. I'm greedy, real estate wise.
03. I like to think I just shed it, naturally.
04. A notebook, in my purse. The internet.
05. I should really read the whole thing.

rachel (heartoflight) said...

I am a guest today, apparently.