When Jules Epstein disappears into the deserts of Israel, mountains are moved. The Israeli president himself calls to intervene, to console. Epstein is large—a talker, a powerful New York lawyer who always has the last word because he will always respond to any challenge. Except, when we first encounter him in Nicole Krauss' new novel Forest Dark (Harper, 304 pages, $27.99), he isn't any of those things.
The pushy, garrulous man has been replaced with a diminished version of himself—divorced from his wife, robbed of his coat and mugged of his phone. He is a hapless, once-imposing Philip Roth figure who has "lost his interest in pleasure," traveling to Tel Aviv to reconnect with his birth. En route, he is waylaid by a shady rabbi named Klausner.
Meanwhile, a novelist named Nicole is suffering from a failed marriage and an unsettling sense of dislocation that builds in her until "one autumn afternoon when I came through the door of my house I shared with my husband and our two children, and I sensed that I was already there. Simply that: already there." Nicole, too, is drawn to Israel—in this case, by a strong feeling that she is dreaming her life from the Brutalist maze of the Tel Aviv Hilton, where she was conceived. When she gets there, a shady old man named Friedman has a briefcase and a proposal.
Nicole's and Epstein's twinned journeys form the alternating rhythms of the novel, whose prose is often jarring in its beauty. Krauss describes the act of dancing as a series of small collapses inside us as we move—or perhaps "a continuous collapse, soft but ongoing, as if snow were falling inside us."
The book, too, is a continuous collapse, driven less by plot and motivation than the nebulous pull of undertow, the dream-logic of David Lynch. Amid ruminations on the eerie unheimlich of Freud and an alternate history of Kafka in which he died in Israel, both Epstein and Nicole are drawn into the desert with a slow and sickly inevitability. Zionist intrigues, encounters with Israel's military roughnecks and near-drownings in the sea are just vehicles moving the two outside their own lives.
The reader waits for Epstein's and Nicole's two stories to intersect—but they don't, really. Instead, they copycat each other, forming strange doublings until you realize you've passed through the mirror: One narrative has been living inside the other like a ghost.
It's interesting, though, that both Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer—her novelist ex-husband who dallied weirdly with Natalie Portman in the New York Times—would both publish novels about writers with failed marriages, who each chase after calamity in Israel.
"We walked away from our marriage side by side," Krauss writes in the voice of the fictional Nicole. But maybe that's just one more dark mirror in Forest Dark. After all, Israel is where you go when your life fails: Israel is the howling abyss.
Nicole Krauss reads Wednesday, September 27, at Powell's City of Books, 1005 E Burnside St. 7:30 pm. Free.