For­est Dark: A Novel

  • Review
By – August 2, 2017

The Tel Aviv Hilton appears in the dis­tance on the upper cor­ner of the dust jack­et of For­est Dark, Nicole Krauss’s com­plex and cere­bral nov­el. In the pages of the book the hotel looms ever larg­er, both in illus­tra­tions and as an anchor for the two char­ac­ters of the book. Each has stum­bled in a per­son­al for­est dark” and returns to the absurd con­crete block of a hotel — a place where both char­ac­ters feel deeply con­nect­ed — hop­ing for redemp­tion or direc­tion or some sort of ease.

Jules Epstein, a promi­nent and high­ly suc­cess­ful New York lawyer, art col­lec­tor, and patron of Israel known to all the play­ers in the Mid­dle East by his first name, has decid­ed to close down that part of his life. Hav­ing retired, divorced his wife of thir­ty years, and dis­posed of his art col­lec­tion, he has planned a trip to Israel to use the remain­der of his mon­ey to estab­lish some sort of memo­r­i­al to his unloved and unlov­ing par­ents. Before he left for Israel, how­ev­er, Epstein had encoun­tered a com­pelling Israeli rab­bi at an event for Amer­i­can Jew­ish lead­ers, and in Tel Aviv the rab­bi con­vinces him to vis­it his cen­ter for the study of mys­ti­cism in Safed.

A nov­el­ist, unable to write and stalled in a fail­ing decade-long mar­riage, wakes at three o’clock in the mid­dle of an exhaust­ing night and packs her suit­case for Israel. The next morn­ing she finds, to her sur­prise, the suit­case at the front door and so tells her hus­band and two young sons she’s going to Israel to do research on her nov­el. She calls the Hilton and is assured there is a room. After she arrives, one of her cousins arranges a meet­ing for her with a for­mer Mossad agent-turned-pro­fes­sor who pro­pos­es a lit­er­ary project to her.

Epstein’s sto­ry is told in the third per­son, the novelist’s in the first. Each sto­ry fol­lows its own course with the Hilton the only link. At the same time, both Epstein and the nov­el­ist are at sim­i­lar points; they have unex­pect­ed­ly left their lives behind and hope some­how to find pur­pose or renew­al in Israel. But to sug­gest that spin­ning out Epstein’s and the novelist’s sto­ries is the bur­den of For­est Dark is to mis­state the novel’s tra­jec­to­ry. The nar­ra­tive is often inter­rupt­ed and slowed down by extend­ed med­i­ta­tions on eso­teric ques­tions of the­ol­o­gy, the nov­el, the pos­si­bil­i­ty of being in two places at once, of what a per­son owes his or her life. But alter­nat­ing between Epstein and the nov­el­ist, Krauss brings read­ers back to earth with Epstein’s and the novelist’s encoun­ters in Israel, often throw­ing light on the ten­sion of the Amer­i­can-Israeli relationship.

For­est Dark demands much from its read­ers, and for read­ers with a post­mod­ern sen­si­bil­i­ty it offers many chal­lenges and inter­est­ing byways to explore. Clos­ing the book, read­ers may ques­tion what has tru­ly hap­pened or may come to their own con­clu­sions, but what­ev­er the case, they will have had an intel­lec­tu­al­ly brac­ing experience.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions