To Be a Man

  • Review
By – November 2, 2020

As any­one who has been entranced by her acclaimed nov­els knows, Nicole Krauss has an uncan­ny abil­i­ty to illu­mi­nate the pow­er of his­to­ry and mem­o­ry, espe­cial­ly as it shapes the fate­ful choic­es peo­ple make in their most vul­ner­a­ble moments. The sto­ries in her debut short sto­ry col­lec­tion, To Be a Man, expose the ten­sions and betray­als between men and women, and between gen­er­a­tions, with sim­i­lar deft­ness. Most of these immer­sive and slow-burn­ing sto­ries achieve a nov­el­is­tic depth and range that will leave read­ers ful­ly sati­at­ed, if often unsettled.

Some of the ten sto­ries in To Be a Man date back to the ear­ly aughts and appeared in pres­ti­gious venues such as The New York­er; two were select­ed for the pres­ti­gious Best Amer­i­can Short Sto­ries series. Oth­ers are quite recent, and sev­er­al stand­outs have nev­er before appeared in print. Krauss’s pro­tag­o­nists tend to be keen­ly intel­li­gent, although some­times mad­den­ing­ly obliv­i­ous to their own secret desires and ambi­tions; they are often caught on the precipice or the after­math of star­tling real­iza­tions and trans­for­ma­tions. While many of the sto­ries focus on con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish iden­ti­ties, some, like In the Gar­den,” immerse us in less famil­iar worlds. Here, the pro­tégé to Latin America’s great­est land­scape archi­tect” wit­ness­es the fate of a large pub­lic gar­den under a total­i­tar­i­an regime. As an alle­go­ry of the grotes­queries of twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry human civ­i­liza­tion, it’s a qui­et­ly chill­ing mas­ter­piece. While many of the pro­vi­sion­al lives we encounter in these sto­ries are described in rich detail, oth­ers are cap­tured in a sin­gle brief dev­as­tat­ing sen­tence: We were Euro­pean Jews, even in Amer­i­ca, which is to say that cat­a­stroph­ic things had hap­pened, and might hap­pen again.” A sig­nif­i­cant num­ber touch on the painful com­plex­i­ties of father-daugh­ter rela­tion­ships. In one of these, a daugh­ter dreams of her deceased father as a bit­ter­ly dis­ap­point­ed tod­dler only to wake in his old apart­ment and dis­cov­er that she has inher­it­ed a stranger who she must some­how accommodate.

Oth­ers are multi­gen­er­a­tional, like the wit­ty and mov­ing Zusya on the Roof,” a wise retelling of a para­ble in Mar­tin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim, which fea­tures a pro­found­ly stir­ring encounter between a con­va­les­cent grand­fa­ther and a new­born on a rooftop. At one point or anoth­er, many of Krauss’s char­ac­ters endure var­i­ous per­mu­ta­tions of the con­di­tion described by the nar­ra­tor of Future Emer­gen­cies”: the slight, sick­en­ing feel­ing of being remind­ed of the reck­less author­i­ty of time” or of los­ing your bear­ings in a world whose dimen­sions you thought you’d learned to live with.” Oth­ers are itin­er­ant char­ac­ters (some­times due to priv­i­lege, some­times due to harsh neces­si­ty) whose roots are sown in two places and so can nev­er grow deeply enough in either.” Krauss’s unabashed pas­sion for cin­e­ma some­times fil­ters into the imag­i­na­tions of her pro­tag­o­nists, lead­ing to iron­ic or star­tling epipha­nies. This occurs most unfor­get­tably in See­ing Ersha­di” which tra­vers­es Tel Aviv, Iran, and Japan, unrav­el­ing a young dancer’s fierce and poet­ic obses­sion with the actor Homay­oun Ersha­di. A few sto­ries are dis­qui­et­ing­ly pre- or postapoc­a­lyp­tic, such as one in which a soci­ety anx­ious­ly faces a mys­te­ri­ous con­ta­gion, or the unfor­get­table End Days” which con­trasts the sto­ry of a mar­i­tal breakup with exca­va­tions at Megid­do (the proph­e­sied site of Armaged­don). End Days” feels almost uncan­ni­ly pre­scient, with its unset­tling fires and jux­ta­po­si­tions of the present with Iron Age cat­a­clysms. It also presents the most dev­as­tat­ing por­tray­al of the Jew­ish divorce cer­e­mo­ny of the get, in all its bru­tal inti­ma­cy, that you’ll like­ly ever read.

The tit­u­lar and final sto­ry proves the most dar­ing and dis­qui­et­ing of the entire col­lec­tion — a sur­pris­ing­ly raw exam­i­na­tion of the inher­ent vio­lence of both Ger­man and Israeli mas­culin­i­ties. It also encom­pass­es some of the author’s most endur­ing inter­ests: the pow­er of mem­o­ry, divid­ed selves, monogamy and adul­tery, belat­ed self-dis­cov­er­ies and trans­for­ma­tive encoun­ters. Like every­thing else in this exquis­ite col­lec­tion, all of itse ele­ments cohere beau­ti­ful­ly. In To Be a Man, Krauss’s short fic­tion proves as ele­gant­ly craft­ed as her nov­els, brim­ming with pen­e­trat­ing under­stand­ing of the com­plex dynam­ics of mod­ern fam­i­lies, and char­ac­ters whose strug­gles with dif­fi­cult truths ulti­mate­ly chal­lenge and enrich the reader’s own world.

Ranen Omer-Sher­man is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Juda­ic Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville and edi­tor of the forth­com­ing book Amos Oz: The Lega­cy of a Writer in Israel and Beyond.

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