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Narratives Of Grief Fill Krauss' 'Great House'

Oct 12, 2010 (Fresh Air)

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Nicole Krauss' latest novel, Great House, is precisely the kind of work of art for which the phrase "oddly compelling" was invented. Like her celebrated best-seller, The History of Love, this new novel contemplates love, loss and the oppressive weight of memory on those left behind. The plot here, though, is even murkier than it was in The History of Love: Through the overcast cloud cover we're shown glimpses of a hospital room in Jerusalem; Freud's house in London; a castle filled with dead people's furniture; and a surrealistic shark suspended in a tank, wired with electrodes to absorb "the brunt of human emotions." I'm not sure what it all adds up to; I'm not even sure that Great House has one cohesive theme. But I'm willing to tolerate this confusion because of the isolated moments of psychological illumination that Krauss provides through her startling language. Reading Great House is like being lost in a pitch black room (an image that Krauss gives us more than once here) and then suddenly having a dusty corner of that room brilliantly lit up and exposed.

The bewildering tales told by the four narrators in this novel all have something to do with a massive antique desk that's passed through various homes ever since it was separated from its original owner in the Holocaust. One of the desk's first onlookers describes it as "more like a ship than a desk" and says it "bull[ied] the other pathetic bits of furniture [in the room] to the far corner."

The sinister desk seems to cast a spell on all who come into contact with it. A woman named Nadia inherits the desk from a young poet who was tortured and put to death in Chile during the 1970s. Nadia sits chained to the desk for years, only gradually awakening to the fact that she's turned her back on life to produce books that nobody reads. Another character, a cynical antiques dealer, works to reunite Holocaust survivors with missing pieces of furniture. "Unlike people," he comments, "the inanimate doesn't simply disappear." The desk is his Maltese Falcon, the ultimate object of his obsessive questing. Yet another one of Krauss' narrators, an elderly widower named Arthur, comes to regard the desk, which belonged for a time to his late wife, Lotte, as a representation of her essential remoteness. Here's a snippet of Arthur's stark soliloquy on the tragic unknowability of other people:

[I thought] of our life together, Lotte's and mine, [and] how everything in it was designed to give a sense of permanence, the chair against the wall that was there when we went to sleep and there again when we awoke ... though in truth it was all just an illusion ... just as our bodies are an illusion, pretending to be one thing when really they are millions upon millions of atoms coming and going ... as if each of us were only a great train station ... no, it was worse than that, more like a giant empty field where every day a circus erected and dismantled itself, the whole thing from top to bottom, but never the same circus, so what hope did we really have of ever making sense of ourselves, let alone one another?

The desk is the motivating cause for many of the similarly harsh epiphanies in this novel, but it doesn't — in the way of midcult sentimental fiction — unify the fragmented narratives here into one master plot. Given that so many of the tales in Great House are concerned with devastating loneliness, it wouldn't make sense for them to be ultimately stitched together. Despite its deep sadness, however, Great House is also an exhilarating read because of Krauss' unconventional style of storytelling. Although most of her characters are prisoners of the past, Krauss herself is a fiction pioneer, toying with fresh ways of rendering experience and emotion, giving us readers the thrill of seeing the novel stretched into amorphous new shapes.

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