EARLY IN Forest Dark, Nicole Krauss’s fourth and most inward-looking novel, one of its narrators — a successful Brooklyn novelist also named Nicole — meditates on the limits of fiction. Though she has long practiced its art, she finds herself frustrated by its inability to capture what she terms “formlessness”:

In a story, a person always needs a reason for the things she does […] Chaos is the one truth that narrative must always betray […] the more I wrote, the more suspect the good sense and studied beauty achieved by the mechanisms of narrative seemed to me. I didn’t want to give them up — didn’t want to live without their consolation. I wanted to employ them in a form that could contain the formless, so that it might be held close, as meaning is held close, and grappled with.

This contradictory desire — to use form to consider formlessness — is Forest Dark’s animating impulse. Split between alternating first- and third-person voices, the former characterized by the meandering intimacy of contemporary autofiction, the latter by close alignment with the perspective of Jules Epstein, a rich, aging lawyer — Krauss’s novel propels its protagonists toward somethings that also manage to be nothings. Both Nicole and Epstein travel to Israel in an attempt to reconnect with their familial pasts; both stay in the Tel Aviv Hilton; both are briefly conscripted by mysterious men on Zionist missions; both get caught up in other artists’ creative projects. Yet, all these signs of plot flame up only to sputter out. Novels have trained us to imbue coincidences with significance, but Forest Dark creates them only to insist on their randomness.

Much of Nicole’s narration describes dissatisfaction with her own reality. Both her family life and her writing are dissolving under the pressures of success. Fiction, once liberating, has become “another form of binding,” while marriage and motherhood insist on a version of happiness that atrophies other kinds of emotional experience. Though Nicole’s portion of Forest Dark is insistently personal, both a story of divorce and an unsettling quest narrative, it also hints that the only way out of such troubles is to get as far outside oneself as possible.

These concerns are shared by Forest Dark’s other half, a story that, were it to exist apart from the Nicole sections, would stand as an elegantly Rothian exploration of an aging man’s confrontation with mortality (Roth, in fact, provides a laudatory blurb on the novel’s cover). Newly retired and divorced, possessed of a flush lifetime’s worth of beautiful things, Epstein grapples with the question of what, if anything, he wants to keep. As he gives away Patek Philippe watches and old masters paintings — the kinds of objects equal to a 99-percenter’s entire estate — he becomes consumed by the desire to create an adequate memorial to his deceased parents, chronically fractious Holocaust survivors for whom argument and life were synonymous. At the same time, the most intimate of things of Epstein’s existence — his phone, his desires, the literal coat off his back — are taken from him in ways over which he has no control. His portion of the novel is bookended by his physical disappearance, anticipated by his own sense that the boundaries between himself and the world are dissolving: “He watched the waves, and felt himself to be also endless, repeating, filled with unseen life […] At dusk, he would go out and walk, agitated, waiting, lost among the narrow streets, until, turning a corner and coming upon the sea all over again, he was unskinned.”

Set largely in Israel, where existential questions merge in especially thorny ways with issues of physical boundaries, Forest Dark often depicts states of being and knowing that are dependent upon opposition. Nicole and Epstein each consider love’s relationship to forms of violence, physical and emotional. Both experiences demand an other, both (at least here) bring the self into better view by placing it in context with that of another. Epstein’s fade to black begins the moment he stops orienting himself in relation to those closest to him. It’s not that he stops caring. It’s that, as when he finds himself “unskinned,” the divide between Epstein and everything else becomes indeterminate.

Admittedly, the ties between the Nicole and Epstein sections of Forest Dark can feel both too obvious and exasperatingly elliptical. In a novel about boundaries and form, the ones that define its own structure seem oddly arbitrary, as if two separate novels have been grafted onto one another with uncertain purpose (though perhaps this is the point). While a keen reader will find ample ammunition for a variety of theories about Epstein’s relationship to Nicole, explanations, at least of a conventional kind, are clearly not among Forest Dark’s interests. In this, the novel is self-consciously indebted to Kafka, whose biographical details are woven into Nicole’s story. Nicole, an ardent admirer of Kafka’s work (as, indeed, is Krauss), finds herself drawn into a mystery surrounding Kafka’s estate, one so alluring that it would seem implausible were it not based on the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction history of an elderly cat hoarder, Eva Hoffe, who claimed legal rights to Kafka’s unpublished papers. In appropriately Kafkaesque fashion, unseen forces coerce Nicole into participation in this mystery without ever allowing her to understand what it’s all about, leaving her in a condition of disorienting uncertainty that Forest Dark’s reader comes to share.

Kafka’s legacy is apparent too in Forest Dark’s fascination with opposites, complements, and contradictions, even when, as is the case with the Nicole and Epstein sections, it’s hard to tell which of these relationships is at play. At one point, a rabbi lectures Epstein and a crowd of diplomatic luminaries about the difference between opposites and absences. When, in Genesis, God finishes his act of creation, the rest he claims isn’t merely the opposite of toil and labor but a unique positive — an act of creation in its own right, but also creation’s cessation. The lesson bears more than a passing resemblance to one of Kafka’s famously inscrutable aphorisms: “How is it possible to rejoice in the world except by fleeing to it?” [1] Such lessons, scattered throughout Forest Dark, suggest that if there is anything that might be called knowledge, it inheres in the slippage between seemingly irreconcilable things. Walter Benjamin once wrote of Kafka that “he took all conceivable precautions against the interpretation of his writings,” [2] as if too-pat explanations were themselves the greatest nemesis of the truth he sought to represent. When Nicole speaks of her desire to find a narrative form that can hold formlessness, it is this interpretation-defying version of writing she seems to imagine, where internal contradiction and endless uncertainty are the best way to get at the bedlam of lived experience.

In its many metanarrative features, Forest Dark can feel like the novelistic equivalent of René Magritte’s pipe painting: ce n’est pas un roman. Photographs of key settings — actual, real-world places — are interspersed throughout Nicole’s narration, like Polaroids bookmarking the pages of a diary. Here and in passages in which Nicole chews over fiction’s limitations, what’s at issue isn’t so much accuracy or veracity as the strangeness of representational art’s relationship to small truths, to the fabric of the everyday and our perception of it. After all, the semi-fictional Nicole’s observations come to us from within a novel, a genre that is nothing so much as an unwieldy attempt to use language to tell a story whose point of origin or departure is the world we recognize as our own. If, as Nicole states, the kind of narrative she seeks is one that would successfully capture the fundamentally non-narrative qualities of what we tend to call “real life,” why hold on to fiction, with all its attendant formal artifices, at all?

This question is implicit not only in Forest Dark, but also in a host of recent novels that seem both skeptical and weary of realist novels’ traditional trappings. In works by authors such as Rachel Cusk, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jenny Offill, and Ben Lerner, distinctions between fiction and memoir blur to the point of unimportance. Here, similarities between the authors’ lives and those of their narrators and characters are so obvious that they disarm the unfashionable but still common tendency to interpret fiction through the lens of biographical fact. “Of course it’s all about the author,” these works seem to say, as if leaving off the veil of fiction’s artifices frees them to confront and move past this intractable fact. Instead of pretending to any kind of vaunted insight or omniscience, the narrators of Cusk, Knausgaard, and their kin flaunt subjectivity, inviting readers to consider nothing so much as its endless particulars and stubborn inescapability. Though postmodern fiction has played with the instability of perspective and truth for decades, what distinguishes this recent crop of “nonfiction novels” (Knausgaard’s term) is their unabashed embrace of an “I” — still unstable, still often ironized, but also always obstinately present, a horizon you can’t get past. 

Forest Dark can be read, in part, as Krauss’s contribution to this collection of new, urgently self-questioning autofiction (the autobiographical novel is nothing new, but the explicitness with which contemporary authors identify themselves with their narrators has undoubtedly renovated it). Indeed, in the Nicole sections of Forest Dark, Krauss, always a chameleon of a writer, can sound remarkably like Cusk. In Transit, Cusk’s most recent work, the narrator wonders of her own writing students “how they could believe in human reality sufficiently to construct fantasies about it.” Likewise, in the second volume of his 3,600-page novel My Struggle, Knausgaard’s writes, “The only genres I saw value in, which still conferred meaning, were diaries and essays, the types of literature that dealt not with narrative […] but just consisted of […] the voice of your own personality.” Like Cusk and Knausgaard, when Krauss talks of frustration with fiction from within her own novel, it often seems to be a frustration with the way fiction can make not only the self but also the world in general seem more stable and organized than it actually is. From this perspective, mimicking realistic human experience with purely fictional characters and invented plots seems not merely presumptuous but impossible.

And yet, the novel, with varying but always present degrees of fictionality, persists. For Cusk, Knausgaard, and now Krauss too, it remains the best vehicle for its own critique. Perhaps this is because tension between organization and chaos, form and formlessness, has always been one of realist fiction’s preoccupations. Though realism may manifest the “good sense and studied beauty” that Nicole scorns, it is always working, at some level, with the raw, disorderly material of the real. Roland Barthes, in a famous treatise on description in realist novels, observes that even within works where narrative is “schematizing to the extreme,” insignificant descriptive details proliferate, present “[to] say nothing but this: we are the real.” [3] It’s only by rendering such insignificance, by showing things within a narrative that have no narrative purpose, that fiction achieves what Barthes calls “verisimilitude.” In a way, Forest Dark, like other recent novels that press on the limits of fiction’s fictionality, only makes this pursuit more extreme. The randomness and significant insignificance that was once confined merely to description here expand into plot and character, into the workings of narrative itself. After all, fiction isn’t defined merely by reality’s absence. There are stories to tell about chaos too.

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Anna E. Clark is an assistant professor of English at Iona College.

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[1] Kafka’s Zurau Aphorisms, ed. Michael Cisco. Trans. Hofman. p. 25. https://solutioperfecta.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/g8-cisco2.pdf. Accessed 8.21.17

[2] Benjamin, Selected Writings, 1931-1934. Ed. Michael W. Jennings. Trans. Rodney Livingstone and others. p. 804.

[3] Barthes, “The Reality Effect,” The Rustle of Language. Trans. Richard Howard. p. 148. https://rosswolfe.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/roland-barthes-the-rustle-of-language.pdf. Accessed 8.21.17.