“Listen, Dov. Because I’m only going to say this once: We’re running out of time, you and I.” These words, thought but never verbalized in Nicole Krauss’ recent novel Great House, are directed from a father at his long-estranged son who stands like a stranger in the hallway of his old home. On the other side of the world in New York, a woman tries for the last unsuccessful time to pry open the drawer of an old desk she received from a poet she met only once. In London, a man attempts to uncover his wife’s past even as her memories are drained away by Alzheimer’s, while a young woman at Oxford prepares to find her way back to her lover in Jerusalem. In each story, the characters are first melancholy, then increasingly desperate. Aware that their lives and even their love for each other have passed into a stage of winter, they beckon, though never quite manage to say to each other: Come. Let me at least hear, even if I cannot hope to understand, your secrets.
Great House is the third novel by National Book Award finalist Krauss, and the first to be published after The History of Love, for which she won considerable critical acclaim in 2005. Many elements from her second novel are reworked in Great House, such as the motif of writing as critical for sanity and survival, and the central quest for an object that weaves the lives of seemingly unrelated narrators together (in the case of the former publication, it is a book; in the latter, a wooden desk). But most significantly, Great House dispenses with much of the humor that served to lighten the mood of History and instead plunges headlong into the lengthy excavation of grief and the exegesis of sadness in all its inflections, nuances and subsequent translations. The result is a novel that hardly ever lifts its voice above a regret-filled monotone and tapers off to a barely cathartic close.
The reason for this may be that the common thread binding the four stories together frays under the pressure of the narrators’ divergent stories. Their story arcs are rather restricted by the author’s need to make them coalesce, and while History achieved this in a way that allowed each to ring out its especial melody before fitting them into splendid harmony, the various situations of Great House are too far flung for even Krauss to draw them perfectly together. The desk that crops up in each of these stories as it is passed from one writer to the next becomes a clunky, awkward object that Krauss has to negotiate into each tale, rather than an effortless conduit for the concept of inherited sadness. Ultimately Great House might have functioned better as four individual stories in a story cycle.
Even so, the writing is undeniably gorgeous. Krauss is as elegant and evocative as ever, full of subtle suggestion and ellipsis-like moments when a minor character walks off the page, leaving both you and the narrator to stare at them in wonder and faint intoxication, regretting that they hadn’t stayed longer. Her sentences are sublimely uncluttered; there is no sense of decoration about her prose. Spanish novelist Carlos María Domínguez proposed that the merit of a work could actually be judged by the pathways between words, in whether or not the eye is allowed to breathe – in this sense Krauss is like the Givenchy of contemporary fiction, given to minimalism and the pure silhouette that a sparseness of words creates on a white page.
But all of this beauty exists as a function of sadness and serves only to intensify the sorrowful resignation at the heart of this novel; Krauss is loveliest at her most depressing. Early on she introduces the concept of a great white shark that is hooked up by electrodes to a roomful of dreamers and bears the violence of their nightmares for them. Even free from the horror of screams in the night, these dreamers never seem to wake and interact with each other. They serve as a metaphor for the narrators of Great House, who, despite their growing agitation to reach out and grasp the entire being of those whom they love, are haunted by the realization that they will never be able to understand the other because they barely understand themselves. They are essentially fast asleep and lost in their isolated dreams of each other, while their actual, physical interactions are no more significant than the flailing of limbs in a troubled sleep.