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.