A long weekend, a big snowstorm, my sweetheart’s delightful cabin (available as a vacation rental!) with a woodstove and snow outside and two deer in the yard in the morning, which meant I had a lovely, unplugged stretch of time to catch up on some reading.
Somehow I’d missed Nicole Krauss these past couple of years, probably because I had been dismissive of the Brooklyn writers. They seemed like emo music to me, one of those things I’m too old to find charming, or deep, or meaningful. But there was a New Yorker story I liked, and her new book, Great House, was getting such good reviews that a few weeks ago I got The History of Love out of the library. While I didn’t think it was as groundbreaking as the reviews and the gushing articles about Krauss and her husband, Jonathan Safran Foer, the “golden couple” of the New York writing scene, would have one believe, it seemed to me like a very fine novel — there were interesting characters, the sentences are lovely without being show-offy, and even the inevitable coincidental connections between the seemingly-disparate characters were handled with grace. Like I said, I thought it was a very fine novel.
And so, I put myself on the list for Great House, and even tucked it in my backpack for the ski up the hill to the cabin. Again, it is beautifully written by an author who clearly shows great talent. Again, there are seemingly-disconnected characters who turn out to have connections between them, although this time I found that structure less delightful. Again, there are writers, and writing which connects these characters, as does their Jewishness (which I found far less irritating than the Dedication to Art aspect). The Holocaust looms once more, but the characters are all Jews, so that was far less irritating than was the fact that all of these characters are writers, except for the ones who supportively orbit the writers, or those who have dedicated their pale lives to some other art, like playing the piano. (The exception is Aaron, the furious father of the mysterious Dov, whose life might be ruined by the fact that he didn’t become a writer? Although to me, becoming a successful London judge sounds more interesting, but that’s a profession Dov mysteriously quits when his mother dies in order to return to Jeruselem and languish in his childhood bedroom, much to the concern and irritation of his father, and of this reader).
The book was lovely, it was beautifully written, but it made me want to shake Krauss, made me want to tell her to go get a job and to write about something, anything, other than writers. This is the second book in which writers and books and writing are the only subject. Enough already. Maybe it’s that I live in a town rotten with writers, I know plenty of writers and believe me, most of them are not romantic figures in the least (especially the ones who think they are). The “romance” and “mystery” of the two, count them, two women writers in this book who continually shut out their spouses, who stop arguments in mid shout and stalk silently, remotely, coolly, off to the mysterious and enormous and magnetic desk at the center of this tale wore thin early in the story. Krauss is very young. She has only ever been a writer (except for being a daughter, a wife and a mother). She is married to a writer. I get the sense she only hangs around with writers. And it is clear from her recent, and widely-mocked blurb for Daniel Grossman’s new book that she is a true Romantic when it comes to writing, one who believes that it is a High Calling, and that Art is something worth dedicating one’s life to.
All of which makes me want to run off and read someone bracing, like Anne Dillard or Margaret Atwood. Years ago, when I was in grad school at UC Davis, Atwood came for the standard weekend of lectures and meetings with students. I’ll never forget her chastising the graduate students who were studying her work. “You’re all clearly very bright,” she said. “You should go do something more useful with those brains than this. Go figure out how to stop global warming or something.” They were crestfallen, but I always thought she was right.
That these hermetically sealed books about upper-class white people in America keep getting praised to the high heavens is an ongoing concern of mine. While the hype surrounding her book is no more Krauss’s doing than the circus Jonathan Franzen seems to unleash with each book is his own, I do find it problematic that books about “white people’s problems” — the difficulty of creating Art, the woes of suburban life and marriage — are the ones being chosen by publishers, then hyped by them and every reviewer out there. I don’t want to read books about the people just like me (or like the me I might have been had I not left my publishing job in NYC in 1988, or like the me I might have been had I gotten an academic job after grad school). I want to read books about people who struggle with something real — who worry about their jobs, and putting a roof over their heads, and who are, perhaps up against something terrifyingly real like the death of their loved ones. Which means someone will probably complain in my next book about the body count, and that I keep killing people off for cheap effect. We all have our personal obsessions, and that Krauss’s are writing and Art and Jewishness are less worrisome to me than the idea that a two-book contract, and the success of her first book, might have led to pressure to “do it again” — the sort of pressure that leads to a second book which contains so many of the pleasures of the first one that this reader, at least, became frustrated. Krauss is clearly very talented. Now I just want to see her stretch that talent, and do something new with it.