Book Review: “Great House” by Nicole Krauss

October 26, 2010

Squirreled around the bedside and my library desk, scraps of paper—some crumpled upon subsequent realization of their inaccuracies—are covered with lines and arrows, webs and dates, as I attempted to flowchart the real, temporal lives of the emotionally-related characters in Krauss’ new novel, Great House. Krauss gives her psychological all here, with characters so resonating with loneliness, misery and guilt that reading it almost hurts the reader back. It leaves one with a residual psychical hangover not unlike that groggy confusion after waking from a lossful dream. She leaves it to you—a compelling task, if you are caught up in the aura of the book—to search for clues, to unwind the complexity of the ways these sad lives touch each other: reality is your job, meaning is hers.

At the center of Krauss’ dreamy network of multi-generational yearning is an desk, a heavy and many-drawered behemoth that characters pursue, sometimes for a lifetime, striving for a piece of representational furniture that, for more than one of them, brings with it destruction, death.

We first hear of the desk in reference to a romantic and slightly mythical Chilean writer who falls fatally afoul of the Pinochet regime. Well, not exactly, chronologically, first according to my notes and arrows. But I’ll leave it as a repeat exercise for future readers to uncoil this chain. It’s a fun knot to untie. Also in the peripheral running for the desk is an obsessed Israeli antique furniture dealer (that he lost his parents and their belongings to Nazi horror is continually relevant). His reclusive and sexually-charged son and daughter—someone said “Nabokov” in reference to this book, and in these housebound, profligate, slightly incestual waifs it seems most evident—gain the obsession of (young) female literary person Izzy. Also in the mix is the slightly overlapping (older) female literary person Nadia and (yet older, and more interesting) female literary person Lotte Berg, her adorable (if typical) doddering old British husband; further afield, a wistful and senescing father, his successful but damaged aloof son: they don’t touch the desk, but drawing indirect connections between them and its impact can be engrossing.

Kruass gives us this desk, and the direct implication that it is carries heavy meaning. She also gives us her shattered characters and their gaping souls. Though the vignettes of humanity-dense interactions between her characters are vivid and, on occasion, cathartic, we never know this desk well except for the dent it leaves. It goes as far as to make some of the characters outwardly, presciently nervous:

“This desk was something else entirely: an enormous, foreboding thing that bore down on the occupants of the room it inhabited, pretending to be inanimate but, like a Venus flytrap, ready to pounce on them and digest them via one of its many little terrible drawers.”

Despite the human foibles the desk elicits, and the dark destruction it metaphorically wreaks, it is, still, furniture. We’re given the literary instruction to envision it as laden with symbolism, as dense enough to serve as a point of orbit for the disparate experiences of her characters. Made of earthly, wooden stuff, though, it seems at times too blatant, too extant, too physical to carry out its existential task. The core of the novel carries with it an ethereal, spiritual sense of connection, grief, love that seems too light, fleeting and internal for something so blunt and, well, real, to carry.

LibraryThing Early Reviewer Program

My many thanks again to LibraryThing for their Early Reviewer program, as well as W.W. Norton. Great House was released in the US on October 5, 2010.

LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program

4.0 stars
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