TO BE A MAN
By Nicole Krauss
Ralph Ellison said that “some people are your relatives but others are your ancestors, and you choose the ones you want to have as ancestors.” I returned to this idea again and again while reading Nicole Krauss’s superb new collection, “To Be a Man.” In each of these moving stories, we feel the weight not only of family, but of history and faith and leaving a legacy, pressing down on every one of her characters.
Birth and death, joy and mourning, love and heartbreak — these too animate the collection. But as a writer Krauss is less interested in describing life’s grand explosions than she is in showing how people make sense of the rubble.
“To Be a Man” is Krauss’s first story collection, after the acclaimed novels “Man Walks Into a Room,” “The History of Love,” “Great House” and, most recently, “Forest Dark.” Like those longer works, these short fictions also explore the themes of memory and spirituality and transnational Jewishness. Her protagonists often live in limbo; as the narrator in the story “Amour” puts it, Jewish homes can be spaces “where being American was an accident of history, English an accident of history, nature an accident of history.” Despite the common threads, Krauss still somehow seems to have invented a new form for each novel, each story — their characters so fully realized that Krauss’s deft authorial hand is rarely evident. Her characters seem to dictate how their own stories ought to be told.
[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of November. See the full list. ]
Each story in “To Be a Man” is governed by its own unique and intricate logic, yet the stylistic differences are never gimmicky. Rather, the structures are possessed of an effortless elasticity, expanding and contracting to fit the stories these characters are compelled to tell. Many of the pieces, for example, barrel far beyond where we expect them to end — past any kind of resolution and into frightening and surprising territory. In the opening story, “Switzerland,” a 13-year-old boarding school student learns her friend has had a dangerous encounter with an older man. The rendezvous and its fallout are fraught and absorbing, but Krauss doesn’t stop at their immediate impact. She leads us into the present day, as the student, now our adult narrator, observes the way men look at her own young daughter. “She has a proudness about her that refuses to grow small,” she says, but “it’s her curiosity in her own power, its reach and its limit, that frightens me. Though maybe the truth is that when I am not afraid for her, I envy her.” And just like that, the narrator is confronted with the terrifying difference between being someone’s daughter and someone’s mother.