Nicole Krauss’ Great House
W.W. Norton & Company, 2010

(Looking for a swallow rather than a full glass? ORANGE Squirt below.)

Readers Wanted: Must be comfortable travelling between Oxford, London, New York, Jerusalem, Nuremberg and Santiago. Must be well-versed in a variety of artistic forms or naturally curious about works as diverse as Beethoven’s String Quartet in a minor and R.B. Kitaj’s paintings. Must be available for extended hours, willing to accept assignments without explanations, and possess superior attention-to-detail and patience.

This is what I imagine a call for readers for Nicole Krauss’ third novel might look like. It’s not necessarily the kind of book that the majority of readers will be drawn to, but if the advertisement was run alongside one from the publisher, which showcased the critical acclaim that the author’s work has received, the number of applicants might well increase.

Nonetheless, Great House is a demanding read. The big question that lurks beyond the novel’s title is “What is a Jew without Jerusalem?” But beyond the title, is a bigger question that looms large: “What is a character without a story?”

The characters in Great House, like the Jews discussed in the novel’s final pages, are bent “around the shape of what they lost, and they let everything mirror its absent form”. They can “only recall the tiniest fragment: a pattern on the wall, a knot in the wood of a door, a memory of how light fell across the floor”.

If you were to bring these fragments together, there is the possibility of a “perfect assemblage”, but the individual characters exist to preserve their fragments, “in a state of perpetual regret and longing”.

Set aside the question of sentence fragments for now: this has nothing to do with commas and phrases. This is not about sentence fragments, but story fragments.

Nicole Krauss is comfortable rooting her stories in fragments. Or, at the very least, she is comfortable with feeling uncomfortable while composing a novel in this way.

Unlike Treadway, in Kathleen Winter’s Annabel, who is compelled towards the centre of the universe, Nicole Krauss’ characters inhabit a novel that challenges the idea of a centre.

There is no centre to Great House, unless you want to say that the centre is absence or loss.

Or, unless you want to pull out one of the fragments and call it the centre. You could, for instance, choose the desk. And that’s tempting.

Here is the desk when readers first encounter it in detail (and if this single passage puts you off, this likely isn’t a novel you would enjoy):

“Nineteen drawers of varying size, some below the desktop and some above, whose mundane occupations (stamps here, paper clips there) hid a far more complex design, the blueprint of the mind formed over tens of thousands of days of thinking while staring at them, as if they held the conclusion to a stubborn sentence, the culminating phrase, the radical break from everything I had ever written that would at last lead to the book I had always wanted, and always failed, to write. Those drawers represented a singular logic deeply embedded, a pattern of consciousness that could be articulated in no other way but their precise number and arrangement. Or am I making too much of it?”

Each of the novel’s two parts contains four smaller parts of varying size: perhaps they, too, like the drawers in the desk, represent a singular logic, a pattern.

Certainly there are connections between the segments — between characters, themes, events, emotions, objects, tragedies.

Or, perhaps that’s a tidy reader’s desire to impose an order on the disorder of Great House. (Perhaps I’m making too much of it myself. Perhaps I am intended to accept a chronic state of absence and doubt.)

For, ultimately, the attentive and serious reader can make pages and pages of notes about this novel — names and dates and places — and connect affairs and fires, desks and betrayals, the cries of children and pieces of artwork across the segments of the stories therein.

The layers are intricate and the interconnections are plentiful. But, even with many pages of notes, at the end of the novel I don’t feel as though the fragments have composed that “perfect assemblage”. I feel as though they have come together to make larger fragments, but not a whole.

And, so, it is the kind of work that I admire. Actually, I admire it a great deal. But although the characters who inhabit the fragments do possess a space in my reader’s heart, they haven’t swollen there to fill the space that a novel, like Annabel or Swamplandia!, stakes as its own. They are the subject of my reading admiration, but not my reading affections.

And, so, while I would confidently recommend Great House to a handful of readers who would marvel at its intelligence and depth, to writers and philosophers who approach their reading with their analytical skills at-the-ready, I will more often recommend The History of Love. I’m glad that I read Great House, but despite my admiration of it, I’m relieved that I read it carefully and won’t have to read it again.

As a reader, I wouldn’t have answered the advertisement above, and I’m lucky I wasn’t fired at the end of the first page.

ORANGE Squirt 2011: Book 3 of 20 (Nicole Krauss)

Originality Challenges the idea of a story
Readability Fragmented narrative requires considerable attentiveness
Author’s voice Philosophizing, solitary, regretful, doubt-soaked
Narrative structure Doesn’t get much more complicated than this
Gaffes Credits readers with excess patience
Expectations How do you follow up The History of Love, with Leo and Alma such crowd-pleasers?