home black bar



A Critique
by Samuel R. Delany

       I have strong feelings about Great House. At least one critic I’ve read liked it very much. While I dislike it intensely, my objections are formal.
      For me Great House fails in two major ways. I’ll start with the writing, which I find artificial, inflated, and largely colorless for great stretches. Here is a passage from page 37, picked at random, when, in the first movement, “All Rise” (I), Nadia writes about her husband “S,” during a period when her own writing is going badly:

. . . I went on as before, only not as before, because now I felt a
creeping shame and disgust with myself. In the presence of
others—especially S, to whom I was of course closest—the
feeling was most acute, while alone I could forget it a little bit,
or perhaps ignore it. In bed at night I recoiled to the furthest edge,
and sometimes when S and I passed in the hall I couldn’t bring
myself to meet his eyes, and when he called my name from
another room I had to exert a certain force, a strong pressure,
to goad myself to answer. When he confronted me I shrugged
and told him it was my work, and when he did not press me
on the subject, laying off as he always did, as I had taught him
to do, giving me a wider and wider berth, I secretly grew angry
at him, frustrated that he did not notice how dire the circumstances
were, angry at him, and perhaps even disgusted.

      Oscar Wilde noted that with such “characterization” the effect is not to individualize your character. Rather, said Wilde, the more of such characterization you write, the more your character comes to sound like everybody else. This is why you must be so sparing, so selective in its use when you write fiction today. The contradictions within such a cascade of observations are not particularly incisive, and when they go on in this mode for page-long and two-page-long paragraphs (she went on as before, but not as before . . . she was disgusted . . . perhaps she was even disgusted; these rhetorical gaffs and cascades of received language—“bring myself to meet his eye,” “pressed me on the subject,” “I had to goad myself,” “a wider and wider berth”—virtually constitute the book’s prose), it becomes mere noise and blurs all specificity. Krauss is neither Proustian nor Jamesian in her insights. In this book, at least, she is bland and verbose. Add to this her affectation of not using separate paragraphs for dialogue, and running all conversations together in these same undifferentiated paragraphs, and the result is 289 painful pages that are all sound but have neither grace nor precision.
      The second way the book fails is its major structure. A couple of years ago, Krauss published a very good book—The History of Love. But this new one has all the marks of a despairing writer who is wondering what she should do now and finally settles on cobbling together a handful of short stories—some of them decent but some not very good stories at that—writing some extensions, backwards and forwards, in the hope that this will form a book. Here and there, some of the rewriting gives a semblance of a shared theme—in this case, a desk, which she makes a symbol of the reconstitution of Jewish culture in Israel after the country’s 1948 declaration after the Israeli-Arab War. But it is painfully apparent that this book was constructed (I can’t even say written) under the commercial rubric that novels sell and short stories don’t. Attempting to bow to it, writers take a bunch of stories and do as much rewriting (or better, over-writing) as they can to convince readers that it’s really a novel.
      It’s not.
      And it won’t be, without a lot more work! Moreover, it’s apparent to any reader with the least ability to analyze what they are reading that it’s not. In a much differently constructed novel, some of this writing would have been interesting in exactly the ways the aforementioned critic notes. But that is purposefully to ignore well over half the pages in the book, the narrative context they set up, and what that context does to the range of affects that is our reading of Great House. Giving such a performance a prize, as nearly happened, would have done the book or literature no service at all. Because the writer knuckled under to Mammon in a move that obliterates most of what aesthetic integrity the individual pieces once had is not a reason for a prize, though I am sure lots of publishers would be delighted if had received one—not just Krauss’s—and would go around congratulating each other for years. (“We told ya that was the way to do it. Looka these sales figures . . .!”)
      I have all the sympathy in the world for the writer who gets him- or herself into this evil trap, which so often precludes the writer’s writing anything first-rate or even worth reading. But there’s no point in giving an NBA to a book (Great House was an NBA finalist) out of sympathy.
      The book’s innumerable subsequent problems grow out of this initial decision and the inadequate attempts to write connecting material that would make it seem as if it were a single work. But the basic construction shows through again and again, and when, on occasion, the cracks have been successfully covered over, things grow even more murky. To read its clumsinesses and narrative absurdities and awkwardnesses as ambition is risible. While images echo through the book—and they do—this is because Krauss could not develop those images; she only repeats them, tale to tale.
      Great House is not a novel. It is not a good collection of stories. It is not a collection of good stories—thanks to the rewriting and the often inappropriate (and wildly inept) material now interlarded throughout. In synopsis almost any idea can be made to sound rich and fecund, but it is the execution that finally determines its worth. And the execution here would be sub-publishable if the writer didn’t already have a track record.
      With much cobbling together and new material added to suggest the repeated theme of a desk with nineteen compartments in its back, the book is eight short and long stories. They take place in New York City, London, Israel . . . More accurately, Great House is three pairs of short stories, all in the first person—a deadly choice given her form—and a stand-alone (“Lies Told by Children”), with a coda composed of fifteen more first-person fragments assembled from the book’s narrators. Each pair has a different cast of characters, a different location, and a different central problem. Some of them may even have been written for the “novel.” But finally they do not make the rest cohere.
      The first tale, “All Rise,” I, is narrated (as is “All Rise,” II), as we have said, by Nadia, and to a Judge, who may (or may not), indeed, be Judge Dov, the son of Aaron, whom we meet later in the “True Kindness” duo of tales, and who experiences a devastating incident in the Israeli army when, as a young soldier, Dov violates a fundamental army principle by leaving a wounded comrade to die in the desert. Finally Dov leaves Israel itself, after receiving a vituperative letter from the father of his comrade, blaming Dov for the death of his son, and goes to England to study law, where he becomes—indeed—a successful Judge. He only returns on the death of his mother to stay with his father, whom he has never gotten along with, but with whom he wants to spend time and, possibly, make some sort of amends. Krauss divided this tale in two (as she does the others), with the first part depicting Dov’s eccentric childhood and the terrible relationship he has with bullying Aaron.
      The concept of “true kindness” is an interesting one. Krauss locates it with the Israeli Red Cross (I think!). It’s the kindness that you offer to the dying, without strings—the kindness which you know can never be repaid. This is, presumably, what Dov has returned to Israel to offer his aged father. It is the most interesting idea I took from novel. But it is given in a page—and the long dramatization that precedes it does not make it particularly stronger.
      The problem with this story—or pair of stories—is that it has nothing to do with the great desk that, thanks to the rewriting, is the symbolic center of the entire book. Yes, that desk comes to reverberate interestingly and becomes the center of a feeling of resonant mystery. My objection is not that it (or Krauss) fails to provide any answers. Rather, finally it organizes no particularly interesting questions.
      In the first story, Nadia receives the desk from a young Chilean poet, Daniel Varsky. They have an affair. Daniel leaves, writing her a series of postcards. The desk stays with her. She marries “S” and becomes a successful writer. Then the postcards stop—and there is a great deal about Pinochet and disappearings in Chile. But nothing is resolved.
      The book is rife with meaningless loose ends. I mention only one: Nadia divorces “S” and eventually she finds a book of her husband’s, a collection of stories signed to him by another author, Lotte Berg, who will—two stories on—become the subject of another story (“Swimming Holes,” I), this one set in London; Berg is another Jewish woman novelist, this one living on London’s Hampstead Heath; the book identifies Nadia’s husband as a young man who, in that later tale, long before marrying Nadia, sought out Berg because he admired her work and eventually became a figure of whom Berg’s husband became obsessively jealous. This jealousy fuels the penultimate story in the book, “Swimming Holes,” II. The identification of this young man as “S” (definitely a second-reading detail—it would be almost impossible to catch it on a first) tells us nothing meaningful about either story, unless it was just that “S” had a thing for women novelists—which is about par for Krauss’s sense of psychological complexity.
      Eventually a young woman who claims to be Varsky’s daughter comes for the desk, takes it way, and vanishes. Later in the second installment (“All Rise,” II), someone comes looking for the desk, and Nadia, now fifty or so, takes a trip to Jerusalem, in hopes of finding it again.
      If I had never read another of such things, I can see how the collection might seem briefly interesting. But I cannot imagine that all contemporary serious readers haven’t read dozens of these semi-commercial hodgepodges, the more pathetic (e.g., Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days) when they are produced by writers who have written good work, such as Krauss (or, indeed, Cunningham).
      As well, all eight sections/stories are in the first person. While two are supposed to feature a successful woman fiction writer—“All Rise,” I, and “All Rise,” II—there is little interest or sustained individuality to the presumably separate voices. Indeed, out of the eight, only two sections come close to escaping this: “Lies Told by Children”—the last story in Part I—and “True Kindness”—the opening story in Part II.
      The second story in Part II, “All Rise” is somewhat better—or at least easier to follow—than the others, but the plot is so cliché that all we can finally do with this version, set in Israel, is nod and turn away, embarrassed: an older woman [of fifty!], Nadia throws herself at a handsome young criminal of twenty or twenty-one, who she thinks is trying to seduce her, only to find that the idea of sex with her physically repels him, and he was only trying to get her to buy a replacement desk for one she had given away. The text brings little to the situation, however, that has been a topic of classic—and simply better—tellings of the same basic tale so many times before: The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone; The Lonely Passion of Judith Hern; A Streetcar Named Desire; Good Morning, Midnight . . .
      This one isn’t vaguely in their league.
      In the book’s first tale (“All Rise,” I), Nadia, then a young poet destined to be the successful author of seven-plus novels, tells of her life over twenty-seven years on New York’s Upper West Side, the same neighborhood in which incidentally I live today and in which I am writing these notes. It’s a wonderfully colorful place. Thirty-six years ago, when I first got here (a couple of years prior to Nadia), it was even more so, with an extraordinarily diverse population—black, Latino, Asian, and the remnants of a politically radical set of Jewish thinkers and writers. When I came, Isaac Bashevis Singer had not yet won the Nobel Prize for literature and regularly I would see him browsing in the local bookstores, which extended down below Columbia at a 116th Street. Singer lived here until his death in July of ’91 and was a most distinguished neighbor.
      While I was writing this, I had to take a break for a trip to the bank on Broadway. When I returned, I listed the most interesting things and people I had seen in that no-more-than-fifteen-minute walk—the marathon runners in their black and green spandex and their Mylar cloaks given out by the city (it was Marathon Sunday) who filled the street along with their friends and admirers, clutching the red, green, and silver plastic around their necks and holding their water bottles; the elderly ladies in their hats, with their walkers, and their long coats against the November chill, sitting on the island in the middle of Broadway with their black and Latino paid companions; the booksellers lined up at their tables along the edge of Broadway in front of Zabar’s, young mothers angling to get their strollers into the entrances of, here, a McDonald’s, there, the new vegan restaurant Peace Foods, with a green-framed window and spider plants draped behind the glass. Six months ago it replaced the pizza parlor that had stood on the north-west corner of Eighty Second Street for practically fifteen years. Kids with their skateboards were coming from the park, and a bevy of high school students were texting their friends vigorously as they strode in a phalanx down the street. At the end of the block, the seventy-year-old Asian maintenance man (Sam—his name is the same as mine) was finishing up his duties with the garbage cans in front of the doctors’ building with its iron stairway, painted ivory, curving up to the second floor, across the street from the bronze doors of Holy Trinity.
      These are all from one fifteen-minute trip one block trip and back—and they don’t even mention the street fairs set up on Amsterdam and Broadway, five and six times a summer, for the last twenty years.
      Save two obligatory mentions of a babkhah from Zabar’s, you will find neither these nor anything like them or any part of them anywhere in the first forty-five pages of Great House, which presumably picture Nadia’s life in these same streets over some twenty-seven years! Their omission makes the area seem like a grim, north English, industrial neighborhood.
      But such omissions go along with the flat, flat writing.
      Some critics bought it.
      I couldn’t.
      (Again and again, page after page, I found it impossible to tell any southern Mediterranean home in Israel from the kitchen of some north Jersey suburb. In a good two thirds of the book there is no specific world present—other than in London, and then only barely.)
      For me the entire novel momentarily rose to a new level of interest when, at the beginning, Daniel tells Nadia that the desk he is giving her had briefly been used by the poet Lorca—and I anticipated that the tale would take us into the coils of the Spanish Civil War, and the 1936 firing squad and the gay poet, dead at 38, in his unmarked grave. (Historically that’s a reasonable concern for the left-leaning Jewish intellectuals who so famously inhabited this neighborhood during the thirties, forties, and fifties.) But a few pages on in the story, someone on the phone tells Nadia that her desk was not used by Lorca after all, and with that authoritative fact, the story lost most of its interest for me.
      As E. M. Forster notes in his 1927 study, Aspects of the Novel, plot per se can have only one virtue: to make the reader want to know what happens next. Similarly, it can only have one failing: It does not make the reader want to know what happens next. It can accomplish this pricking of readerly curiosity elegantly and intricately as in a Jane Austen novel—by setting up a clean and clear narrative rhythm that allows readers to predict enough of what’s coming next to make them hungry to learn how it’s going be carried out. Or it can accomplish it energetically, if clumsily, as does Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights—by presenting a cascade of emotions and incidents, but with each new scene written strongly enough to cast clear illumination on all that has gone before, making the reader yearn for this progression of illumination through the chaos. Great House would appear to take the Emily Bronte method but without ever providing more than the weakest illumination. Rather, things become so entangled that are themselves so far apart, they finally seem to have no bearing on one another, so that vast parts of the construction have nothing to do with what it’s actually about, and even intelligent and sensitive readers become indifferent to the performance.
      It’s boring—which is fiction’s cardinal sin.
      The enthusiastic critic’s statement that the book is not about “a desk, or about a piano, or about incidental furniture” or even a mystery, is right—exactly so; and part of what is wrong with the book is that it is that desk and the narrative around it that holds many of its pages to “the Jewish experience.” So many pages are about the desk and so much of the book’s energy is spent suggesting mysteries that Krauss (in this book) displays neither the novelistic skill nor interest to solve, soon many readers cease to care.
      I was one of them.
      I was bored. Nonetheless, I persevered through it—twice.
      I don’t think it was worth it, and it was less so the second time around. Most of the things that excited our critic mentioned, I did get on first reading. (A small few of those points struck me as over-readings, but I’ll rack those up to an individualistic critical approach.) When a book gets better on the second reading, it’s the sign it’s a good one; when a book gets worse, it’s the sign it’s a bad one—and the second time through I saw all the creaking machinery, the forced parallels, with every possible correspondence shoehorned into some metaphor or other, and the correspondingly flat, flat characters, iced over with that dreadfully vapid prose, many of the characters millimeters off from ethnic clichés, with none of the richness of lived life to bring them alive, the endless oedipal tensions, the interminable loose ends, which, because I had read the book before, I now knew would go nowhere and meant nothing. To me, they seemed, by and large, less rather than more significant on the second time through.
      In “Swimming Holes,” II, after Lotte Berg’s death, Lotte’s husband, Arthur (Mr. Bender), searches futilely for the fate of a child his wife put up for adoption before he met her. In the end, when he is given a paper with a possible name, he tears it up and decides not to look further—a gesture which will be mirrored at the very end of the book when Krauss at last draws the curtain just before Leah opens the final cabinet on the desk with the mysteriously returned key—which is about the same level of anti-climactic gush as the 101-year-old heroine of the film Titanic throwing her diamond necklace back into the sea at the end.
      I’ve already told how Nadia, in an earlier tale, narrated how she sees the handsome young lay-about, with black hair and a motorcycle, whom she is smitten with—the spitting image of Varsky, in fact. Though everyone tells her he is a thief and has a young girlfriend, he—Adam—seems to like her, and, after a failed visit to an elderly man whom I assume is a narrator of one of the other stories, Aaron (father of our judge, remember), he offers to help her get a replacement for the desk she is looking for.
      Although by shooting down the Lorca connection to her desk (and not providing it with another) Krauss shoots down my major interest in her tale, I still was curious about the connection between Varsky and the desk. But when, as I read on over the next two stories, I learned that, 1) Krauss did not know the answer to that one, and 2) she did not seem at all interested in putting out the inventive energy to find out, as, 3), the next two tales had taken me as far as page 198 without any progress in the major questions at all … this is when I decided that the book—at least as a novel—was incompetent.
      G. E. Lessing in the eighteenth century said that genius was the ability to put all one’s talent into the service of a single idea—and it is the scattered feel, the failure to summon the sense of singularity (which for all its clumsinesses of another kind, is a singularity I do find—or find, for me, much more strongly—in, say, Karen Tai Yamashita’s I-Hotel, another NBA finalist) that makes me feel that Krauss’s book is, to put it gently, not a work of genius.
      Nor have I, with my second reading, changed my mind.
      That said, stories four (the last in Part I) and five (the first in Part II) would have been decent tales by themselves had they not been presented sunk in the rest of the nonsense, which just makes them difficult to read, because by that time we are looking for them to answer questions posed by earlier material—questions that Krauss herself was probably completely uninterested in when she wrote them. It is the second reading that allows you to appreciate them for the potentially good stories they might have been without all the baggage that tries to fake a novel.
      Story four, “Lies Told by Children,” was, for me, the strongest tale in the book. In London, not far from the Freud Museum, the adult son and daughter of an Israeli antique collector and seller, George Weizs, lives in an old Victorian house crammed with their father’s acquisitions, while he is away buying and selling his stock. The daughter, Leah, is an aspiring pianist. The son, Yoav, is at Oxford, where he meets the narrator, a young American woman also studying at the English university. The story is basically the tale of Yoav and the narrator’s affair and how the absent father dominates his children.
      In general, in this story, the writing is clearer than in the first four stories, which, by comparison, seem largely like attempts to fill up paper. Even so, there is no real climax or resolution, save that the father makes an unexpected return and the narrator, uncomfortable with the whole arrangement, leaves.
      Weizs is the character closest to the symbolic center of the novel (if we acquiesce to Krauss and read it as such). He has taken on the job of reconstructing, in present-day Israel, rooms from various Jewish homes in Europe from before the war. He has promised to get the desk for Aaron—or someone (it’s not clear). But his obsession with this task has basically destroyed the possibility of any normalcy in his children’s lives.
      It’s a good idea—even a good idea for a novel. It doesn’t work in this one, however, because we never see him actually do it for any length of time. He is just not on stage enough. The book is about everything else under the sun—as I say, it’s a collection of disparate stories that Krauss has tried to write into a coherence that they don’t possess. She would have had to write a long, long section in which we saw George working to fulfill his task, which was paired with the intense desire of someone to have such a reconstruction carried out, in which that desire was made emotionally and novelistically palpable. But—like the answer to Arthur’s search and the secret of the desk’s last cabinet—it’s not there.
      One can interpret such absences forever.
      But we can’t award them prizes unless they show far more signs of having been positioned with conscientious novelistic skill rather than by happenstance.
      A prelude at the tale’s beginning—which feels much more like the bleary writing in the rest of the book—has already made clear that, years later, Leah—Yoav’s sister—phones the narrator in America and asks her to return to her bother, who is losing it. The bulk of the story is a flashback. I confess, I am unclear whether she does or does not return. But the fact is, it’s another element that makes no difference one way or the other to anything that happens later.
      The first story of Part II, “True Kindness,” is the military tale that follows the back story of the conflict between Dov and his bullying father, Aaron, that is given us in the first “True Kindness” tale in Part I. The second “True Kindness” tale is set in the Arab-Israeli conflicts of the late sixties. The basic story tells how Dov, in the army, abandons a comrade in the desert, thus contravening a primary principle of the Israeli army: never abandon a fellow soldier who is still alive. But Dov was in a position where, if he had carried his friend, or if they had both stayed where they were, both would have died. This way, at least one of them lives.
      When he returns to his home in Jerusalem, Dov is deeply depressed by the incident. (From the former story, we know there is a fundamentally strained and basic temperamental difference between father and son.) From a bomb that goes off in the street, killing and wounding many, we learn the meaning behind the term “true kindness”—the kindness offered to the dying with no chance of recompense. This is the kindness that Dov has returned to offer his father, who is in his twilight years. Indeed, it is an important and interesting concept—for me the most interesting in the book.
      The problem is that, for all its importance as a human theme, it seems to have nothing to do with the novel up till now because it has nothing to do with the much-discussed and mobile desk. Unfortunately these are the connections that the rest of book sets up, clearly and incontrovertibly. Despite all the plotlets that Krauss has written to bind them together, none of the stories feels as if it was integrated with any of the others. Unless this is supposed to be some sort of anti-novel (in which case, I shall admit, I completely misread the book), I find it impossible to read the feelings of dissociation between the sections as other than an almost endless succession of glaring narrative flaws. And the inserted connecting material makes it impossible not to want to bring them together.
      Even in what I felt were the narratively strongest parts of the book, such as the two tales I have just discussed, moments of dissociation crop up within them as well:
      Yoav and the narrator are making love on the living room rug in the old
London house:

My shoes came loose, and the pants slipped free. Then he took
off the rest of his own clothes. At last we were naked. But instead
of continuing in the vein we’d been going in, Yoav switched course
and started to roll. An actual summersault with me attached. Once
we’d gone around 360 degrees, he started to roll again . . . We were
like two people practicing for the circus. You’re hurting my neck, I

      This is ludicrous as well as anatomically impossible. A page later (135), Yoav is recording in writing every little move and gesture the narrator makes. Another of these moments—this one in “Swimming Holes,” I—is Lotte’s daily dawn swims all year long in one of the lakes on Hampstead Heath—even if it is frozen over in winter and the ice has to be broken away. Back in ’66 and ’67, when I had friends in Hampstead with whom I stayed when I was in London, I heard about such Polar Bear Club carryings on. I’d always assumed this was some sort of London urban legend. But whether real or fanciful, in Krauss’s book there’s no mention of bathing suits, towels, changing cabins, hot showers afterward, or anything else to give a sense of veracity to these daily ice dips. These moments of anatomical absurdity or psychological unlikelihood are possibly to be read as “postmodern irony” or even moments of “magic realism.” If they are intended as comedy, however, to me they fall flat. But it’s far more likely that the writer’s narrative invention simply hit a snag at such points and produced a moment of idiocy. The fact is, they are silly, narratively indigestible, and threw this reader out of the tale.
      All our enthusiastic critic describes is basically there, I feel. But I also can say confidently that our critic is describing the Emperor’s very skimpy underwear as he huddles in the wind—a few bits of interesting underpinning for the structure. In this case, however, Great House has no walls—and the Emperor has no clothes.

                         —New York, November 12th, 2010


skidrow penthouse
    All content copyright © 2017 Skidrow Penthouse