"Forest Dark" (Harper), by Nicole Krauss
Both of the main characters in Nicole Krauss' new novel, "Forest Dark," are in crisis. Jules Epstein, a 68-year-old Manhattan power lawyer, has recently divorced his wife of many years and retired from the firm where he was a partner for a quarter-century.
When the novel opens, he has "caught the disease of radical charity." He has given away his art to museums, his signet ring to his doorman, his Patek Philippe watch to a nephew. And he's about to leave for Israel to create a memorial for his parents, who have recently died. There he will encounter a charismatic American rabbi, Menachem Klausner, who belongs to a mystical Jewish sect and will try to enlist him in a wacky project to reunite the descendants of King David.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the East River, a successful young novelist named Nicole — whose life bears a passing resemblance to that of the author — is going through an identity crisis of her own. Her marriage is falling apart, she can't sleep, and she is haunted by a strange sensation "of being in two places at once," as well as a recurring image of a Tel Aviv hotel where she spent her vacations as a child.
In an impulsive move to overcome her writer's block, she heads for that hotel, where she will encounter a shady character named Eliezer Friedman, who will try to enlist her in a wacky plot that involves an alternative life and death for Kafka. He has chosen her, he says, because, like Kafka, she belongs to the Jewish people. "You're adding to the Jewish story," he tells her. "We're very proud of you."
Over the course of the novel, Jules and Nicole, whose stories are told separately — his in the third person and hers in the first — will end up in the desert, where each will undergo a life-changing metamorphosis. (See Kafka.) But as the novel heads to its apocalyptic climax, the story becomes increasingly unbelievable. Klausner and Friedman seem to exist at times solely to spout portentous theories about the Old Testament, Kafka and the Jewish people. And that's a shame. Because underneath these learned digressions, there is a far more conventional and affecting tale about two people at different stages of their lives who, for different reasons, have come to question everything they once believed in.