In “The Husband,” a standout story in Nicole Krauss’ new collection, “To Be a Man,” Tamar, mother of two and recently divorced, considers the most common complaint she encounters at work. “If she could reduce all of the words her patients spill in her office to a single, plaintive truth, it is that in the end everyone is alone, and the sooner one comes to terms with it, celebrates it, even, the sooner one can begin to live beyond the long shadow of anguish and anxiety.”
Nearly all of Krauss’ characters grapple with life in that shadow; in the best of this work, there are bursts of respite.
Much of the prose lingers in a melancholy mood. Adult children grieve their fathers (“I Am Asleep but My Heart Is Awake”), or fathers confront their imminent death (“Zusya on the Roof”). The landscapes are often transitional and full of fear — the refugee camp in “Amour,” the hidden horrors of “In the Garden” — or, when they are familiar, distorted in deeply disturbing ways.
In “Future Emergencies,” a woman watches her husband put on a city-issued gas mask and surprises herself with her volatile reaction. “ ‘Take it off,’ I demanded. Victor was motionless, as if the mask had made him demented. ‘Take it off.’ … I felt a fierce urge to kick him, but I was sitting down.”
The narrator does not kick her husband in “Future Emergencies,” but in the best of these stories, her characters follow through on their “fierce urge.” Tamar’s mother, Ilana, a widow, finds herself hosting a man erroneously identified as her missing husband; rather than clarify matters, Ilana enfolds the stranger into her family, to Tamar’s bewilderment.
In “End Days,” a richly layered story full of humor and brief but meaningful encounters, adolescent Noa watches her parents, Monica and Leonard, divorce, then delivers flowers to a wedding against a backdrop of nearby wildfires.
At the divorce proceedings in a synagogue, Monica inquires about the kind of feathers the scribe is using, and Krauss finds humor in the moment. “Turkey, the scribe reported. The tall, lanky witness purred appreciatively, and concurred that turkey was the strongest.”
Leonard is an archaeologist, and bits of his scholarly wisdom are sprinkled throughout the story, both in a comic capacity and as a thematic unifier; meanwhile, his elderly neighbor buries gold and later seeks help finding it in his own yard.
The stories with a third-person narrator — particularly “End Days” and “The Husband” — allow Krauss to follow her characters’ lead; these are the richest, most populated stories, with a focus on immediate concerns and less of an interest in absences and reveries.
The titular story contains some of the collection’s most spectacular writing, effectively, swiftly building tension between two characters. In “The Husband,” having looked out a window at the sea, Tamar wonders, “What is the good of expansiveness if one doesn’t expand?” Krauss’ stories beautifully examine this territory of uncertainty.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy’s writing has appeared in Electric Literature, LennyLetter, Narrative, the Millions, Harvard Review and elsewhere. She held a 2014-16 Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.
To Be a Man
By: Nicole Krauss.
Publisher: Harper, 229 pages, $26.99.