Great House – National Book Award Finalist

A day after its release, Nicole Krauss’s novel
Great House
was named a National Book Award finalist, which is either a great bit of luck or a great bit of marketing.

It’s not surprising, though. The novel — which tells the story of a massive desk (yes, a desk) that trades owners from a middle-aged writer in the USA to a vindictive Israeli Holocaust survivor to a South American radical — is sprawling, confusing, and beautiful. It’s a book that makes you kick yourself and bite your tongue because it’s so full-on and self-centered (you’ll see what I mean in a second). But, at the same time, it really is great.

The book opens with a middle-aged writer, spilling over with despair, as she tells the story of a Chilean poet she loved. He left her to go back to his native country, where he was captured by the government — he was a protestor in a country where that sort of thing was usually fatal — and the poet was subsequently tortured and killed. Years later, a young woman shows up pretending to be his daughter, and summarily removes the desk, leaving the writer both deskless and with an incredible writer’s block.

And that’s the first chapter. I didn’t spoil it, I promise — you know every detail of the story from the start, except where the plot is headed from there. Where it’s headed is in a number of different directions, with several disconnected stories that intersect at times but never entirely unite. It’s quite beautiful, but it’s like watching a movie you know is supposed to be great. You’re never sure whether it’s actually going to entertain you, in the end.

Whatever Great House does, it does to 100%. The book is made of two parts and eight chapters, each told by one of four (really five) narrators. This sounds confusing, but it’s actually not at all — the stories are so distinctive and remarkable, and each cuts off at just the right point, that you thirst for resolution until the latter half of the book. All four narrators basically share the same voice — you know this voice; it’s a thoughtful, carefully meandering New Yorker-style of monologue. There aren’t even quotes around dialogue. Also, nothing happens. There’s no character progression, not for the main characters, anyway. Each is narrating the story in one place, unmoving, with full awareness of his or her audience and position as a storyteller.

Not that I’m complaining. Even if the characters all talk the same, the voice is so compelling that it’s hard to nitpick. Metaphorically or literally, she’s caught all of these characters in a moment between drunkenness (painful, honest drunkenness) and standing on death’s door — those times where people are most candid, blunt, and where they can see the sum of their lives.

GH takes its name from a story at the book’s very end — a story snatched from Rich Cohen’s book Israel Is Real, who snatched it in turn from the Talmud. In the end, you’ll realize, Great House was in fact entertaining — each moment of it, you’re in the moment, even if it’s only a single moment that lasts through each of its 30-page chapters. I still can’t tell you exactly what happened in the book, but I can tell you I’m already feeling nostalgic to go back and revisit it.

but the voice is so compelling that it’s hard to nitpickN

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