“To Be A Man,” the first collection of short fiction by acclaimed novelist Nicole Krauss, is a sustained shot of brilliance. By turns tight and exuberant, disciplined and expansive, the collection shimmers with insight and moments of perfectly realized beauty. It provokes unabashed laughter, it inspires profound thinking, it delights and disturbs in equal measure.
The stories are wildly varied in place (Japan, Israel, New York, California), tone (comic,somber, manic, restrained), and voice (male, female, young, old, first person, third person, and a blend of the two). Bookended by two new stories, “Switzerland,” published in the New Yorker this summer, and “To Be A Man,” which appeared in the Atlantic this October, the collection contains ten stories written over a twenty-year period.
The range of topics and styles reflects Krauss' multifaceted talent. She is equally adept at Malamud-esque fabulism and tragi-comedy, dystopian darkness and light-filled wit, mythic resonance and contemporary detail, breathless narrative that digresses, bubbles over, or hurtles forward at a breakneck pace and stark, measured reflections in the vein of Rachel Cusk.
The book’s cover is adorned with a suggestive photo of the bottom halves of a male and a female face, noses entwined, mouths open suggestively, on the verge of a passionate kiss, or perhaps a heated argument. The image is sexy, but misleading. The collection does not focus exclusively, or even mainly, on romantic relationships, so this angle misdirects from the truly central feature, which is the sheer range and panoramic vision on display. Themes of ancestry and inheritance, immigration and nationalism, memory and forgetting, Jewish identity, roles and rituals, nostalgia and intergenerational trauma, patrimony and patriarchy pervade the collection and shape its characters' trials and successes.
Power struggles — between parents and children, lovers, wives and husbands — are ubiquitous. Children alternately respect and grapple with their parents, parents both attempt to control their children and lament their lack of control. The opener, “Switzerland,” features a rebellious girl, Soraya, whose “wildness,” predilection for “sex [and] stimulants,” and “refusal to comply” have landed her at a finishing school, where she titillates and unsettles her more conservative friends with her daring (dangerous?) affairs. In the glorious “Zusya On The Roof,” the Casaubon-like Professor Brodman, recently recovered from a serious illness and a near-death moment, holds his infant grandson atop his daughter’s roof as he bitterly regrets that he submitted to his father rather than breaking free as his own daughters have: “Who might he have been, had it been given to him to choose? But his chance had passed. He had allowed himself to be crushed by duty. He had failed to fully become himself, had instead given in to ancient pressures.”
As they both register and attempt to shrug off the weight of ancient pressures — historical, familial, individual — Krauss’s characters struggle to become — or even to conceptualize — themselves on their own.
Tussles over duty and autonomy affect and infect familial and romantic bonds. What do we inherit from our parents and what are the benefits and burdens of that inheritance? What would rebellion from parental, gender, or marital expectations look like? What kind of self awaits revolutionary independence? Is it possible to both respect our elders and forge our own paths, remain faithful to our partners and seek thrill, connection, or erotic fulfilment elsewhere? Among other strategies, Krauss' characters experiment with S&M and non-monogamy in a bid for freedom and self-realization — but end up bruised literally and figuratively.
Many of the stories explore how the loss of parents both devastates and frees us. In the poignant, spare “I Am Asleep But My Heart Is Awake,” a young woman travels to Israel to claim an apartment her recently deceased father has left to her; in the vibrantly hilarious “The Husband,” a divorced Upper West Side therapist copes with the news that her mother has become romantically involved with a “lost husband” who showed up on her doorstep in Israel. Tonally so different, the stories both feature enigmatic strangers with unclear motives who insert themselves into private spaces and insinuate their way into the hearts of families.
Natural and political disasters, war and suffering also inhibit Krauss’s characters' quests to fully become themselves. The “personal secretary to Latin America’s greatest landscape architect” in “In The Garden” discovers that his illustrious boss is a Nazi agent. “Amour” is set in an unspecified refugee camp and gestures towards a genocide that is never named. Both “Future Emergencies,” set shortly after 9/11, “when the factory of America’s imagination had achieved its peak production of threats, attacks, conspiracies” and filled with gas masks, and “End Days,” in which wildfires threaten a community as a marriage is formally dissolved, have an eerie relevance in our era of COVID and climate change.
How the self is both solidified and dissolved as we grow and age is a consistent preoccupation. The narrator of “To Be a Man” muses on what has changed in her elderly father and what is about to change in her young sons, and laments how rigid conventions of masculinity have defined her male friends: “Being a soldier was the passage you had to go through, whether you liked it or not, on the way to becoming a man, though no one could say exactly when along that passage you stopped being a boy.”
Throughout, Krauss exquisitely depicts and inspires what one of her characters calls “the peculiar ache of being alive.” Joy and woe are woven fine in this extraordinary book.
To Be a Man: Stories
Harper, 240 pages, $26.99
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of "The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.''