Novelist Needs Room to Grow-Out of Her Reliance on Gimmicks

The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss. W.W. Norton, 252 pages, $23.95.

There was a little girl,

Who had a little curl,

Right in the middle of her forehead.

When she was good,

She was very good indeed,

But when she was bad she

was horrid.

I present this Longfellow verselet by way of asserting that Nicole Krauss can be very good indeed, and occasionally horrid-the horridness stemming from the forgivable sin of overweening literary ambition. Hence the overweening title of her latest, The History of Love. (Gee, nothing more?)

You’d think, from the way some reviewers have jumped on Ms. Kraus and her superstar bridegroom, Jonathan Safran Foer, who came out with his second novel just before she came out with hers, that the duo had murdered Mother Goose in her sleep. (Granted, the press may well have a permanent case of poet envy, and piling on is the closest some critics get to physical exercise.)

To set the record straight-or at least exfoliate the discussion somewhat-let us stipulate that Mr. Foer is not Ms. Krauss’ only influence. She had a well-received literary career underway with her first novel, Man Walks into a Room (2002), before marrying Mr. Foer. To offset the charge that she’s too much in the orbit of her husband (a charge, it must be said, the twosome did little to discourage by cross-echoing each other in their new books), I offer traces of the following influences (take a deep breath):

Isaac Babel, Bruno Schulz, Bob Dylan, Ingmar Bergman, Italo Calvino, Franz Kafka, Gabriel García Márquez (“She roamed the house in a kimono printed with red flowers, and wherever she went a trail of crumbled pages followed”); children’s books like Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline, Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree and Judith Viorst’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (“It was turning out to be a bad day” is a paragraph in itself); the oh-so-hummable cadences of Fiddler on the Roof (“it dawned on him that, miracle of miracles, this lovely girl might actually be developing feelings for him”); sundry nursery rhymes (“one shoe on, one off”); and the romantic film comedies of the early 90′s (especially Sleepless in Seattle and Milk Money, which featured cloyingly precocious children micromanaging their parents’ love lives-a popular trope in American movies when Ms. Krauss was in her apparently impressionable late teens).

So it ain’t just her hubby.

(As for the hubby himself, whose new novel has been so vilified that he recently said he feels like “the most hated writer in America,” I believe that the eminence responsible for inspiring his most successful character-the Ukrainian translator Alex in Everything Is Illuminated-is none other than Ali G’s Kazakhstan import, Borat. “Che’ it out,” as Mr. G might say: The dates are right.)

In truth, given the rich and varied flavors of her forebears, I find it nearly impossible to be anything but divided on the subject of Ms. Krauss. On the one hand, I’m stunned by the sweep of her lyricism … but I’m bugged by the twee. I’m moved by her romantic vision, by turns muted and glowing (Winona Ryder, call your agent) … but I don’t believe for a moment that the universe she’s conjuring is our own. I’m slain by the mini-fables she strings prettily together … but irked by the moments of fake and clotted humility (“I know there is a moral to this story, but I don’t know what it is”). Humility is not this writer’s game.

It’s frankly painful to see her talent marred by pretense. Her use of subtitles, for instance, is raw gimmickry: “THE DEAD SEA IS THE LOWEST PLACE ON EARTH”-a sub-chapter in its entirety-and “HOW TO RESTORE A HEARTBEAT” strike me as not so much sophomoric as a confused attempt to impress grown-ups. Is a line like “Her kiss was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering” kind of wonderful, or kind of yucky? (Maybe it depends on whether you thought Elvira Madigan-the makeout film that was popular when I was an impressionable teen-was highbrow or hogwash.) Can it be that she’s both precocious and pretentious at the same time, poetical and posturing? And what about her annoying habit of putting periods after short declaratives like “but” or “and yet?” It’s hard not to think of this as anything but. Attention-seeking.

Then there’s her thing for sadness. Let me count the ways: “The idea of evolution is so beautiful and sad.” “Deep down we can never forget the sadness of our insurmountable differences.” “Sadness that seemed to slip in through the open window without our noticing, disturbing the rarefied atmosphere that comes with the beginning of love.” “Sadness that comes when you recognize the foreignness of your own body.” “The sadness of gravity.” “There are two types of people in the world: those who prefer to be sad among others, and those who prefer to be sad alone.”

This sort of exalted gloom can only be called Weltzschmerz, a condition that for good reason usually afflicts only the very young (say, the age that enjoys Milk Money). It’s what’s both good and less good about Ms. Krauss-good when it feels bona fide, less so when it feels forced, especially in conjunction with such contrivances as this: “my Alma should grow up to be blessed with health and happiness and what would be so terrible some nice breasts.”

Nicole Krauss may be one of those writers, like her husband, whose stock goes up and down depending not so much on the written text as on the reader’s mood-seeming false one minute, poignant the next, depending on where you hang in your digestion cycle. Which makes her a very personal writer. There’s not a lot of humor here (she puts a high price tag on herself, which is absolutely her right), and the whole is touched with a solemnity that you’ll find either moving or mannered, or a mix of the two. Maybe, as a character in The History of Love postulates, some people “just get happier and happier everyday. And some people … just get sadder and sadder”-and reading the exasperatingly talented Ms. Krauss, we get both.

What I say is this: Let’s back off and give the curl room to grow out. If Ms. Krauss and her husband are guilty of anything, it’s sumptuousness of ambition, enormousness of heart. They want nothing less than to record the condition of human love. Genuine heartbreak for the world cements their work. They may just produce novels of surpassing beauty … if we don’t poison them first.

Daniel Asa Rose reviews books regularly for The Observer.