Sea of Reads

Peripatetic, itinerant, eclectic musings about books, politics, history, language, culture, and anything else that interests me.

“Great House”: Great Writing, Great Confusion

I’m glad I read Great House, Nicole Krauss’s much-hyped third novel. She writes beautifully, and there’s no doubt that she’s a major talent. But I have to say, I did not “get” this book at all. There is no plot to speak of, and really not much character development, either. The central character is a desk that gets passed from one person to another in a series of connected novellas. The idea is intriguing, and it’s one of the reasons I wanted to read the book, but I don’t feel like Krauss did much with it.

My impression after looking through some of the reviews online is that professional reviewers loved the book (with some exceptions), but ordinary readers felt more like I did: extraordinary writing, mediocre novel.

From GoodReads:

“… Great House was a tedious read for me. The quality of the writing is very good, but there is no real story here. Like The History Love, the novel is built on multiple narrations, but here the narrators are not the least bit interesting. They are a dreary, prissy lot, self absorbed to such a degree that they are just plain annoying.” — Stuart (two stars)

“… The narratives are incredibly disjointed and confusing. None of the characters are interesting enough to warrant the energy required of the reader to piece together their stories in a meaningful way. … By far the worst flaw of the book is the lack of propulsion. I’m amazed that I read the entire book as there was nothing driving the book forward.” — Ursula (one star)

“I read “The History of Love” by Krauss and loved it. This started out telling the story of the desk, but ended so abruptly, I was very disappointed. I would have liked a neater package.” — Diane (three stars)

I don’t think I needed a “neater package” — I know that in real life there’s no last page to tie up all the loose ends. (Well, maybe there is, but whether we learn those answers on an individual level is up for grabs.) I don’t require a novelist to give me certainty about how all the plot points in the book get resolved in the end, but I do want intentionally confusing connections to be clarified by the time I finish the book, and although that did happen to some extent, there were some questions that simply remained suspended in midair by the last page. In my opinion, that is a nasty trick to play on the reader.

Reader David gives the book three stars and says it is “hampered by the unfortunate fact that it is not History of Love.”

The comparison is unfair, but it’s really hard to avoid—characters with similar neuroses and hang-ups about their loved ones, meta-layers featuring works of art within the narrative, and various religious/historical anecdotes adding flavor. Something about it felt clunky though; the metaphors were a little flat, the action wasn’t engrossing enough, the characters sometimes felt quirky for the sake of quirk. All in an indefinite way, but it is made absolutely perceptible by her previous effort, in which nothing felt amiss.

I’d say the title sums up the whole reading experience. You’re never really given any sense (outside of guesswork) what the title means until the last five pages of the book, and when you get there it seems interesting enough, but by that point I had spent so much time wondering how the title was going to play in that it seemed incongruous when it was finally introduced. The ending itself is so abrupt that I can’t help feeling I just read the first half of a better novel.

Here is what some of the professional book reviewers had to say:

David Ulin, Los Angeles Times:

Maybe it’s because I am a father, but to me the most resonant sections of Nicole Krauss’ widely anticipated third novel, “Great House,” are those narrated by Aaron, an aging Israeli who still hasn’t figured out how to relate to one of his adult sons. Aaron is bitter, loving, angry, complicated — “full of passionate intensity,” to borrow a line from Yeats. He is, in other words, a real person, marked by pride, regret and secret longings, which make him the most three-dimensional presence in the book. The two chapters he narrates pulse with his hot-blooded heartbeat; the drama of his family rises to the level of the epic because he makes it so. As for the rest of the novel, it’s well done enough, nicely written and full of cogent insights, but compared with Aaron, it feels as if it’s taking place behind a sheet of glass.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, New York Times:

What gives the quickening of life to this elegiac novel and takes the place of the unlikely laughter of “The History of Love”? The feat is achieved through exquisitely chosen sensory details that reverberate with emotional intensity. …

Krauss has taken great risks in dispensing with the whimsy and humor that she summoned for her tragic vision in “The History of Love.” Here she gives us her tragic vision pure. It is a high-wire performance, only the wire has been replaced by an exposed nerve, and you hold your breath, and she does not fall.

Yevgeniya Traps, New York Press:

… Great House is, above all, a novel of ideas, sometimes fully articulated, sometimes only impressionistically conveyed, touching on memory and loss and the struggle to assimilate the knowledge of how little we may know of those we love the most. And it is to say that, for a novel that tells so many stories, Great House is finally scant on plot, its action mostly confined to the unspooling of barely suppressed longings and doubts, the quiet personal reckoning that is, in Krauss’s artistic vision, the real story of most lives. I do not mean to suggest that nothing happens in the course of the novel—in fact, quite a bit does—but rather that the pleasure of reading this book is in its details, its intimation of sincerity, its quiet wisdom. There is a beautiful sort of logic to the way its pattern unfolds—like a song, heard for the first time and yet strangely familiar, as if, making such intuitive sense, it must have always already existed. …
If there is another novel Great House finally resembles, it may well be The Counterlife, Philip Roth’s great exploration of the myths and anti-myths we rehearse incessantly. Like The Counterlife, Great House travels from New York to London to Jerusalem, and like The Counterlife, it refuses easy resolutions; its stories intersect but do not necessarily add up neatly. Krauss may not yet be Roth at the height of his powers, but her latest suggests her as Roth’s most likely literary heir. With Great House, anyhow, Krauss has made an undeniable bid for literary greatness.

Ron Charles, Washington Post:

One of the fundamental, often unmet challenges of reviewing novels is describing the plot without giving too much away. … “Great House,” though, presents an almost unique example of a book you’d enjoy more if someone spoiled the suspense first. The whole story seems built around the possession, the loss and the search for a giant wooden desk of 19 drawers — one tantalizingly locked. Four main narrators, thousands of miles apart, deliver somber testimonies of their lives and their interactions with this errant piece of furniture.

How are these narrators related? Where did the desk come from, and what are its “hidden meanings”? Who has the key to that one locked drawer?

Krauss buries the answers to these mysteries in a thicket of scrambled testimonies; you can fill the margins of these pages with little clues and sketch out a web of transactions and relationships.

But — spoiler alert — don’t bother.

The dispiriting punch line to this complicated novel is that these mysteries are the least interesting thing about it. The desk turns out to be rather incidental, and the obscure relationships among some of these characters are merely accidental. The riddles that soak up so much attention are distractions from the moving stories that these disparate narrators have to tell.

In the backhanded compliment category, Karen R. Long, Cleveland Plain Dealer:

Krauss, 36, began her writing as a poet. She haunts “Great House” with the piping cries of children, an eggplant recipe mastered in Israel, a motorcycle helmet lent to all the fair girls.

As one character’s wife retreats into Alzheimer’s disease, he registers “the mysterious poetry of the mind’s associations.” One could say the same of Nicole Krauss.

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times:

Krauss, in an interview, has said that she has a strong spatial sense; that when she visits a city, she quickly begins to “see the city from above and to put the city together in an aerial way.” That’s precisely how “Great House,” a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award, comes together. At first the stories, which jump backward and forward over the past 60 years, feel like dots on a blank canvas. Then gradually the dots become connected by lines, and the seemingly disparate lines begin to shape themselves into a picture. A five-sentence paragraph on the novel’s second page only makes sense near its end, as we finally, thrillingly understand to whom the character is speaking, and why.

Here are some interviews with, and/or articles about, the author herself.

Catherine Lacey, “Nicole Krauss on Her Novel ‘Great House,” Motherhood, and Why She’ll Never Write a Memoir,”

Jeffrey Brown, arts and entertainment correspondent at, interviews Krauss about “Great House.” Very interesting conversation between the two of them. Krauss is engaging, and clearly has a very well formed sense of who she is as a writer, what she wants to write about and how.

Nicole Krauss writes at The Huffington Post about the writing of Great House, and how the major elements of her book came into beingg. Here are the first two paragraphs:

There is something strange that happens at some point between when one turns a novel in to the copyeditor for the last time and the day it’s finally published. The book, which for so long was something elastic, shifting to accommodate each new thought, every nuance in the writer’s mood, begins to harden. One discovers that the chair that yesterday could be dragged across the room is now nailed to the floor. The novel begins to close itself to the writer who built it out of her private concerns and instincts. She who knows its measurements exactly, who invented its inner workings, begins little by little to forget how it was made. The more the novel becomes a solid thing in the world, the less access the writer has to the accidents, reversals, inventions, rejected ideas, passing weather, sudden triangulations, and unshakable intuitions that led to those words, and only those, standing there on the page with an authoritative air about them, as if they were always bound to be. The writer who locked the door not long ago loses the key.

So I thought I would try to record, before they slip away, how certain elements of my novel Great House came to be. Where they arrived from, and the unexpected transformations they underwent as they became underground forces in the writing. The novel is told in four voices, but the stories they each tell, how they fit together in the book, and the larger story they sum to–I won’t say much about all of here; I’ll leave that to the novel itself. Instead I’m going to tell you about a desk, a shark, a swimming hole, and a room that ceases to exist in one city, only to be reassembled many years later in another.


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This entry was posted on December 26, 2010 by in Book Reviews, Literary, Recently Finished Reading, Writers and Authors, Writing Life.
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