Desks, unlike white whales and Tolkienian rings, are not typically the stuff of epic literary inspiration. But in Great House, Nicole Krauss’ loftily conceived, ultimately confounding follow-up to 2005’s acclaimed The History of Love, everything hinges upon that dark, foreboding hunk of furniture: a wooden behemoth so hefty in size and symbolism that it touches the lives of a middle-aged Manhattan novelist, a combative father and son in Jerusalem, an Oxford don’s war-scarred German wife, a doomed Chilean poet, and the damaged family of a peripatetic antiques dealer.
It’s not surprising to learn that Krauss herself once wrote poetry; she treats words with exquisite care, lavishing her considerable descriptive gifts on small, beautifully contained moments. Where she fares less well is in the larger ones — the sweep and pull of a compelling story line. Too often her characters wander around in fugues of memory and loss, invoking Great and Terrible Things (the Holocaust, Pinochet’s bloody regime) to portend tragic depths that only one thread — narrated by the irascible old man in Jerusalem — truly attains. Still, we are led to believe, over the course of 289 meticulously crafted but often slogful pages, that these many filaments will be tied together in some grand, revelatory denouement. That Krauss instead lets them all just drift away is perhaps House’s greatest mystery. B?