To Be a Man
Nicole Krauss’s latest book, To Be a Man, is the author’s very first short story collection. As the title suggests, each story incorporates an awareness of masculinity and all its power, while relating to the roles of women. But the collection isn’t merely about driving one gender against the other. There’s much more to it than that. Each story provides a sense of connection between real people and their everyday lives, much like the author’s former books, including the William Saroyan International Prize Winner, The History of Love.
The prose in To Be a Man is simple and direct. The narrators are unknown. At times, their presence can be strong, but it’s usually their stories or interactions with the other characters that are more dominant. Common themes are woven throughout the book: aging and dying, dreaming and sleeping, Jewish culture and a sense of place. Each story seems to ask its own questions relating to these themes, oftentimes found at the very end, but without providing any real answers. Instead, the reader is left to ponder, and sometimes well after the story has finished.
The history of each character in this collection is important, as it shows how it has shaped a person. In the opening story, “Switzerland,” the narrator recounts a girl she once knew from boarding school. Soraya was a mysterious and captivating girl, one who didn’t play by the rules, and when she started seeing an older Dutch banker, the seemingly nonchalant seductress game she played came to end when she went missing. “She had gone further than anyone I knew in a game that was never only a game, one that was about power and fear, about the refusal to comply with the vulnerabilities one is born into.”
History comes back around when the narrator began noticing older men looking at her own young daughter, and the defiant reaction of her daughter was startlingly similar to Soraya. “She has a proudness about her that refuses to grow small, but it if was only that, I might not have begun to fear for her. It’s her curiosity in her own power, its reach and its limits, that scares me.”
In the story, “I Am Asleep But My Heart is Awake,” a daughter inherits her father’s apartment in Tel Aviv after he dies. It is there that the history with her father is tested, grappling with uncovering who he really was, with the memory of him feeling more like a lie. A stranger soon enters her life, disrupting her grief. We never really learn much about this man, but that never seems to matter. There is something dreamlike about his presence in that apartment, mimicking the way the narrator feels while watching him sleep—a sound sleeper that can doze anywhere, through anything—and how his very existence allows her to consider her future, her life without her father. “That I will get used to stepping over the stranger on my way to the kitchen because that is the way one lives, causally stepping over such things until they are no longer a burden to us, and it is possible to forget them altogether.”
Survival is also seen in many of these stories. “Armor” discusses surviving a breakup, but also surviving the pain and suffering of life. The narrator reconnects with Sophie, a woman he fantasized about many years ago, and now spends his days with at a refugee camp. The history of Sophie’s past life, and the lives of her family, are brought to light throughout this story. She compares her relationship with her longterm boyfriend, Ezra, with the relationship between her own parents, spotlighting how what we witness about love in childhood impacts our wants and desires as adults. But the interesting question this story asks is does any of this matter in the end? “The absurdity of having once believed in the possibility of dedicating one’s life to anything beyond tomorrow, beyond just surviving.”
It’s hard not to connect this particular question to our current times with a pandemic that continues to rage on, with our own need for survival surpassing our usual wants and desires.
The story, “Future Emergencies,” can also relate to our pandemic times. While it revolves around the post 9/11 era, the terror of something deadly lurking in the air is eerily familiar. Gas masks are given at distribution centers, shelves are ransacked at the grocery stores, and the community shares one common “goal of survival.” The mention of seeing the first person wearing a mask on the subway brought visions of early 2020 when people first started covering their faces here in New York City. The fear the narrator holds when she sees her older French boyfriend, someone she knows and trusts, completely transform into another person when he puts his mask on for the first time is beyond relatable. Even the end of this story rang true to post-pandemic days, whenever they will come, when masks are no longer needed to keep us safe. What will it be like “walking around with a naked face, exposed to everything?”