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To Be a Man: Nuanced and provocative short stories

Book review: Debut collection by Nicole Krauss, the bestselling author of The History of Love, examines what it means to be human

To Be A Man
Author: Nicole Krauss
ISBN-13: 978-1408871829
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Guideline Price: £16.99

Much celebrated for her critically acclaimed novels, including the bestselling The History of Love, Anglo-American Krauss has published her debut short-story collection.

To Be a Man presents 10 stories, seven of which were previously published. These include Future Emergencies, which first appeared in 2002, the same year as her debut novel, Man Walks Into a Room. That this story offers a post-9/11 New York where citizens inhabit the city wearing gas masks out of fear of an unnamed threat reads now as remarkably prescient.

With stories accordingly spanning two decades, this collection serves to collate Krauss’s existing body of short-form work, with some new additions, as opposed to the author creating a deliberate compilation of new work linked by theme or intention. That is not to suggest, however, that the stories are totally discordant with each other.

Krauss has reflected upon the Jewish immigrant experience akin to that of her parents throughout her writing career and her nuanced examination of that community permeates this collection. The result is an accomplished anthology that spans the globe as Krauss wrestles with many of the ideas addressed in her four novels: identity, fragmentary lives, connection and disconnection, sexual politics, faith, desire, and the complex dynamics of relationships.

Masculinity

The central question that threads throughout is suggested by the title and title story – what it means To Be a Man in the present day. Sons and fathers, lovers and friends, husbands and ex-husbands – Krauss scrutinises masculinity in all its guises to try and illuminate the gulf between men and the women who know, love and sometimes fear them.

In reality, it is the complicated relationship and interaction between the sexes that is evoked. Inevitably, power is central to Krauss’s interrogation – how it is won and lost, when it is yielded, and the consequences of its use and abuse.

The real strength of this collection lies in her ability to walk a precarious narrative tightrope. The author expertly articulates the tensions that exist within and between people as they navigate their relationship with themselves and others without ever feeling compelled to resolve those tensions or make final judgments.

The desire for freedom is juxtaposed with a need for security; passion holds hands with violence; power is seductive and reductive. Krauss doubles down on the fine lines between conflicting states of being and lays the foundations for her stories there.

In a #MeToo world where previously accepted ideas of masculinity are finally being dismantled, this collection successfully inhabits multifaceted male characters and allows them to exist in their full complexities.

Krauss is exceptionally good at articulating both sexual dynamics and the intergenerational shifts between parents and their offspring as culture and society evolves

This intention is perhaps best exemplified by the final story, To Be a Man, which is structured in four parts. It begins with the narrator’s reflection upon her father, a man who “took all his great anger out to sea, let the wind out of its sails, and came back home without it”.

The middle section primarily consists of two longer narratives, the first concerning the narrator’s relationship with a German boxer, the second considering her male friend’s marriage. Finally, the narrator concludes with thoughts on her sons: the older son worries that upon becoming a man “he will lose something of his sensitivity, so valued by everyone who loves him, and become capable of violence”.

Intergenerational shifts

Krauss captures perfectly the moment a mother observes her son becoming a man with agency and power beyond her control, and the different relationships she has experienced with men throughout her life.

Krauss is exceptionally good at articulating both sexual dynamics and the intergenerational shifts between parents and their offspring as culture and society evolves. In the opening story, Switzerland, a 13-year-old girl moves to Switzerland with her fighting parents so that her father can begin a fellowship studying trauma. She says: “sometimes in my wanderings a man would stare at me without letting up, or come on to me in French. These brief encounters embarrassed me, and left me with a feeling of shame.”

Many years later, the narrator observes with concern her own 12-year-old daughter becoming an object of fascination to men: “it’s her curiosity in her own power, its reach and its limit, that frightens me. Though maybe the truth is that when I am not afraid for her, I envy her.”

Sexual power intermingled with the legacy of family dynamics on the psyche of its children creates an intoxicating blend that plumbs the depths of the human condition. Meditating further on this theme, End Days perhaps best encapsulates Krauss’s literary prowess at elevating the ordinary life into the realm of the extraordinary.

As a calling card for the novels, this collection delivers a strong indication of how electrifying her writing can be. It also holds its own, however, as a powerful literary body in its own right – a nuanced, provocative exploration on what it means to be human.