To Be a Man is full of thin lines. There’s the thin line that connects one human being to another, the thin line between being the rebellious girl and becoming a victim, between what religion offers and how it constrains. There is also the line that connects the past to the present. “We were European Jews, even in America, which is to say that catastrophic things had happened and might happen again,” declares a character on the first page. The same could be said of many of the protagonists in the 10 stories. Each lives under the weight of history, noted by Krauss sometimes almost in passing, as if to show that the history we are born with remains indelibly part of who we become.
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.
Krauss’s writing is beguiling and elegant but I wish she had taken some of the narratives further. She teases the reader offering just enough to pique our interest but then leaving us in suspense with images that linger, making us wonder what happened to all these complicated lives.
Throughout To Be a Man, Krauss’s writing is as lyrical as ever; beautiful phrases just keep on coming. In one story, two children talk to their mother at night: “the delicate lacework of their days had come spooling out, the triumphs and the disappointments.” In another, a character muses on where she belongs: “the thought of someone whose roots are sown in two places and so can never grow deeply enough in either”. Krauss can also be wryly funny, as when recounting the limits of a friendship: “It was around the time that a ban had been placed on the discussion of the penis.”