"Voice" is a quasi-literary term often thrown around in the discussion of prose. With young writers in particular, there's a tendency to look for a quality that, through the machinations of words, syntax and perspective, renders the work noteworthy.
In contemporary parlance, the term often implies an element of novelty; fiction labelled "voice-driven" is frequently irregular in some sense, so that the imagined sound of the narrative calls attention to itself by virtue of its divergence from the norm.
Many on The New Yorker's 20-under-40 list - the roll call for the vanguard of contemporary fiction that the magazine published in July - could easily count themselves in this category. Certainly Wells Tower, ZZ Packer and Jonathan Safran Foer are all salient examples of voice.
Some might balk at my desire to include the more traditional lyricist Nicole Krauss in the group. Yet reading her piece in the magazine (and the striking new novel Great House, from which it was excerpted), I was struck by a tremendous feeling of lucid vocalization.
Her prose invokes the melody and cadence of beautiful oration; it overwhelms with a sense of continuity and direction, and seems like a definitive example of this elusive concept of voice.
Great House is the much-anticipated follow-up to Krauss's internationally bestselling The History of Love. It's the better of the two books, but may well not sell as many copies. The History of Love was a crowd-pleaser, an elaborate showcase of structural agility that spanned generations and continents and tackled only the biggest themes: love, death, literature. But the story teetered toward the sentimental and disparate plot strands dovetailed with a little too much ease.
It's tempting to speculate that Great House was meant redress the problems of the earlier book; Krauss's latest novel is in the same thematic ballpark, but shuns a mechanical structure for something kinetic and more improvised. Rather than pull at heartstrings, she mines for emotional realism and digs up something unprocessed and morally equivocal. The effect is less feel-good, but it's much richer art.
The novel consists of five different narratives, each taking the shape of a separate chapter and appearing only once or twice throughout the book. Written in the first person, they're all essentially testimonials, a character's revisiting of his or her own history and the struggle to ascribe it a teleological shape. The stories are linked by a desk, an imposing piece of antique furniture that has changed hands repeatedly throughout the second half of the 20th century. The desk, a hulking mass with 20-odd drawers, comes to symbolize an inversion of the space it occupies - absence, nothingness, the trajectory of human disappearances that has shaped its path across the globe.
The first in this series of disappearances is perpetrated by the Gestapo in 1944. When a Jewish Hungarian intellectual by the name of Weisz is deported to the camps, his beloved desk is looted by the SS and shipped into Austria. Weisz's son survives the war and sets out to recover every piece of his family's stolen furniture. "Unlike people," he says, "the inanimate doesn't simply disappear." But the campaign for material repossession unleashes a more figurative kind of disappearance. In his pursuit of a physical history, the son uproots the lives of his two children, who follow his zigzags across Europe and beyond, and become ghosts in their own present tense.
The desk makes its longest stop in the home of Nadia, a reclusive New York writer who has inherited it by way of another vanishing act: a Chilean poet kidnapped by Pinochet's secret police. Here, Krauss explores the notions of expropriation and appropriation with acuity. Just as the son's repossession of his family's belongings becomes its own form of theft (he breaks into the houses of the looter's children, for example), Nadia steals shamelessly from the real world, "fictionalizing" the sorrows and humiliations of those who claim her trust. It makes for a fascinating rumination on the amorality of creativity and, better yet, is the self-reflexivity added to the fray. As Nadia searches for "a simpler, purer prose, more searing for being stripped of all distracting ornament," Krauss, of course, achieves it.
Love, too, can raise its own anxiety of trespass and ownership, and Krauss explores this quandary in the other narratives. Some sections convince more than others, and the weakest, a chapter called True Kindness, sits awkwardly within the novel's frame. But at its best, Krauss's writing has an intuitive fluidity that's redolent of Jorge Luis Borges and Bruno Schulz. Her imagery is so natural that, rather than draw attention to itself, it seems to excavate hidden knowledge.
At one point, a surly Nadia is asked a question by a journalist: Do you think books can change people's lives? Nadia suggests that the interviewer imagine the person he might be if all the literature he had read in his life was excised from his mind.
Great House is one of those novels that has you consider the dearth of such an existence.
Martha Schabas's first novel, Various Positions, will be published next year.