“Forest Dark” (Harper, 290 pp., $27.99) is Nicole Krauss’ first novel in seven years, so perhaps it makes sense that half of it is about a blocked novelist named Nicole, desperately trying to get going on a novel. Her marriage is quietly but utterly failing (as did the real Nicole’s, to novelist Jonathan Safran Foer). To paraphrase the ubiquitous passage of Dante to which the title refers: In the middle of life’s journey, she has lost her way.
Attempting to reconnect with her inspiration, Nicole imagines herself writing from the Tel Aviv Hilton, a destination she has visited since childhood. When a cousin of her father’s calls from Israel and says there’s a guy there who needs to talk to her, she needs little convincing to pack a suitcase. She’s particularly interested in her caller’s report that a man has recently fallen to his death at the hotel.
The other half of the book also revolves around a death in Tel Aviv. An aging American philanthropist named Jules Friedman has given away the very last of his millions, moved to a slum apartment in the Jaffa neighborhood and disappeared — or at least that’s how it seems to his adult children, who come from the United States to look for him.
The two halves of the novel never meet, and if “Forest Dark” has a plot at all, good luck trying to describe it. Still, Krauss offers treats for a variety of tastes. She speculates at length on the nature of the universe and also on the life of Kafka, the latter being the focus of a project with which her fictional avatar becomes involved. These matters are leavened with a stream of Jewish jokes. “What was it with religious Jews and their plastic bags?,” speculates one character. “Why did these people who had been wandering for thousands of years not invest in more reliable luggage?”
“Forest Dark” also pokes fun at the fleeting nature of American visitors’ enthusiasm for Tel Aviv — the first week, they’re buying an apartment, the next, they can’t get to the airport fast enough — and how important Nicole’s work is in Israel. “I’ve read your novels. We all have,” she is told. Someone else claims, “she would read every page I wrote until she herself was in the ground” and a third has named her infant after one of her characters. These metafictional high jinks, like many aspects of the novel, recall Philip Roth — though in his books people are more likely to be screaming that his work is finishing the Jews off altogether.
Of no less importance to the People of the Book is the work of Nathan Englander, whose latest is also set in Israel. “Dinner at the Center of the Earth” (Alfred A. Knopf, 252 pp., $26.95) is a spy novel. A complex, fractured narrative, it requires patience to put all the pieces together, but ultimately repays the effort as the characters’ identities, histories and destinies click into place.
One of the threads of the novel is set in 2014 in several locations — a black site in the Negev desert, an apartment on the Israeli side of the Gaza border, a hospital near Tel Aviv and Limbo. The characters include a guard and his prisoner — the latter a turncoat American operative who has been held for 12 years. There is also a general in a coma; Limbo is the country of memory traveled by the comatose military man.
Other sections of the story are set in 2002 (12 years earlier) in Paris, Berlin and Italy. Here we meet a young American on the run who falls in love with a waitress. His romantic notions are not the only thing that gets in the way of his espionage success. As he tells the waitress, his counter-surveillance instructor always said, “The biggest challenge at a Jewish spy service is training everyone not to look so guilty.” Other 2002 characters include a Canadian electronics salesman and the Palestinian he recruits to help him sell computers in the West Bank.
It all comes together to deliver a searing message about the difficulty of just action and human connection amid the pingpong match of retaliation in the Middle East. “Dinner at the Center of the Earth” will give them plenty to talk about in the bar at the Tel Aviv Hilton.