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To Be a Man: Stories

Review

To Be a Man: Stories

“So much the same, but with the emphasis in a different place” could be the motto for this book of short stories by the spectacular Nicole Krauss. TO BE A MAN is about the ways that women and men interact and have interacted throughout the ages. From birth to death and hereafter, these male characters experience the world of masculinity as represented by fatherhood, marriage, childhood, playboys, milquetoasts and husbands who may not actually have been husbands to begin with. It gives you an around-the-world view of masculinity, both gentle and toxic.

"Like a wonderful omnibus, the wide range of experiences and dramatic repartee in these stories offers a scintillating and emotionally intense read that won’t soon be forgotten."

Krauss fills her stories with a circus of broken people. No one escapes this collection without having to admit to something difficult that they made happen or that they seem to have willed to happen to them because of guilt, shame or ineptitude. “I Am Asleep but My Heart Is Awake” involves a stranger and the memories of a father who left so much to be explored in his absence. The narrator sums up many of these escapades, as expressed in this story and others, with this statement: “That I will get used to stepping over the stranger on my way to the kitchen because that is the way one lives, casually stepping over such things until they are no longer a burden to us, and it is possible to forget them altogether.” TO BE A MAN is defined in some way by all the characters experiencing this same journey towards forgetting what was once painful and life-determining.

Krauss is first and foremost a novelist who writes short stories as if they are scenes from a novel that she didn’t have the energy to finish. Like a series of one-act plays, we get the expurgated histories and concerns of a myriad of characters who are trying their hardest to define their experiences as men or with men in various times of life. Her keen eye for detail keeps us interested in the many different protagonists and the switch-ups between first-person and third-person narratives throughout the collection. Sexuality, religion and elaborate cultures give us the framework for these failing or ailing relationships. It is a compendium of insights that would feel at home in a poetry journal or a psychology newsletter.

Each of the stories feels like a civil war between rationality and emotionality. All of the characters struggle to keep their emotions intact during times of high concern and life-defining drama. And yet, the more they work at managing their reactions, the more emotional the stories seem to us. Krauss’ poetic craft operates at such a high level that it keeps readers thinking about the last group of humans while moving gratefully into a new tale with hope that these people will fare better than the last.

Like a wonderful omnibus, the wide range of experiences and dramatic repartee in these stories offers a scintillating and emotionally intense read that won’t soon be forgotten.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on November 25, 2020

To Be a Man: Stories
by Nicole Krauss

  • Publication Date: November 3, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Harper
  • ISBN-10: 0062431021
  • ISBN-13: 9780062431028