The Austin Chronicle


Reviewed by Clay Smith, August 23, 2002, Books

Man Walks Into a Room

by Nicole Krauss

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 248 pp., $23.95

Nicole Krauss' first novel opens with a beguiling, haunting detective story: On the last day of classes, a respected young English professor at Columbia University suddenly walks out of his office, leaving behind his work and wife, and begins driving toward the West. When two Nevada policemen find a man who has forgotten how to talk, with dust "worn ... into the creases of his skin," they assume he stole the wallet that claims he teaches at Columbia and belongs to the West Side Racquet Club and the Museum of Modern Art; people don't end up in the middle of Mercury Valley by accident. At the hospital, the police learn that a Samson Greene, who in fact does teach English at Columbia, has been missing for eight days. His wife Anna would like to know how he ended up in the desert. But Samson can't tell her because there's a small tumor, about the size of a cherry, pressing on his temporal lobe. When he wakes up from the surgery that removes the tumor he can only remember the first 12 years of his life, and that was long before he met Anna. "He had stumbled and landed in the immaculate geography of the mind," Krauss writes, in the assured clarity that marks this memorable debut. Samson has retained his "advanced mind" and the emotional maturity of his 36 years, and he is curiously able to "lay down" new memories after his surgery, so he is particularly precious to the doctors who begin studying him. But Samson has only a "polite" respect for his past, and doesn't care if the doctors grill him day in and day out, as long as he doesn't have to become "someone he felt he'd never been" and endure his wife's "surgical disapproval" of his complete disinterest in precisely who he used to be.

Samson seems like a automaton, albeit an entirely sentient one, but the beauty of this novel is that, to Samson, we're the automatons, receiving "curt instructions from ... tiny telephones" or becoming tribal in Las Vegas: "[Samson] walked into a casino and wandered past the table, edging himself into a crowd gathered around a game of craps. Maybe it's as easy as that, he thought to himself, just wedge yourself between this fat guy and that lady in a gold dress and you're in, part of it, everyone vibrating in the glory of the high roller riding a lucky streak, keeping an edge against the house. And for a little while it was fine, the terror left him." When Ray, a neurologist, hears about Samson's case and asks him to be involved in the first attempt to transfer a memory from one person to another, Samson readily agrees; he is the perfect test subject, has nothing to do, and is supposedly lured by Ray's charisma: "There were moments when, listening to Ray, Samson felt he understood how people took up with cults, deciding to give up everything to follow one charismatic leader, sleeping in vans, selling literature on street corners, and dancing with bells." But since Ray goes around saying things like, "The desert is a hunger artist; it renounces everything," it's a little hard to believe that anyone would drop everything to follow him. This is a novel of ideas, with a plot that occasionally reads like a "plot of emptiness," as Samson once considers describing his own mind to a taxi driver. Krauss is an ambitious writer with a penchant for putting as many observations as possible in her first novel, when just a description would be sufficient. "And because it is impossible to contemplate, to actually feel the suffering of another without reference to one's own, Samson was naturally moved to think of Anna, and then, finally, his own mother." Often enough in Man Walks Into a Room, you get plot description and a lesson. After finishing the last page, however, what endures is the recognition that Krauss observes with discerning, moving eyes that don't miss a thing.

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