cover image Kraft


Jonas Lüscher, trans. from the German by Tess Lewis. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (224p) ISBN 978-0-374-18214-4

Swiss-German writer Lüscher (Barbarian Spring) delivers an arch, fascinating satire of world-weary European skepticism and irrational American hopefulness. Richard Kraft, a cash-strapped German professor of rhetoric, heeds a call from a Silicon Valley entrepreneur to give a presentation in response to a prompt adapted from an Alexander Pope dictum (“Why whatever is, is right and why we can still improve it”), hoping to win the $1 million prize for the best response. Kraft travels to Palo Alto, Calif., for the competition and stays with his old friend Istvan, who was a Hungarian dissident in the 1980s and shares Kraft’s love of free markets and the television show Knightrider. Once in California, Kraft suffers from writer’s block (“Has the California sun, beating down on your head day in, day out, dried up your brain?”) and is bemused by Silicon Valley culture. In one memorable scene that perfectly captures his unmoored status, he almost drowns in San Francisco Bay’s Corkscrew Slough. The narrative periodically leaves Kraft’s floundering to chronicle the intellectual, political, and romantic entanglements that shaped Kraft into the melancholy, reticent, and odd scholar he’s become. A Nabokovian, Pnin-like figure at once ridiculous and noble, Kraft is a “seer” who “perceive[s] the nature of things in their irreducible complexity,” which leaves him marvelously ill-suited to the fallacious boosterism required to write the winning presentation. His attempt, though futile, furnishes the gloomy humor and dense but never arid ruminations. This is a wonderfully strange novel, and one not to be missed. (Nov.)