Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
by Jonathan Saffran Foer, Penguin Books Ltd, 368pp, $13.95
This article originally appeared in the New Leader.
Jonathan Safran Foer is the most commercially and critically successful writer of his generation. Everything Is Illuminated, his first work of fiction, was a hilarious and often touching novel that managed to make even its worst traits somehow endearing. The book was simply great fun to read—though the judgment of Dale Peck, who claimed Illuminated was one of "the best novels I’ve ever been fortunate enough to hold in my hands," was little short of preposterous. Peck's hyperbolic psychosis aside, Everything Is Illuminated was one of the most mature and fully realized books ever published by someone comparably young, which places Foer among the ranks of Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, Martin Amis, and John Updike.
Illuminated, of course, brought Foer considerable public fame and fortune—and this is before the movie version, in which Elijah "Frodo" Wood plays the novel's Foer character, has been released. In other words, the klieg lights are not yet even warm. If one cares about Foer the writer and admires his talent this has all been quite worrying, for it is hard to think of any writer for whom panoramic public fame has not, at the very least, proved massively complicating. Novelists who hit triple cherries on their first trip to the casino have in many cases responded with work that is rushed and diminished—a calculus of failure that reaches from Norman Mailer to Jay McInerney.
When searching after what to write about, writers often need more time than the culture (or their publisher) is willing to give them. Now, in the most reductive possible sense, Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel was about the Holocaust, and it would be hard to come up with second-novel subject matter as daunting as that. But Foer has done it. He has written a novel that attempts to address the one public tragedy that everyone in this country over the age of five experienced at varying degrees of remove but, all the same, experienced vividly and horribly. He has written a 9/11 Novel.
Foer will be attacked for this. He will also be championed. He will be defended, argued over, and occasionally even read. One suspects that much of the outrage will not be that such an explicit 9/11 Novel has been written but that it is Jonathan Safran Foer who has written it. Foer's fans will say, "As the leading literary voice of his generation, who better?" They will have a point. His foes, on the other hand, will argue, "The main problem with fame is that it is attracted only to fame, and perhaps America's leading young writer should pick his subject matter with more clearly evident humility." The book itself turns out to be an endorsement of both views, for it is filled with moments of wrenching power and yet marred by threadbare cleverness.
The majority of the book is narrated by nine-year-old Oskar Schell, whose father, Thomas, was having a meeting in the upper reaches of one of the World Trade Center towers the morning of the attack. As far as Oskar goes, one may as well quote the publisher’s copy: "Oskar Schell is an inventor, Francophile, tambourine player, Shakespearean actor, jeweler, pacifist." He is also a Beatles fanatic, a former atheist, an inventor, a Vegan, and celebrity-pesterer. Does Oskar, in his precocity and wideness of interest, remind us of anyone? Indeed, the extent to which Oskar serves as some kind of spiritual stand-in for his creator is left a queasily open matter. By any metric, Oskar is a ludicrous creation; the wake of charm he leaves in the minds of Foer’s readers will vary. For this reader, Foer’s small stumbles did not help. Would a boy who reads A Brief History of Time for pleasure and has a cat named after Buckminster Fuller really not know who Winston Churchill is? Why does this supposed little Beatlemaniac not know that "Something in the Way She Moves" is a James Taylor song while "Something" is a Beatles song? The fantastically fictional yet nevertheless highly familiar Oskar Schell—a character as instant as Ramen noodles—has only one natural habitat, that of the New Whimsy.
The New Whimsy is in many ways the dominant artistic mode of many young artists today. In the main, the New Whimsy can be characterized as taking "creativity" as its chief concern, eschewing the explicitly political, favoring the garishly imaginative, and displaying fitful circumspection. Two of the New Whimsy’s earliest and most brilliant practitioners are Dave Eggers and the filmmaker Wes Anderson, whose A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and Rushmore, respectively, are both genuine works of art. Eggers has largely abandoned the New Whimsy—his most recent work does not much resemble anything in Heartbreaking--which is not surprising in that his "whimsy" always contained thorns of immense personal loss. Anderson’s whimsy was less serious but more fun. He found in Rushmore a remarkably fresh character type from which Oskar Schell plainly descends: the actually-not-all-that-talented-but-you-like-him-anyway genius. (Hedging one’s view of genius? A pure New Whimsy move.) For Anderson, as well as many other artists who, unlike Eggers, have kept at the New Whimsy, it is becoming clear that the posture had a definite artistic expiration date. Sui generis at first, still fairly appealing at second, growingly irritating at third, the New Whimsy was cleaved in two by geopolitics. Yet it has stuck around, and remained at least commercially strong. Jonathan Safran Foer is among the more cunning and talented practitioners of this post-9/11 form of the New Whimsy, which probably makes his decision to write of the attacks inevitable. Can one treat an antidote with a snakebite? And is a tsunami novel next?
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is much less explicit about 9/11 than its naysayers will accuse it of being. Indeed, much of the novel is taken up with the story of Oskar's grandparents, who before fleeing to New York survived the firebombing of Dresden—arguably, a too-obvious connection for Foer to make. However, Foer renders the inevitable burning-Dresden scene terrifyingly well. While the remainder of this grandparental story is well written it does not always feel very vital, and in this is exactly like the derivatively "magical" aspects of Illuminated's highly similar backstory. Both feel, in some crucial sense, autopiloted, borrowed, false.
As for the book's main story, the September 11 attacks are, thankfully, merely the backdrop of a very Foerian conceit. It concerns a key. This key, which belonged to Oskar’s father, obsesses Oskar. Because the envelope in which Oskar finds the key has "Black" written on it, Oskar decides to hunt down all those named "Black" in New York City in order to learn which lock (he has calculated that New York City is host to 162,000,000 locks) the key opens. Along the way is a menagerie of colorful characters--many as peculiar as Oskar!--as well as photos Foer has inserted into the text and many, many typographical escapades: pages whose words crowd together to make an angry black swarm, colored pages, pages with red circles, pages that contain only one sentence. Some will be bothered by such conceits, some will not. In the end, none of these flourishes' effects blow away that of artful prose quite so much as Foer seems to believe, and it would be difficult to argue that this novel would suffer one bit without all the extraliterary excursions. Too often, it is as if Foer is throwing any old thing into the ancient hide of the novel largely because he can. It leaves an unappealing impression—that of the writer who has been fatally over-encouraged.
Where this novel is at its best is also where Foer writes with the least amount of whimsy and fewest conceits. The conversation between Oskar and his mother (who has a new boyfriend) about Oskar's resentment, the unforgettable crescendo of which is Oskar's announcement that he wishes she had died instead, is as brilliantly painful as an exposed nerve. Similarly, one brief scene finds Oskar chatting with his therapist, and its careful, hard-won humor reminds how good Foer can be. The novel’s growing revelation of what Oskar knows of his father’s fate, and how he knows it, pounds away at the reader with a kind of sick foreboding. In the novel’s scattered allusions to the doomed Washington intern Chandra Levy, Foer is particularly fine, and displays a wonderfully light touch, at reminding us how finally absurd our concerns were before (in Oskar's understated words) "the worst day." There are also the occasional wonders of Foer's language. He is less a prose writer than a line writer, but what lines he is capable of. When Oskar says, "Being with [my father] made my brain quiet," or describes "a lot of stuff that made me panicky, like suspension bridges, germs, airplanes, fireworks, Arab people on the subway (even though I’m not racist), Arab people in restaurants and coffee shops and other public places, scaffolding, sewers and subway grates, bags without owners, shoes, people with mustaches, smoke, knots, tall buildings, turbans," that little boy is real, as real as the children we all became, for isolated moments, in those first terrible days after the attacks. It is imaginative writing of a very high order, and it has nothing to do with Shakespeare or Veganism but rather with the hard work of diligently imagining one's way into another life, just as Auden meant when he wrote that the novelist must "struggle out of his boyish gift" and learn to be interested in those "after whom none think it worth to turn."
Much of Foer's artistic platform seems founded upon the idea that imagination and creativity are inherently good and to be promoted at all times. This is, of course, a profoundly debatable notion. Imagination and creativity are only as good as the skill, or the motive, powering them, as the September 11 attacks establish. The more time one spends with Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, the more one is impressed by the sheer imaginative brio that went into its conception. Foer connects Dresden to muteness to 9/11 to the souls of several wounded New Yorkers (and in the meantime manages a clever nod at Infinite Jest) and does so with considerable skill. But the more time spent with Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close also increases a sense of the places toward which it does not go often enough and those in which it spends far too much time. This is a good novel. It is not nearly good enough.