Better than Everything


Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
By Jonathan Safran Foer
368 pages. Houghton Mifflin. $24.95.

For an extremely different view of Foer's book, click here.

When Jonathan Safran Foer’s third novel arrives in bookstores, critics are going to need a new storyline. They won't be able to wonder if his success is unearned, because now he has two books that show a creativity and mastery that can't be denied. The second book, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, isn’t just as good as his first, which was—at best—pretty good: it’s much better.

Everything is Illuminated was a good book, but a flawed one. The standing ovation from many critics was not entirely warranted; neither was the scornful backlash from others. Because of the style, the typography, and the broken English of one of his two protagonists-narrators, Foer’s novel was praised and pummeled as a “postmodern” novel. It did not flow in the linear, manicured paragraph style of traditional fiction, so the reviews focused primarily on his inventive language and disregard for conventions. But the flaws in the novel were there, in the very features that earned it the postmodern tag. His version of broken English and narrative unreliability is not an accurate or particularly funny one. His adventures in narrative syntax are those of a Martin Frobisher, rather than a Lewis or a Clark. But the novel itself, shorn of its fancy dress, was still a fascinating one. Even when it was hard to read, it was worth reading. If nothing else, the courage of the author was exciting. He was trying to write something new and significant about the Holocaust. Most Americans born so recently, even Jewish Americans, start closer to home.

And that courage remains unchecked in Extremely Loud. The novel is told from several perspectives, but essentially concerns two stories, told through the journals, photographs, and letters of the two main characters. The background story is of the wanderings and losses of Thomas Schell, a German immigrant to America who survived the Dresden firebombing, but lost his love, his artistic ambition, and his ability to speak. With “yes” and “no” tattooed on the palms of his hands, and a notebook in which to write anything else worth saying, he plods through his life-in-exile, writing letters to the son he’s never met. In the foreground is the story of his grandson Oskar, nine years old, whose father, Thomas’s son, died in the World Trade Center when the towers collapsed. Oskar is an inventor and an actor. He writes letters to famous people, he makes jewelry, speaks French, and keeps a scrapbook of photos and writing that he calls Stuff That Happened to Me. But despite all of the extraordinary qualities of Oskar Schell, he is still a nine-year-old, and Foer has greatly improved as a writer, because this narrator talks the way you’d expect a nine-year-old to talk, even a precocious one.

The main action of the novel is Oskar’s quest to meet every person in New York City with the surname “Black,” in hope of learning something new about his father, who left behind a key in an envelope with that name written on it. Anything, no matter how unlikely, that will keep his father a living presence might somehow abate the tragedy of what happened to him. And so he sets off every weekend to all points of the five boroughs, looking for the Black that knows which of New York’s 162 million locks his father’s key will open. The people he meets, and their reaction to him, their unexpected anticipation of his arrival, are what makes this book work: what sense a nine-year-old, or anybody else could make out of what happened on 9/11, is much more likely to be made from encounters with others who suffered, rather than through the meaning supplied by politics or the media. For Oskar, and for Foer’s readers, the immediacy and the enormity of those attacks makes reconciliation and understanding impossible. But re-immersion in and reminders of the humanity, of shared experience and grief, is comfort enough for endurance. What unites Foer’s Holocaust and his 9/11 stories isn’t the scale of the tragedy, but the openness of the wounds.

For a young writer who has successfully taken on such complex human situations, Foer has certainly received a more-than-typical amount of scorn. His defenders have suggested numerous reasons for this. The most common reason is youth. People are jealous that such a young writer has been so successful, both artistically and financially. Boston-area critic Robert Birnbaum has suggested that anti-Semitism is no small part of it. That may be so. But I think a large, perhaps dominant explanation is the literary community's distrust of Foer. He's not one of theirs. He's not one of anybody's. He just arrived, with a published book in his hand (Everything is Illuminated), and started telling the truth about things. In short, he arrived much the same way as one of our most prized and imaginative writers: Kurt Vonnegut.

The comparison to Vonnegut doesn’t come to mind just because they both wrote about the Dresden firebombing. Nor is it strictly biographical, though there are some similarities (and some great dissimilarities).
Where the two meet most obviously is in their disregard for the comfortable and familiar habits of fiction. Neither engages in postmodern gimmickry for the pleasure of showing off: the tools they employ are picked to tell the story they need to tell. They do not restrain themselves to events that could or did take place. Billy Pilgrim had to travel in time between his Dresden slaughterhouse and his New York optometry office because nothing about Dresden can be remembered outside of the context of his entire life, which other than Dresden is, on the surface, completely typical. Oskar Schell’s story has to include a photograph of an elephant’s tear-stained cheek in his journal because nothing makes sense of grief if he can’t learn about the universality of grief.

So allow me to nominate Vonnegut as Foer's surrogate literary father. Not because of the gimmickry, but because of the morality of their fiction. Despite their flippancy and profanity, both writers are deeply moral writers. Much of what’s disappointing about contemporary fiction is the immaturity of our authors’ response to complex moral issues. Because they cannot resolve the complexities of their narratives, authors too-often present them as irresolvable, and worse, not worth solving. A standard contemporary response, in fiction, to misunderstanding is a shrug by the author. The reader hears, “That’s the way things work. Now watch what I can do with words.” Foer also can do some things with words. Not everything he does is necessary, or even successful. He doesn’t really have to leave pages empty, to mark untyped-upon pages that he could just describe as blank, or to include photographs that could belong, but don’t need to. We know that we are not really holding Oskar’s Stuff That Happened to Me, and Foer knows that, too. He doesn’t need to try to prove it, since he told us it isn’t the case. But that’s not a serious problem. We can take the excess as part of the scenery.

Foer is not trying to impress us by weaving these elements in: he’s showing us Oskar’s world, and he’s using the best tools he has to do it. A more mature narrator might not attach so much significance to a photograph of an elephant’s teardrop. On the other hand, a more mature narrator might not take the time to dwell on the significance of an elephant’s teardrop. A more mature narrator might just shrug off the complexities of his grief and get back to work. Nobody is mature enough to shoulder such an immense loss as Oskar’s, and so a child’s perspective is a good one. That Foer wrote it without sentimentality, cliché, or surrender to relativism is courageous.