Everything Is Obliterated
Jonathan Safran Foer's Inventive (and Hated) New Novel
by Jonathan Safran Foer
(Houghton Mifflin) $24.95
Early in the century, late in the summer, two airplanes full of fuel accelerated into two towers full of people and exploded, filling the air with falling bodies and uncountable pieces of paper. "Within minutes, pieces of paper were raining from the sky and onto the church, the churchyard, and the surrounding streets," reads an eyewitness account of 9/11 that I found on the website for Trinity Church, which is in Manhattan's financial district. A witness quoted by the Associated Press likened the "millions and millions of pieces of paper" blowing around in the wind to confetti, saying they made the terrorist spectacle look "like a parade." Characters in Jonathan Safran Foer's terrific new novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, notice the flurry of confetti as well. The father of a man trapped inside the towers watches the event on a bank of TV screens in the window of an electronics store and, afterward, writes in a letter to his dead son: "I looked at… [the] televisions and there was only one building, one hundred ceilings had become one hundred floors, which had become nothing, I was the only one who could believe it, the sky was filled with paper." The mother of the same victim writes in a letter to her grandson, the dead man's only child: "One million pieces of paper filled the sky. They stayed there, like a ring around the building. Like the rings of Saturn."
That otherworldly snow hung in the air after everything else had collapsed. It outlasted the buildings. And in the crush of hundreds of thousands of tons of cement and metal, which reduced computers and televisions and elevators and electrical systems and fiber-optic networks and furniture to dust, a whole lot of paper survived. The parents of Thomas Schell, who dies in the towers before the novel begins, are themselves survivors of historical calamity. They are Germans who also happened to be in Dresden on February 13, 1945. The characters in this novel, especially the older characters, are victims of horrible luck (painful happenstance, improbable death, unwanted children, brain-rattling trauma). At every major turn in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, what you hope will happen generally doesn't happen--instead, something slightly unsatisfying or hugely unexpected or loud or quasi-magical happens. Unlike the anxious 9-year-old who narrates a lot of the story, 28-year-old Foer has the gift of utter fearlessness.
The grandson, the 9-year-old, is Oskar Schell, who begins the novel in the middle of a thought ("What about a teakettle?"). In the last scene in the book, after months of obsessing over his father's death, Oskar absently muses: "I read that it was the paper that kept the towers burning. All of those notepads, and Xeroxes, and printed e-mails, and photographs of kids, and books, and dollar bills in wallets, and documents in files… all of them were fuel. Maybe if we lived in a paperless society, which lots of scientists say we'll probably live in one day soon, Dad would still be alive."
Between these scenes is a novel crazily stuffed with documents: Oskar's scrapbook, which he calls Stuff That Happened to Me; Oskar's diary, How I Feel; Oskar's letters to Stephen Hawking ("Dear Stephen Hawking, Can I please be your protégé? Thanks, Oskar Schell"); Stephen Hawking's letters to Oskar ("Because of the large volume of mail I receive, I am unable to write personal responses"); the business cards that Oskar uses to introduce himself to others (his occupations are listed, "inventor, jewelry designer, jewelry fabricator, amateur entomologist, francophile, vegan, origamist, pacifist, percussionist, amateur astronomer, computer consultant, amateur archaeologist, collector of…"); Oskar's grandmother's thousand-page life story; Oskar's grandfather's daybooks, which he writes in instead of speaking; posters seeking Oskar's missing father; boxes of yellowing newspapers; a drawer full of empty envelopes; Oskar's copies of Hamlet and A Brief History of Time (his favorite book). Oskar's father used to mark up pages of the New York Times in red pen as he read, and certain passages--marked up in red ink--are printed in the novel. Early in the book Oskar's adventures lead him to an art-supply store, and the doodles he finds scrawled on pads of paper in the store are printed in the novel, in color, as well. And more than 50 pages in the book are photos.
Foer is clearly a paper fetishist, and you don't have to read interviews with him to figure this out. (He has described in several interviews his hobby of collecting blank sheets of paper from the desks of famous authors and framing them.) Like Foer's debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a collection of documents. It's one part straight-ahead novel and two parts the selected letters of grandma and grandpa. Oskar's mother is a weirdly distant presence in his life, so Foer sidelines her, and one of the ways he does this is by not having her write anyone a letter.
The letters and photos are exhilarating, bizarre, eccentrically reproduced, and shuffled. There are more variables in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, but chapters in Everything Is Illuminated were shuffled in a similar way. It's almost as if Foer writes his books and then throws them out the window--except that (once everything is, you know, brought to light) they actually contain a great degree of narrative logic. The disorientation he builds into his delivery is naturalistic and modernist--he doesn't spend a lot of time bringing you up to speed, his characters aren't always reliable sources of information, the outside world is stylized and distorted--but it's also finely orchestrated. His surprises have heightened, almost theatrical power. For this reason, and because there are several narrators, and because, for example, some pages in this book are entirely blank, and some are blank except for a single centered sentence, and page 56 is a diagrammatic design of a paper airplane, and page 98 is a picture of the back of someone's head, and pages 29, 115, 134, 212, and 265 are pictures of doorknobs--for a lot of reasons, the book is unusual, active, and distracting.
But if you commit to the distractions, they pay off. Michiko Kakutani wrote a couple weeks ago in the New York Times that the novel--she is criticizing it here--feels simultaneously "schematic and haphazard," which is, actually, one of its greatest qualities. (Or at least one of its most lifelike.) The basic plot, on which everything else hangs, is a misguided journey Oskar goes on through New York City, a journey that's as rewarding as it is ridiculous. He sets out searching for the lock that corresponds to a key he's found in his father's closet. He does this even though he knows there are, by his estimate, about 162 million locks in New York City. The reason Oskar's scheme is ridiculous is not because the author of this novel is dim-witted but because Oskar is a 9-year-old, and 9-year-olds have funny ideas about what's possible. (When I was 9 I undertook to dig an underground tunnel to my best friend's house.)
"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close tends to be at its most powerful," Kakutani writes, ridiculously, "when Mr. Foer abandons his willful use of experimental techniques and simply writes in an earnest, straightforward manner, using his copious gifts of language to limn his characters' state of mind." (I crack up when I get to "limn" in that sentence, because Kakutani has deployed that pretentious word in 24 articles for the New York Times since 2000 and 50 times since she began writing there. "Pretentious" is another word she overuses.) Literally, she is asking Foer to stop experimenting, or at least she is asking him to not be so "willful" about it. First of all, this makes no sense, and second of all, she's up a tree. Foer's visual and structural experiments--in this book especially, but also in Everything Is Illuminated and in his short story "A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease," published by The New Yorker in 2002--allow him to be what just about every other American novelist his age is incapable of being: as directly earnest as human beings actually are, without being trite. Foer gets places most novelists can't, largely because of how he presents things. His experiments grant the reader a stunning degree of emotional access to his characters.
As the world changes, novels change--they're already changing, moving in directions that, say, John Updike might not be able to understand fully. Updike is a supreme fiction writer, easily one of the greats, but he may not have been the best person to review Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close for the New Yorker. In his review Updike called Foer "a jokester, full of ideas and special effects" who should try next time for "a little more silence, a few fewer messages, less graphic apparatus." It's the book's "hyperactive visual surface" that he objects to--he is suspicious of what it "covers up." But Updike, who was born before color photography was invented, doesn't seem to consider that Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is set (and was written) in a time period of absolutely no silence whatsoever, a time period in which people, especially children, confront millions of messages and graphic apparatus everywhere. There is not a visual surface in the world as hyperactive as New York City was in 2001 (except maybe New York City as it is now), and this novel impressively captures that confusion of energy.
And it is funny, and extremely tender, and incredibly brave. The grandfather's final letter to his dead son is crammed into a notebook that's running out of pages. As the old man's writing gets more and more cramped--the font in that chapter of the book tightens gradually until the words are illegible--his sentences become increasingly electric and desperate: "I thought about packing my bags, I thought about jumping out a window, I sat on the bed and thought, I thought about you." This letter is a love story set down by the hand of a man who has no reason to be dishonest. It's probably the most captivating passage in the book, plus it's sexually charged and morally complicated (which the chapters narrated by Oskar never are). It feels inevitable but it's actually sheer skill on Foer's part--he's incredibly good at dealing with characters (and come to think of it, with grandparents in particular). The lugubrious missive moves the novel to its climax while giving startling definition to one man's terrorized interiority.
Maybe this is a novel for young people. By that I mean people who think of the future as exciting. The future is clearly not a time in which anyone is going to see an increased popularity in books as we know them. The images--especially the flipbook that takes up the last 12 pages and that ends the novel, in contrast to so much grief, on an expansive note--go a long way toward demonstrating the expressive potential of a stack of bound pages. (If Foer weren't already famous, I wonder if a major publisher would have been willing to publish this book as Houghton Mifflin has.) If Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close has any flaws, they are flaws of generosity. I read it in a daze of happiness. I read it like I was just learning how to read. And I read it carefully, because it returned my attention, and quizzically, because 9/11 is a raw and loaded and gutsy thing to build a novel around. The book has nothing new to say about the human impact of 9/11, except that a lot of lives ended and each of those lives was, as Oskar would say, "incredibly complicated." Three and a half years out, that sounds about right to me.
The Stranger presents
A READING & DANCE PARTY WITH JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER
Featuring special guest CHARLES D’AMBROSIO (author of Orphans and The Point) and original music by “AWESOME”
Followed by CLUB CLUB: EASTERN BLOC with DJs Mamma Casserole and Deutscher Meister
Thursday April 21
1325 E Madison St
21+ 7 pm doors, 8 pm reading
Produced with Elliott Bay Book Company and W Hotel Seattle.