One of the pleasures of reading “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” Jonathan Safran Foer’s absorbing new novel, is that the experience helped me understand why I was so incapable of enjoying Foer’s first book, the into-30-languages-translated, into-major-motion-picture-being-made “Everything Is Illuminated” — or why (to take the blame off myself) that last book, published in 2002, was so ill suited to being enjoyed by me. I’m even thinking of making a peace offering to “Everything Is Illuminated,” trying to reach some sort of détente, maybe seeing if we’d prefer each other’s company the second time around.
“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” contains many of the elements pres- ent in “Everything Is Illuminated” — the punning, a narrator’s private language and original words, the occasional lapse into pages-long paragraphs, the cryptic fragments and the omniscient sense that, as Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Foer likes a good overwhelming tragedy to color his heroes’ mental skyscape; here, it’s not the Holocaust but September 11, 2001, that has ended the life of Oskar Schell’s father, Thomas; Oskar, age 9, is our very precocious narrator, and he was the only person to hear his father’s last, desperate recorded phone messages, which he now hides from his mother. Oskar’s grandmother lives across the street from the Schells’ New York apartment, and she helps look after him; her sadness is compounded by a kind of widowhood, for her husband — catatonic since he survived the firebombing of Dresden — left her and returned to Europe when Oskar’s father was young.
Mother, son and grandmother nourish themselves from the same trough of grief, the death of Thomas Schell. And each has a strategy for attenuating that grief: Mom has a new boyfriend; Grandmom becomes a second parent to Oskar, and Oskar trolls the five boroughs, visiting strangers. He has found in his father’s closet a mysterious envelope with a key inside and with “Black” written on the outside, and he determines to find this Black and to learn something new about his father.
What becomes apparent, now that Foer has more of an oeuvre, is that the quirks and eccentricities of “Everything Is Illuminated” were not affectations but the natural production of a particular writer’s particular voice. Foer’s voice authentically relies, for its snap and crackle, on conventions — puns, dialect, eccentric locutions — that are difficult to achieve but can easily slide into cheapness (after all, comedians who work in this vein, doing impersonations, one-liners or ethnic stereotypes, are classed at the bottom of their profession, even when they work with terrific aplomb). They are seen, rightly or wrongly, as anti-cerebral, something short of artists. They’re relying on tricks.
“Everything Is Illuminated” felt to me like one long trick. But “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” is a proper vehicle for Foer’s voice. A challenge for all writers is to find the right vehicles to carry their words: Robert Frost knew not to write about factory workers, just as Philip Levine, the great poet of the factory, knows to steer clear of pastoral settings. For whatever reason, now that Foer has relocated his past-haunted characters to New York and replaced the Holocaust with 9/11, the search for answers is moving, and the lexical maneuvers seem true to the character — painfully true, the coping mechanisms of a boy who has lost his father and, befogged by grief, much of his capacity for social intercourse. The voice is perfectly believable coming from a boy with Oskar’s double curse, a preternatural intelligence mated with unusual despair. To take one example, Oskar refers to sadness as “wearing heavy boots” — how perfect is that?
Foer is a master descriptor of the kind of weird people who live anonymously in a big city, and sending Oskar around to meet a bunch of people named Black is a perfect contrivance — both because Blacks could be black, Caucasian, WASP, ethnic, anything, which allows Foer to depict New Yorkers in all their variety, and because the picaresque wanderings allow for moving set pieces, little episodes of kindness: One after another, people indulge Oskar, invite him inside and feed him and console him, before telling him that they have no idea what he’s after. Among them, there’s the woman who has a museum to her husband in one room, and whose husband has a museum to her in the other; the failed actor from Montana; the woman who lives in a building not zoned for living in and so fears that Oskar is from the Housing Authority, and the old man who hasn’t left his apartment in years but then leaves to help Oskar find other Blacks, turning the book into a buddy comedy as well as an elegy and a quixotic adventure.
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Here, Foer’s writing is nearly as magical as his admirers say. But magic is dangerous when not properly controlled. In “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” Foer goes on some experimental benders — letters so close together that whole pages are unreadable; pages adorned with red ink where a character has been doing some proofreading, and nearly blank pages that effect intent pauses. But he has the wisdom, the newfound wisdom, to retrench at times, give the reader a break, cast certain episodes with simple language
and old-fashioned chronology. One digression, the story of the lost sixth borough of New York, a story that Oskar remembers his father telling, is a charming and lovely fable that seems timeless; Foer seems to have discovered it more than written it. Reading that short section, I marveled at Foer’s second, even better, writer’s voice, one more Jorge Luis Borges than Foer, strangely clear while explicating difficult ideas. I longed for more of the same. But whatever was to come, I was grateful for the change in tempo, and I was happy to dive back into the tempest-tossed prose that Foer prefers.
More experienced in Foeriana, I am ready to call “Everything Is Illuminated” a worthy early failure, not an assemblage of tricks but an ambitious book edited insufficiently. By contrast, I want to call “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” a success — but a frustrating success, success with a caveat. The book contains several-dozen photographs, mostly of mundane objects that have just been mentioned in the text, like a keyhole or a rollercoaster. I think this is a terrible mistake. One great pleasure of reading (I thought we all had agreed) is taking the words on the page and creating from them images in the mind. Out of Stephen Millhauser’s words I build a skyscraper, and I’ll never know if it looks like the one you build from the same words, and no skyscraper in real life ever will be as moving as the one in my mind. The darkling plain, the mending wall, the sceptred isle — they’re in our minds now, because some writer’s words cast a spell. How disappointing to turn a page and be shown a keyhole, thus ruining the image of a keyhole the writer and I had made together. What a waste.
Mine is a minority position these days. Writers like W.G. Sebald have shown that text and photographs can work well together in describing tragedy, perhaps encouraging writers of less genius to attempt his methods. And graphic novels are all the rage, which suggests that more and more readers want to conjoin their literary and visual pleasure centers. I never would deny that the visual plays a part in reading; typography and jacket design strongly influence the pleasure I take in a book (Foer’s book has brilliant jacket art, by the way). But it is odd that a writer who luxuriates in the power of language would undermine his own words by including pictures, which function as powerful but blunt tools, obliterating the delicate sounds they are meant to enhance. It’s experimentalism taken too far — which, it would seem, is the risk that Jonathan Safran Foer enjoys taking, once and again.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
By Jonathan Safran Foer
Houghton Mifflin, 368 pages, $24.95.