…Or, the Jonathan Safran Foer open thread that ended up containing a review of the book we weren’t talking about. (This post contains Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close spoilers.)
I liked Everything is Illuminated, although I do wonder if that’s just because of all the Isaac Bashevis Singer I’ve read and loved. I remember some striking similarities. (Ilyka and a few other readers I’ve talked to thought that the magical realism was inept, forced, or inappropriate; I remember warm fuzzy feelings about the imagery but no very strong sense of joy or excitement.) I thought the plot was strong enough to carry the weight of such a huge amount of quirkyness in character and wordplay. I enjoyed Foer’s willingness to cheat his readers of anything approaching resolution in the lives of his characters. (Then again, maybe what I saw as daring was just incompetence; I wouldn’t be the first.)
Different artists have made literary space for devastation in different ways, and readers and artists have different definitions of pandering. Cynthia Ozick has made very different choices in her own artistic discussion with the Holocaust, but she loved Everything is Illuminated and was not annoyed by its, well, whimsy. In his review of Foer’s next book, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Steve Almond says this:
To read either of these novels [neither by Foer] is to recognize, at once, the profound sorrow of our historical circumstance. This is the whole point of art: to confront the heartbreak of this world without the reassuring promise of repair.
Silence comes in here, as either an answer or a subject. Art is creation and refinement: tying up loose ends, smoothing over rough surfaces. And it ends–your audience is usually only with you for a few hours or days at most, and many of them aren’t going to lead themselves into your destroyed world. They’ve quite likely picked you up out of a wish to be entertained. How do you create a vision of despair powerful enough to unmake them, too?
I read ELIC immediately afterwards. I enjoyed it exactly as much as Everything is Illuminated, for exactly the same reasons. In fact, I have some difficulty separating them as novels. I don’t have much difficulty cutting apart, say, Solomon Gursky Was Here and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, even though I read them a few days apart and even though their stories inhabit the same world and contain overlapping (cameo) characters.
Steve Almond’s review debates a question that I can usually ignore as a reader. I’m easy. I didn’t resent Foer’s second novel for being too similar to his first; I just ate it up and moved on to the next book.
It’s interesting that Almond’s irritation with ELIC is not pinned to Foer’s playful way with words, although he does mention other reviews that focused on it.
Michiko Kakutani deemed the book “mannered and irritating,” while Walter Kirn, writing for the NYTBR, declared it a “triumph of human cuteness over human suffering.” Kirn offered an especially blistering indictment of Foer’s extra–textual flourishes, and dismissed Oskar Schell, the nine–year–old narrator of ELIC as “reminiscent . . . of those annoying child guests on late–night talk shows.”
Almond is annoyed because of the way the book is set up–and how it ends:
ELIC isn’t a response to 9/11, in other words, but a reflection of the event. Foer isn’t interested in understanding why terrorists attacked America. (Could their murderous evil be a response to certain evils within us?) He isn’t interested in plumbing the pathologies that the attack unleashed — which, to date, have included two wars, along with a heightened national climate of fear and hate. He isn’t even interested in representing the emotional severity of losing a parent in a public tragedy, at least not for more than a sentence or two at a time. Instead, his young hero wanders the streets of New York without fear of harm, charms the pants off everyone he meets, and awakens old men from emotional atrophy. His own redemption is never in doubt. The book is ultimately a wish fantasy borne of the sorrows of 9/11. It peddles the seductive notion that our best response to those attacks need be no more mature than a childish wish that evil be banished from our magic kingdom.
It’s been two years since I read ELIC, but I think I disagree with him here. Oskar is a kid on a mission E.L. Konigsburg might have come up with, but I’m not sure that this is meant to soften Foer’s picture of destruction–or sabotage it for easier defeat at the end–so much as to save the nastiness for the audience to work on. Oskar isn’t just eccentric or sad, although many readers didn’t seem to come away with the sense of continuing danger that I did. Almond brings up The Tin Drum as an example of real horror:
It would be fair to ask, then, what does qualify. Let’s start with The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, which is also narrated by a child named Oskar. (Foer named his hero as an homage.) The boy in Grass’s novel, however, is disfigured by the evil he witnesses, both in the physical and moral sense. Grass makes no attempt to prettify his hero. He is a damaged soul adrift in the mire of Nazism, whose only redemption is his ability to discern the truth of his situation.
The first Oskar grew up, though. His culpability is inseparable from his actions as an adult. He narrated the book as an adult, too–and it’s debateable that the narrator/protagonist ever described himself as childlike. I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to Foer’s Oskar is a little boy at the end of the book, too, and I’m not sure it’s right to say that the story is childish because its protagonist remains childlike. It certainly began and ended with Oskar’s uncomprehending grief, and its climax did involve an adult providing comfort to a child. It didn’t seem to argue that the adult reader should lose the context for this picture of the weird little kid.
But I’m curious to hear what everyone else has to think.
(And feel free to talk about EiI, too.)