Why do people wonder what’s “OK” to make art about, as if creating art out of tragedy weren’t an inherently good thing? Too many people are too suspicious of art. Too many people hate art. —Jonathan Safran Foer, on why he wrote a 9/11 book.
Call me a hater, then.
It’s bad form to call a living writer corrupt and debased, which is why I begged out of a review
I’d been assigned of Jonathan Safran Foer’s highly touted debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated.
The book struck me as an admixture of shtick and sentiment, the most self-involved work about the
Holocaust since Maus, with all the gravitas of Robin Williams’ Jakob the Liar.
I understand how a young man could write such a book, but not why he would have it published, and certainly
not how it could be acclaimed as marking the arrival of a major new talent. (The $500,000 advance,
and later nearly $1 million for the movie rights, and another $1 million for the follow-up, may have
There’s a story I heard that a former student, a man in his 20s, bumped into Barbara Rose, the cruel
and wise art critic and teacher, and began telling her how well things were going for him that
he had an agent now, successful shows under his belt, patrons, the whole nine yards. Rose shook her
head and asked him, “How can someone so young be so unambitious?” and went on her way.
Having “read” Foer’s latest if that’s what one does to this cut-and-paste assemblage
of words, pictures, blank pages and pages where the text runs together and becomes illegible it’s
time for bad form.
Foer isn’t just a bad author, he’s a vile one.
Much has been made of the flipbook with which Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close ends,
a series of pictures of a silhouette falling from the towers, rearranged so that as one turns or flips
the pages, the figure ascends instead of falling. Some advice to our young author: Don’t walk the
streets naked and complain that no one takes you seriously, and certainly don’t write a book culminating
with a flipbook and then complain that your words aren’t taken seriously.
To be fair, such neglect might be in Foer’s best interests, since the book is an Oprah-etic paean
to innocence and verbosity as embodied by Foer’s latest saintly stand-in (there was a character
named Jonathan Safran Foer in Everything Is Illuminated), nine-year-old Oskar Schell,
who has a business card, speaks French, walks the city at odd hours by himself, writes letters to
Stephen Hawking and other luminaries, knows more facts than any of the adults he speaks with, flirts
with women, is a vegan, an atheist and otherwise equal parts unbelievable and unbearable. Foer,
I should note, is a Jewish atheist, wrote letters to Susan Sontag when he was nine, and otherwise
sounds like he’d make unbearable company, though perhaps not as much as the obnoxiously precocious,
overeducated brat Schell. If Foer is beginning to sound like a minor Saul Bellow character (think
the masturbating uncle in Mr. Sammler’s Planet), he has only himself to blame.
The child compulsively invents. (“Another good thing would be if I could train my anus to talk
when it farted” in the first paragraph, and so on for the next 200 pages.) Schell narrates much of
the book, and Foer’s proxy is fond of such figures of speech as “heavy boots” for depression (at least
15 times) and “VJs” for vaginas, alongside lengthier banal incantations such as, “I gave myself
a bruise” and, worst of all, “zipping myself into the sleeping bag of myself.”
The plot is a series of contrivances that free the nine-year-old Schell to walk the city by himself
in a shaggy-dog quest for the meaning of a key his father, who died in the towers, left behind. This
is mixed in with an epistolary saga involving Oskar’s grandparents, a woman who serves as still
another Foer stand-in and a man who can’t write, but only speak, leaving the reader in a hall of mirrors
reflecting nothing but Foers and stock characters who reflect back the wonderful-ness of the author.
Eventually, the Schnells’ stories converge into one absurdly convenient superstory, saturated
with meaning, from which we learn such lessons as, “You cannot protect yourself from sadness without
also protecting yourself from happiness,” “‘I do not want to hurt you, he said’ ‘It hurts
me when you do not want to hurt me,’ I told him,” and “I spent my life learning to feel less.”
And those quotes are all from one, not unrepresentative page.
Most of all, we learn the search, not the treasure, is the thing, which readers may recognize
from the pages of Robert Fulghum’s classic of inspirational mush All I Really Need to Know I Learned
Like many lovers of faux innocence, Foer seems to have a soft spot for incest. At one point, the
grandmother recalls lying in bed with her sister in their youth, the two of them kissing, with tongue.
“How could anything less deserve to be destroyed?” she, meaning Foer, asks us. This refrain is repeated
near the book’s end. Sisters kissing, young children walking city streets unaccompanied; it’s
a wonderful life for worldly nafs.
But bad people, presumably ones who hate art, like Bush and Bin Laden and Foer’s critics, ruin
it all. It’s with the hope of redeeming ourselves from history, of returning to the wonderful mysteries
of youth, where things are “extremely complicated” yet “incredibly simple” that the novel ends:
Finally, I found the pictures of the falling body.
Was it Dad?
Whoever it was, it was somebody.
I ripped the pages out of the book.
I reversed the pages, so the last one was first, and the first one was last.
When I flipped through them, it looked like the man was floating up through the sky.
And if I had more pictures he would have flown through a window, back into the building, and
the smoke would’ve poured into the hole that the plane was about to come out of
We would have been safe.
And then the flipbook, which, like the other illustrations, serves no purpose but to remind
us that this is an important book, and what a daring young author this Foer is, offering us authenticity,
a favorite word of his. In an interview, he explained that “Jay-Z samples from Annieone
of the least likely combinations imaginableand it changes music. What if novelists were
as willing to borrow?” Yes. Jiggaman and “Hard Knock Life” are surely what the novel needs.
Foer is indeed a sampler, throwing in Sebald (the illustrations and Dresden), Borges (the grandparents
divide their apartment into something and nothing), Calvino (a tale about the sixth borough that
floated off, ripped off wholesale from Cosmicomics), Auster (in the whole city-of-symbols
shtick), Night of the Hunter (the grandfather has Yes and No tattooed on his hands) and damn
near every other author, technique, reference and symbol he can lay his hands on, as though referencing
were the same as meaning.
And with the same easy spirit in which he pillages other authors’ techniques, stripping them
of their context and using them merely for show, he snatches 9/11 to invest his conceit with gravitas,
thus crossing the line that separates the risible from the villainous. The book’s themesthe
sense of connection we all feel when the coffee or acid hits and everything is illuminated, the brain-gurble
and twitch and self-pity we all know better than to write abouthave nothing to do with the
attack on the towers, or with Dresden or Hiroshima, which Foer tosses in just to make sure we understand
what a big and important book we’re dealing with.
Having brought up these big ideas, Foer falls back on a catty pacifism that he doesn’t quite admit
towhy risk sales?but which shines through: “This is what death is like. It doesn’t
matter what uniforms the soldiers are wearing.” This is Quakerism at its most debased, D.H. Lawrence’s
idea that we should let the Nazis wage war, tolerate them as a mother does an immature and violent
child. Violence is bad, Foer says, let’s not have it.
All of this brings to mind the infamous post-9/11 issue of The New Yorker, in which author
after author reduced the attack to the horizon of their writerliness, epitomized by Adam Gopnick’s
comparing the smell to smoked mozzarella. I was at Ground Zero, so didn’t hear about the issue for
weeks or read it for months (or smell mozzarella at all), but I understood both why such words were
vile and how writers curled into what they know. They felt that the world had become too large and
ill-contained to do anything else.
Likewise the Voice, which came out with an issue on Sept. 12, which I did see, with a shot
of a plane striking a tower and the headline “Bastards!” The paper was unable to stop the presses,
and so inside was the usual rigmarole, save for an editor’s note lamenting the forthcoming loss
of our civil rights and descent into hate. They, too, retreated into what they knew best. Which I
suppose is a good light in which to see the Voice‘s recent praise of Foer as “a new sort of literary
warriorvirtuosic, visionary, ingenious, hilarious, heartbreaking.”
Last week the Atlantic announced that from here on in, it would be publishing fiction
only once a year, in a special issue. Once upon a time, Playboy supported a whole generation
of worthwhile authors, from Shel Silverstein to Isaac Bashevis Singer and a host of talented goys,
too. Before that, Sports Illustrated published Faulkner. Now, there’s The New Yorker and the Paris Review and little else, and the consolidation of publishing houses has nearly
wiped out the mid-list author, leaving young authors with just one chance to write that great book
before they get dropped, and just a handful of editors deciding who gets that one shot at the brass
ring. With the decreasing number of outlets for quality fiction, each season’s “young stars” find
themselves praised regardless of the quality of their workthere’s a common readership
for Lahiri and Eggers, even though she’s brilliant and he’s anything but.
The writers who make it get treated as symbols. Whitehead gets compared to Ellison, because
they’re both black; Lethem writes a book about race invisibility, but since he’s a white boy, no
one thinks to mention Ellison. In the same vein, Foer is supposed to be our new Philip Roth, though
his fortune-cookie syllogisms and pointless illustrations and typographical tricks don’t at
all match up toor much resembleRoth even at his most inane. But Jews will be Jews,
Foer, squeezing his brass ring, doesn’t have the excuse of having written the day or the week
after the attack. In a calculated move, he threw in 9/11 to make things important, to get paid. Get
that money son; Jay-Z would be proud. Why wait to have ideas worth writing when you can grab a big theme,
throw in the kitchen sink, and wear your flip-flops all the way to the bank? How could someone so willfully
young be so unambitious?