You put your finger on what, at heart, troubled me about this novel: It purports to look the worst kind of human devastation in the eye (even Hiroshima plays a cameo role, as if Dresden and 9/11 weren’t enough) while building an over-elaborate armament against its own darkest corners. Because of course that’s what all the idiosyncrasies here—the funky typographical tricks, the bizarro characters—really are: an armament deployed against life’s prosaic and debilitating inroads. But in order for such a tension to be truly fruitful—to become a manifestation of, say, what Susan Sontag called “radical will”—the artistic vision requires a certain sternness. That sternness isn’t fully present here. And the effect, to put it bluntly, can be that Foer seems to be having his cake and making finger paintings with the icing, too: equating whimsy with will, sentimentality with sentiment. It’s not an unusual mistake—especially for a young novelist—but it is a devastating one when the stakes are so high. One notable exception: an uncomfortable and vivid moment in which Oskar imagines seeing a suicide pilot crash into the Empire State Building and the two look at each other with hate in their eyes. I wish there were more moments of toughness like this.
This is why, I suspect, you find the novel’s concluding strategy, which involves running time backward, puerile. The novel has no way out except to wish life were different. The last line (I’m hardly giving anything away here) is “We would have been safe”—a wishful, past-perfect conditional. Surely this is also why you didn’t like the photographs or images running through the book: They don’t function the way the images in W.G. Sebald’s books do, augmenting and complicating the novel’s relationship to fact, and some are downright whimsical, as when the word “purple” appears in green.
On the other hand, a handful of the typographical tricks (for example, when the type gets closer and closer until it turns black) were really effective. And I do find the final “flip book” sequence curiously moving—and justifiable. Images were a crucial part of 9/11, and are crucial to Oskar’s experience of the day. Ending like this didn’t seem merely an expression of the limits of language. It took something I was used to looking at only one way—the sight of a man falling from the World Trade Center—and showed me a new way to look at it. In this way, it did what I want art to do, which is to make me see differently and strangely and even wrongly for a second. For if a man falling from the WTC is one unforgettable kind of wrong, then watching him rise back up and away is a whole other kind of wrong.
We haven’t talked at all about whether the experience of reading this novel can be separated from the whole Foer phenomenon: his first novel’s extraordinary success, the fact that it’s being made into a movie by Liev Schreiber, or that he was recently profiled in the New York Times Magazine—an honor usually reserved for far more established writers, and that earned Foer the lasting enmity of some commentators and bloggers. Perhaps it doesn’t merit discussion, but I mention it because in a certain way (but only in a certain way) Foer reminds me of Dave Eggers, another writer whose fame has elicited true nastiness from his detractors. Like Foer, Eggers is invested in pathos and holding hard onto hopefulness; surely it’s these writers’ defiant innocence, their Salingeresque resistance to embracing the stance of the knowing sophisticate (in a sense, a response to writers like David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, William Gaddis, and Thomas Pynchon) that helped catapult them to fame—as well as earn them enemies.
The notable difference between Eggers’ memoir and this novel isn’t just that one is nonfiction and the other is fiction, but that 9/11 is a public tragedy, not the private family loss Eggers was writing about. I still think that Foer was on to something when he chose to write so inventively (and boldly) about 9/11, opting to blend realism with fantasy. And he’s got talent to spare. But I wish his brand of imaginative realism had more anchors in solid earth. You can want to love everyone in the world, but sometimes your heart is still full of hate, like Oskar’s, when he imagines looking in the eyes of the suicide pilot. That fact that I found this book hard to put down is a testament to Foer’s talent. But in a novel like this one, a romantic quest needs the buzzing city around it—the heft of life, the squeak of footsteps—to make the human capacity to invent seem truly magical. That’s why they call it magic realism.
This has been a pleasure—and I look forward to your closing thoughts!
All the best,