The Book Club

Jonathan Safran Foer’s Unusual Talent

Dear Meghan,

Your note helped me understand something that had been bothering me about Foer’s novel. There were things that annoyed me about Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, but as a reader, I found myself completely engrossed in it. Yet I read the novel in fits and starts, because after putting it down I dreaded picking it up again. I realize now that I was afraid of the book—afraid that the experience of reading a novel about 9/11 would be too painful to bear. Foer’s whimsy makes the novel enjoyable and even seductive, but it also makes it easier to read. Perhaps too easy. That armament ought, at some point, to break down—but Foer keeps building it up to the very last page.

The seduction of the reading experience makes it clear that Foer is a hugely talented writer—something I think we haven’t given him enough credit for. We talked about the beauty of his Sixth Borough fable, but the novel is suffused with moments like that. In the passage where Oskar imagines what would happen if people’s heartbeats were amplified and broadcast, I love the image of a hospital’s maternity ward sounding like “a crystal chandelier in a houseboat.” The novel isn’t all beauty and humor, though; it can’t fully protect its readers from some nuggets of genuine pain. You mentioned the moment when Oskar tells his mother he would rather she had died on 9/11, but even more awful, I thought, is his belief that she would have preferred his death, too. Another poignant moment comes when Oskar is telling Abby Black, with whom he shares a love of elephants, about experiments with recording and playing back their calls. When the call of a dead elephant was played to its family members, “They remembered … they approached the speaker.” This parable takes on an extraordinary poignance in the context of 9/11.

Such an undisguised ploy to the emotions is unusual in contemporary fiction, and it’s another commonality between Foer and Dave Eggers. Despite their ballast of playful gimmicks, both A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close are fundamentally unironic books. (Eggers overplays his sincerity to the extent that it appears ironic, but that’s another discussion.) After 9/11, I’m sure you recall, there was much talk about “the death of irony” as an appropriate societal and cultural tone. I suppose we were all a bit relieved at irony’s resurrection, since it’s a crucial part of our own shields against despair. Foer’s lack of irony manifests itself primarily in the book’s embrace of sentimentality, which, as you pointed out, can at times become cloying. This may be the price Foer has to pay for allowing Oskar’s willed naiveté to serve as the novel’s primary perspective.

Recently, Eggers has abandoned the manic invention of his memoir and taken a more conventionally narrative turn. So far, it hasn’t quite worked for him. We’ve suggested that Extremely Loud could have benefited from a greater dose of realism, but Eggers’ experience seems to indicate otherwise. Perhaps Foer will follow Oskar’s lead and invent something new altogether for his next novel? Whatever it is, I look forward to finding out.