| This Weeks Column:
AND INCREDIBLY SAD:
Why Jonathan Safran Foer's ballyhooed
new novel is cause for despair
... a MobyLives guest column
by Steve Almond
18 April 2005 I was first told about Jonathan Safran Foer's new novel six months ago, by a publicity person at Houghton Mifflin, who spoke of the book in terms generally reserved for religious revelations and personal audiences with Oprah Winfrey.
I had read the excerpt of Safran Foer's first novel in the New Yorker and found it sad, funny, a little on the shticky side, but basically kickass.
A few months later, coincidentally, the Boston Globe asked me to review Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (ELIC).
Not a hundred pages in, I began to feel a sense of dread. I found the book profoundly disappointing, and I wasn't sure how to express this without sounding mean. I wound up praising Foer where I could (his prose can be lovely, his use of plot deft) while also noting that ELIC is, in essence, a melodrama, one that seeks to dazzle and sooth its readers, rather than placing them in any real emotional danger.
As it turned out, my review was relatively mild. Writing for the New York Times, 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 extratextual flourishes, and dismissed Oskar Schell, the nineyearold narrator of ELIC as "reminiscent . . . of those annoying child guests on latenight talk shows."
Oddly, these reviews only intensified my dread. Because what really troubled me about the book was not that I found it disappointing, but my sense that a great many people would read ELIC and like the flak who first hipped me to the book be genuinely moved.
And so it has come to pass.
Despite the savage reviews (in part because of them) a great number of critics and readers have hailed ELIC as a masterpiece. In fact, I can think of no recent book that has served as such a pure litmus test of literary sensibility.
Part of this has to do with Safran Foer's unique role in our beleaguered reading culture that he's so young, that he's received so much acclaim and money, all that crapheaded writer envy. But the real issue is the book itself, and the wildly divergent feelings it has elicited.
Honestly, I don't quite know what to say to people when they tell me they loved ELIC. A part of me (the wellbehaved, slightly fraudulent part) wants to say: Well, that's great! To be moved by a book, particularly in this era of screen addiction, is a net positive. The other part of me wants to say: How could you fall for such wellmeaning dreck?
But how can you tell someone that their emotional reaction to something is fundamentally bogus, that they got played?
Initially, the dynamic called to mind my reaction when friends tell me how much they loved Hollywood's latest weepy. But then again, Hollywood is in the business of making commerce, not art. We head into the multiplex willing to be played.
The more I thought about it, the more I was reminded of our current political dichotomy. The critics who have chided Safran Foer (myself included) sound a lot like the bluestate pundits. No matter how eloquently we state the argument, we're basically telling people they're unsophisticated (read: stupid) if they dug ELIC.
And those people as a quick survey of the Amazon reader reviews will reveal know that they're being talked down to. Indeed, our snobbery only reaffirms their devotion. (A typical assessment: "I usually don't do reviews on Amazon, but I found it necessary for this book, because I've been reading many negative reviews in newspapers and literary magazines and all those sorts of places...")
But devotion isn't even a strong enough word in this case, because true fans view ELIC as more than a novel. It is an act of heroism. They claim reading the book is an important way of working through their feelings about 9/11.
Here is where I simply lose faith in my powers of tolerance.
Because the real charge derived from reading ELIC is the chance to reexperience the melodrama of 9/11, those bracing weeks when we all stood transfixed by the tape loops and slapped brave bumper stickers on our cars and pretended that we had suffered something profound, when all most of us had suffered was the vicarious thrill of a genuine televised catastrophe. Rather than leaving the mourning to the families who lost loved ones, or who were directly affected by the attack, we claimed their tragedy as ours. We weren't interested in examining why our country had become the object of such murderous derision. Instead, we staged a national pity party. I couldn't help but read Oskar as the perfect standin for the American mindset: a glib, selfdramatizing child defined by his victimhood and a plucky determination to endure.
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.
The reverential reaction to ELIC is, in this sense, a gauge of how habituated we've become to having our emotions manipulated. To put it more prosaically: Our bullshit detectors are broken. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that most people in this country don't really want what art has to offer they'd prefer bathos draped in the selfennobling finery of art.
We don't want to face a world in which the murder of a father might destroy a kid, let alone a kid who hates his dad and wishes he were dead. Faced with the moral complexities of modern consciousness, we have opted for narratives of false actualization.
I recognize how snotty and judgmental all this sounds, but I don't know how else to say it. True art asks us to face truths we don't want to face, to feel things we don't want to feel. It asks us to suffer the unbearable parts of ourselves. Rooting for a loveable kid we know is going to come through okay doesn't qualify.
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 second example, ironically, was published just a few months before ELIC, by the same publisher. Phillip Roth's The Plot Against America is narrated by nineyearold Phillip Roth. It is an historical recreation in which Charles Lindbergh is elected president in 1940, defeating FDR by running on an antiwar platform. Once in office, he begins to institute a series of ominous antiSemitic measures.
The book is really about what happens when the weight of history comes crashing down on family loyalties. The young Roth loves his parents, but is ashamed of them. He is disgusted by his cousin's war wounds. And, thanks to a distinctly childish brand of cruelty, he plays a direct role in the murder of his neighbor.
The crumbling of the boy's world is recorded without stooping to sentiment, or retreating into intellectualism. Indeed, the central tragedy of the novel is the manner in which the iniquity of the world infects the boy. It is also worth noting that The Plot though based on fictionalized events attempts to grapple with the protofascist aspects of the American spirit, specifically the ways in which fear and rage transmute themselves into senseless killing.
To read either of these novels 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.
Steve Almond is the author of The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories. Excerpts are available at BBChow.com.
©2005 Steve Almond
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WHY I WRITE SHORT STORIES . . . It's getting as difficult to sell stories as it is to sell poetry or first novels. Why try? With his newest collection about to come out, Steve Almond offers some reasons.
THE DEATH OF FIRST FICTION . . . In a guest column, Ig Publishing's Robert Lasner describes the growing difficulty in publishing and promoting debut novels and the growing need to keep publishing them.
All material not otherwise attributed ©2000 2005 Dennis Loy Johnson.