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Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Jonathan Safran Foer

London: Hamish Hamilton, 2005
£14.99, 326 p., ISBN 0-241-14213-X

Reviewed by Jim Friel

In one of many beautiful moments in this novel, a girl, in 1930’s Germany, randomly receives a heavily censored letter from an unknown political prisoner. To determine what kind of man he might have been, she asks family and neighbours to write her letters. Her grandmother is obliged by writing out the story of her own life. In the final paragraph of the letter, the grandmother writes (and the spacing is Foer’s):

I wish I could be a girl again, with a chance to live my life again.      I have suffered so much more than I needed to do.      And the joys I have felt have not always been joyous.      I could have lived differently.      When I was your age, my grandfather bought me a ruby bracelet.      It was too big for me and would slide up and down my arm.      It was almost a necklace.      He later told me he had asked the jeweler to make it that way.      Its size was supposed to be a symbol of his love.      More rubies, more love.      But I could not wear it comfortably.      I could not wear it all.      So here is the point of everything I have been trying to say.      If I were to give a bracelet to you, now, I would measure your wrist twice. [79]

The letter is lost: only this last paragraph remains, and that as memory. But then so much gets lost in this novel: languages, husbands, lovers, parents, suburbs, cities, countries; no wonder its child protagonist becomes a detective: there is so much to be found; no wonder so many characters store up trivia, collect letters, circle misprints in newspapers, keep secrets, become crazed archivists of their own lives and the lives of those they have lost, shoring up fragments against the ruining times.

The grandmother’s ruby bracelet was two sizes too big. It was an index of love. Perhaps Foer has loved this novel too much. It is two sizes too big.
This does not mean it is not worth reading, that it doesn’t display wit, ambition, sympathy and several other admirable qualities, but only that its effects are diminished and its very real qualities are overstretched.

There is much to recommend Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, and its account of the nine-year-old Oskar Schell who is on a quest to solve the mystery of a key he has found in his dead father’s closet: his father was killed in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre, and Oskar’s search is the boy’s attempt both to displace and acknowledge his grief.

It is grief, and its insidious concomitant, guilt, that powers the novel’s parallel narratives: those of his paternal grandparents, particularly his grandfather, a survivor of the Dresden bombings.
Profound themes do not necessitate vast works—much can be done in the minor mode—but this is a 9/11 novel, and there is a sense that Foer—and his peers—are beefing up their novels in order to be as imposing as the subject they must feel forced to deal with. It’s as good a strategy as any, and might, one day, deliver.

The issue here, however, is that, at the longer stretch, Foer’s nimble imagination grows breathless, and his conceits are made to sprawl and spill, to lose shape, intensity and impact.

I have a feeling—a happy one—that Foer’s natural talent is for the short story. An admirer of Joseph Cornell, Foer, in his shorter fiction, creates works akin to that artist’s boxes; texts filled with strange notions and domestic objects, obsessively archived and strangely titled. I am thinking of such works as “About the Typefaces Not Used in This Edition,” “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease,” and “Finitudes.” I would include, also, those parts of Everything is Illuminated narrated by Alex, and sections from this novel, too—particularly from its first half: those moments or scenes that astound and move, parts more honed and adeptly shaped than the overall frame into which they have been inserted; Oskar’s vengeful re-imagining of a high school production of Hamlet, or the scene where the grandfather, in his early days in New York, so muted by the horrors of wars he has “Yes” and “No” tattooed on his palms, meets a young woman in a café, his future and unloved wife. Seven years before he had kissed her now-dead sister while she watched, hidden from them: he will never know this.

What the excessive length does, crucially, is expose the thinness of Foer’s story, and his present clumsiness in handling plot. In his shorter fiction he can dazzle, make bold conceits, create stories whose texts entertain and intrigue the eye, but a novel of any significant length demands not only display, but also dissembling and deception, the slow seduction of a reader into revelation and surprise.
Here, as in Everything is Illuminated, crucial plot points—the role of Oskar’s mother, the present whereabouts of his paternal grandfather—that provide the novel with its climax are guessed at even as they are mooted, or feel forced, stuck on rather than woven cunningly into the novel’s fabric.

Also, its child narrator suffers from having to carry too much of the novel. In life, children are often indiscriminate in their narratives, tell too much that is not germane: concision and a sense of audience are adult skills. Oskar grows tiresome. It is not that we cannot believe him as a narrator. A child narrator is a device a reader understands and accepts, but a child—or, rather, this child—is finally too unreflective and static a character to support a novel. Foer is not always adept at making Oskar both bright enough to tell the story and naïve enough not to comprehend it fully, and Oskar becomes a highly constricted and constricting means by which to tell the story.

Oskar does not relate these events after any significant lapse in time or with any significant accumulation of hindsight. He does not develop as a character: he breaks down. The adult reader is forced to be patient and indulge the child narrator, wait for him to catch up with what the reader has already surmised. It strains the patience. Oskar, no matter how poignant his situation might be, is not charming enough to be indulged in this way. And poignancy, in any case, is a hard note to sustain throughout a novel.

Oskar’s grandparents share the narrative, but, in terms of plot, what they have to contribute is quickly (and effectively) acquired in the first half, and, in the second half, both voices are becalmed by having to withhold or delay the novel’s final already guessed-at secrets.

Foer’s books do look different. Not enough novels do. Direct speech comes in great blocks, and new paragraphs can become like key changes in music. Differing type-settings, fonts, spacing and layouts help to suggest characters, voice, shifts in time and emotional states, and Foer’s sheer playfulness as verbal artist. The look of Foer’s texts is not just eye catching; they are part of his armoury as a prose writer, and are technically brave without being inaccessible or purposeless.

Not so—or not here—the illustrations, which also distinguish the book.

Once illustration was expected in a novel, and did not seem a decoration or distraction: think of the illustrations by Boz or Phiz in Dickens’ novels, Teniel’s drawings for Lewis Carroll, or, simply, that sudden miraculous squiggle in Tristram Shandy. Illustration in Sebald, for example, can be another method of narration, suggestive of tales not told, intentions that go against the grain of the prose. This is how illustration works in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair: consider that novel’s closing words with the illustration Thackeray provided both to punctuate and contradict those words.
None of Foer’s illustrations work in this way, and, from a writer with an idiosyncratic approach to the appearance of a text, this is disappointing. The pictures in this novel are too often redundant: flicking ahead, one anticipates them, only to be disappointed by how little is made of them.
Oskar tells us of an elephant’s eye, the swing doors to an apartment block, of Stephen Hawking, and then a photograph of each follows: we don’t see any of these differently from Oskar; it merely reinforces that an elephant has an eye, that the apartment block did have the swing doors Oskar mentions, and that Stephen Hawking is, well, Stephen Hawking. They do not extend or complicate the narrative, but simply reiterate what has been written.

Foer’s most leaden use of illustration comes at the end. Throughout the novel we are given stills from a film showing a man leaping from the World Trade Centre. Oskar believes this figure to be his father. The novel ends with these stills in sequence, almost in flickerbook form, but the sequence is reversed so that the man is not jumping from the building, but seems, rather, to be returning to the building, to life itself, and, if the figure in the photograph is his father, to Oskar. The reversal suggests a victory over grief and time: if life were lived backwards, death would be undone, and the sorrows of the characters would be assuaged.

This backward flight of time’s arrow recalls—knowingly, I’m sure—Martin Amis’s novel, and the similar scene in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, where the devastation of the Holocaust is reversed; smoke is sucked from the sky down a long chimney; the oven’s flames lick the charred bodies of the gassed into complete life; animated once again, the formerly dead step backwards out of the gas chambers, out of the concentration camp and into the waiting trains that, chugging backwards, return them to their homes.
If the trick is now familiar, it is still a bold one, and one to play advisedly. Here, what deadens the effect—and the effect must work or it is merely tasteless—is that these pictures—and what might have been their eloquent and accompanying silence—are preceded by Oskar’s flatly detailed description of what we are about to see and, more thuddingly, what it means.
Throughout, the pictures have been made redundant by Oskar’s description of them, and, here, the consequence is that an overlong novel, whatever its other qualities, ends in literalness and uncertainty of effect.

The novel’s length also makes one suspect Foer’s twinning of the events of 9/11 with the Dresden bombing. At this length, and as Oskar dawdles on his quest, one has time to notice how under-used these events are, and that Foer’s interest in them is neither political nor complex.

There is almost nothing in this novel that objectifies, discourses upon or more than vaguely suggests the greater forces that lay behind these catastrophes. Other than the impact of death on one family, there seems to be too few analogies between the two events, certainly too few to fuel the novel’s increasingly stalled momentum. Something could be made, effortfully, about the bombing of a city belonging to an aggressive nation given to world domination, but it is not a perfect match—it’s actually a facile one, at best.

What these events do, in terms of this novel, is provide dead relatives over which the living must grieve. Any manner of unlikely and unjust death might have done to make Foer’s general points about how grief works on us. In consequence the towering subjects of Dresden and 9/11 are in danger of dwindling into the maudlin, the morbid, the callow and sensational. I don’t doubt the novel is sincerely conceived, but it isn’t effectively so.

American novelists have lately been delivering 9/11 novels, and even a few Brits, such as Ian McEwan in Saturday. They may have done so out of a somewhat macho call to novelistic arms (few, if any, of the novels are by women) or simply from concussive dizziness at this blow to a nation’s psyche. These novels come before us to explain or to ponder, to lick wounds or upbraid, to bear witness or make judgment: each of these impulses is a virtue in an author, but often a disabling one when it comes to the work itself.

Whatever the final failings of this novel, a lack of sincerity is not one of them, but then I’m not sure if a novel is very often the best way to respond a current event. Novels have, firstly, to be more faithful to the virtual world they create, than the actual world they are intent upon recording, but we sometimes need them to make the effort, nevertheless. It’s interesting to observe that Philip Roth’s tangential approach to the theme in The War Against America and John Updike’s recent and more head-on engagement, Terrorist—in neither case, their strongest works—have resulted in by far the most commercially successful novels of their long careers.



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