The Acid Tongue
Wilfully young and unambitious
Selected By Cyril Wong
This was a most enjoyable review by Harry Siegel, published on 20 April 2005 for the New York Press, regarding a much-less-enjoyable book, Jonathan Safran Foer's "highly touted debut", Everything is Illuminated. At the start, Siegel recounts a story that holds plenty of truth for the meaning of artistic ambition (something we are assuming Foer lacks, in spite of his apparent success as a writer):
...a former student, a man in his 20s, bumped into Barbara Rose, the crueland wise art critic and teacher, and began telling her how well things were going for him that
he had an agent now, successful shows...the whole nine yards. Rose shook her head and asked him, "How can someone so young be so unambitious?" and went on her way.
Soon after, Siegel doesn't mince words: "Foer isn't just a bad author, he's a vile one." He disses the flipbook at the end of the novel for ensuring that Foer's book (featuring a figure ascending when supposed to be falling) should not be taken seriously. The critique carries on in the midst of elaboration of what the plot entails, while unfavourably comparing the protagonist to the author himself:
...the book is an Oprah-etic paean
to innocence and verbosity as embodied by Foer's latest saintly stand-in...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.... 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.... 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."
Siegel points out that Foer has an egregious love pf sampling and pillaging other authors' techniques, "stripping them
of their context and using them merely for show." In spite of presumably grand themes and ideas, "Foer falls back on a catty pacifism.... This is what death is like. It doesn't
matter what uniforms the soldiers are wearing." This, for Siegel, 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."
The media has much to blame, of course, for overrating writers; and shifts or events in culture can encourage ways in which writers become elevated:
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...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....The writers who make it get treated as symbols.... Foer is supposed to be our new Philip Roth, though
his fortune-cookie syllogisms and pointless illustrations and typographical tricks don't...resemble Roth even at his most inane.
Siegel eventually closes with a reference to rapper Jay-Z in order to emphasise his point, which is that Foer is ultimately doing it for the money:
QLRS Vol. 13 No. 2 Apr 2014
Foer...doesn't have the excuse of having written the day or the week
after the attack... [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?