The Acid Tongue
Two Critical Emails About A Cloying Novel
Selected By Cyril Wong
In the recent issue of Slate's Book Club section, Meghan O'Rourke and Ruth Franklin discuss through email Jonathan Safran Foer's second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, about a 9-year-old boy and his quest to find meaning in the post-9/11 world. I have picked the juiciest quotes from both their emails, which were published on the website.
In Meghan O'Rourke's email, the title of the email sets the tone for everything that she aims to say about this terrible book, "A Whimsical Novel About Immensely Serious Things". According to her, Foer's sophomore effort
purports to look the worst kind of human devastation in the eye… 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.
It is quite predictable of her here to tap on the prejudice that young novelists are lesser writers than older ones to make her point. She goes on, even comparing Foer to a dead writer:
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.
Ruth Franklin's email is a little kinder, an attitude implied by the title of her email, "Jonathan Safran Foer's Unusual Talent". But she does have her doubts, as when she writes,
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.
Then she plays up the good parts of the book before attacking its sentimentality and comparing Foer to yet another writer:
QLRS Vol. 5 No. 1 Oct 2005
...Another poignant moment comes when Oskar (the protagonist) 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 and Incredibly Close are fundamentally unironic books. (Eggers overplays his sincerity to the extent that it appears ironic, but that's another discussion.)... 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.