Saturday, July 15, 2006

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close: Jonathan Safran Foer

In Jonathan Safran Foer’s second novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, we find a very credible and intelligent narrator in nine-year-old Oskar Schell. We discover him—inquisitive and resourceful-- in his family’s home in New York City.

Though we are not privy to the details of the tragedy that he has suffered during September 11, 2001, we begin to see the immediate post-cataclysmic world from Oskar’s perspective. It’s a reality filled with dangerous gaping spaces left by generations, politics, histories and personal mysteries.

We learn of unspeakable realities and the need to talk about them, of trauma and coping mechanisms and the parodoxical. The author captures the discomfort felt by many who desperately needed to be around family and yet who unexpectedly embraced strangers instead. If tragedy visits questions upon us, then the answers force us to separate, at least temporarily, in order to discover how our common pain is accommodated by our individual plight.

In this light, then, we expect a novel of this emotional density to be sparse in levity but Foer manages quite a feat: he injects intense, laugh-out-loud humour right from the start and it seems to promise a smooth story.

Though its highs are high and its lows low, it isn’t, unfortunately, a rolling narrative terrain. The flow is interrupted unpredictably by other narrators who develop backstories. As impressively as the novel pivots on single events from perspective to perspective, it also jags because the narrative shifts are choppy. They hinder pace and render the unfolding of the main story altogether too sluggish.

The backstories illustrate another historical tragedy. By unflinching juxtaposition, the writer presents the horror of two particular events in vivid detail and we are spared no information that would make us uncomfortable. We are reminded that tragedy freezes us in time, creating tableaux that are released only when we have the information that we need to be able to move. Life becomes a matter of standing still, coping, and opportunities a matter of avoidance. The shadows cast by other lives dart around us, voices become invasive notes that threaten to remove hope and breathing is measured equally with tears and trepidation.

Nevertheless, reading fiction should not be labour-intensive. Questions about whether or not they belong in a novel targeted to a mature readership aside, the presence of photographs forces a continual disengagement of the reader from the text. When an author reminds us that we’re reading, he immediately places us at a distance from the imagined world, making the suspension of disbelief a matter of strife.

It is difficult to understand how a literary novel’s graphics could enhance an understanding of the work’s substance. If Mr. Foer’s illustration of the novel creates within us a sense of the alienation felt by someone who did not directly experience loss as a result of the attacks, then he succeeds. The chasm between those experiencing 9/11 and those watching the events unfold on television is unbridgeable. In the novel, we are still watching and painfully aware of this fact.

If the use of photographs, moreover, demonstrates the real-life understanding that even in our common experiences, we are separated by personal knowledge of individual circumstance, then the author, again, succeeds.

If, however, the decision represents Mr. Foer’s concern that we remember that the events of 9/11 were not imagined, it isn’t necessary and the illustrations render the flow choppy. Besides, through the use of traditional devices—the language of tragedy and a seemingly innate grasp of the machinations of a child’s mind—he keeps the horrors of that day to the fore.

In the end, it is a novel complicated by a sense that the ineffable needs to be recorded and this, too, is Jonathan Safran Foer’s success.

Trade Paper
356 pages
Mariner Books (2006)
ISBN: 0-618-71165-1

Published July 15, 2006

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