Literary cultures often produce the wunderkind they need–or perhaps deserve–in times of dramatic stress. In America, for example, during the sentimentally reckless 1920s, we had Edna St. Vincent Millay; in the hauntingly depressed 1930s, Delmore Schwartz; the viciously passive 1950s brought us Norman Mailer. Each of these writers was famous by the age of 25, and each was experienced as some blazing incarnation of an underlying mood of the time.
Not every writer who achieves literary celebrity young, however, is a child wonder. Among the books written by those under the age of 25 are The Pickwick Papers, Buddenbrooks, The Red Badge of Courage and Notes of a Native Son. None of the authors of these books was thought of as a wunderkind. It’s interesting to consider why some are, and others are not; the distinction might be worth making.
Jonathan Safran Foer is definitely a wunderkind: a writer immensely celebrated some years ago for a remarkable novel that he began as an undergraduate and completed before he was 24 years old. This novel–Everything Is Illuminated–was received as a major event in publishing not only because of the writer’s youth and talent but because it seemed to encompass the breadth of human experience, and in a manner richly compatible with that of our moment. Daniel Mendelsohn, for instance, wrote that while the book pretended to be about what it said it was about, it was really about “love, history, memory, narrative, and death–and that’s just for starters.” This review was typical of the generous pleasure with which readers everywhere greeted an ambitiously complicated fictional scheme that wove three voices and two strands of storytelling together with a degree of energetic inventiveness that was indeed exhilarating.
At this point I must announce a churlish reservation: The emotional–not to mention intellectual–wisdom that had sent all this virtuoso writing into action left many readers (myself included) more puzzled than gratified.
In Everything Is Illuminated a character named Jonathan Safran Foer goes to Ukraine in search of the woman who supposedly saved his grandfather from the Nazis. He employs a Ukrainian youth named Alex (who travels with his own grandfather, also named Alex) to help him (Jonathan) find his way to the village of Trachimbrod, where he hopes to track down the woman in question. Alex narrates the story of their journey. Interwoven with his narration is an imagined tale of magic realism that recounts the history of Trachimbrod from 1791 to World War II; this is the second narration. The third narration is Jonathan’s overview of the entire adventure. In short: The novel is multilayered and much crosscut.
The creation of Alex is the book’s true enchantment: His fractured English is pure joy. Using a thesaurus to figure out how to write in English, Alex composes sentences like
Many girls want to be carnal with me in many good arrangements.
The three of us, the three men named Alex, gathered in Father’s house to converse the journey.
Grandfather and I viewed television for several hours after Father reposed. We are both people who remain conscious very tardy.
Nabokov would have nodded benevolently at this performance (remember Pnin?).
On the other hand, the imagined history of Trachimbrod (embedded in the “magical” birth and equally magical life of Jonathan’s great-great-great-great-great grandmother) is a piece of pious mythmaking of the sort that makes many hearts–all right, my heart–sink. Decked out in the self-conscious colors of fable, and floating around in a delirium of folkloric invention, the residents of Trachimbrod resemble the levitating creatures in a Chagall painting. They are, of course, not characters at all (nor were they meant to be); they are the clichés of an ethnic-mythic Yiddishism that owes more to Fiddler on the Roof than to I.B. Singer. Then, bringing us full circle and neatly tying up the fairy tale search for Jewish ashes among the Nazi ruins, we have the “startling” revelation that Alex’s grandfather lived right near Trachimbrod during the war and, trapped in a “Sophie’s choice” of his own, helped identify Jews for the Nazis.
I turned the final page of Everything Is Illuminated thinking: How well this book combines a working imagination with the rings that a gifted writer can run around received fantasy and historical melodrama. But I couldn’t quite see the point of invoking these cultural conventions without struggling to achieve the kind of literary transformation that justifies their use.
Now we have a second novel from Foer, and surprisingly (or perhaps not surprisingly), the same conceit is at work: layers of storytelling, lots of crosscutting and a fablelike “quest” in progress: one that also results from a world-class disaster. This time the search–one that will take our protagonist on a selective journey through the New York telephone book–is for a lock that will fit a key belonging to the narrator’s father, who died in the World Trade Center attack.
The narrator of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a 9-year-old boy who–in all his odd originality–is a kind of literary equivalent of Alex the Ukrainian. When we first meet Oskar Schell he is in the back seat of a limo with his grandmother, who is annoying him with her continual caressing: “So I climbed into the front seat and poked the driver’s shoulder until he gave me some attention. ‘What. Is. Your. Designation.’ I asked in Stephen Hawking voice.” The grandmother offers, “He wants to know your name.” The driver hands the child his card (on the page we have an actual representation of the card). The child hands the driver his card. “Greetings,” he says. “I. Am. Oskar.” The driver asks him why he is talking like that. Oskar replies, “Oskar’s CPU is a neural-net processor. A learning computer. The more contact he has with humans the more he learns.” The driver says, “O.” And then he says, “K.” The narrator confides, “I couldn’t tell if he liked me or not.” (Indeed.)
Oskar’s first-person narration alternates with intervals of letters written in the 1960s to Oskar’s now dead father by his grandfather–a survivor of the Dresden firebombing who stopped speaking after the war (he’s got a yes and a no tattooed on either hand for all necessary communications), and who abandoned Oskar’s grandmother at the time of his child’s birth, and who may or may not be back in the picture. (Got all that?)
The representation of the driver’s card on the page is a prefiguration of much that is to come. Later on, we will even have a representation of Oskar’s card that carries his self-described identity: “inventor, jewelry designer, jewelry fabricator, amateur entomologist, Francophile, vegan, origamist, pacifist, percussionist, amateur astronomer, computer consultant, amateur archeologist, collector of: rare coins, butterflies that died natural deaths, miniature cacti, Beatles memorabilia, semiprecious stones, and other things.” We will also encounter many pages that are blank; or appear with one line of print on them, or a single word or sentence; or are so jammed with print not a word is legible. There are also pages (in riotous color) that resemble the pads of scrawl in stationery stores used for trying out pens, pages with words or sentences circled in corrective red and photographs: many, many photographs. The book itself is a kid’s construct.
This is the framework within which we experience the captivating quality of an unlikely protagonist whose confiding voice comes to us, again, in a blaze of virtuoso writing crammed with inventive riffs on everything under the sun. Sprinkled among them are some lovely lines of poetic insight parceled out among the characters:
She was extending a hand that I didn’t know how to take, so I broke its fingers with my silence.
[The] secret was a hole in the middle of me that every happy thing fell into.
She put her hand over her [laughing] mouth, like she was angry at herself for having forgotten her sadness.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever loved your grandfather. But I’ve loved not being alone.”
Essentially, Oskar is a child of the Internet. He doesn’t know who Winston Churchill is or what the Great Depression was–although he does know that 70 percent of household dust is actually composed of human epidermal matter–but not to worry: He will Google “Churchill” as soon as he gets home. At the same time, his intelligence is far from artificial. He always knows when he’s in the presence of a fool, as any smart kid would. He tells the therapist he’s seeing at his mother’s insistence that he doesn’t find sports fascinating. The therapist asks what he does find fascinating, and we have the following exchange:
“What kind of answer are you looking for?” “What makes you think I’m looking for something?” “What makes you think I’m a huge moron?” “Why do you think you’re here, Oskar?”… “I’m here, Dr. Fein, because it upsets my mom that I’m having an impossible time with my life.” “Should it upset her?” “Not really. Life is impossible.”… “Do you think any good can come from your father’s death?” I kicked over my chair, threw his papers across the floor, and hollered, “No! Of course not, you fucking asshole!” That was what I wanted to do. Instead I just shrugged my shoulders
At the center of Oskar’s 9-year-old being is the deep, spreading, never-to-be-forgotten pain he feels at having lost his father on what he repeatedly refers to as “the worst day.” His picaresque search for the lock that matches the key he found in his father’s closet is the mourning ritual that will keep his father with him until he can bear the pain of his loss. It is also the excuse the book needs to keep invoking the father, who, for this boy, was indeed the world. All Oskar wants is that the world–that is, the world he went to sleep in on September 10, 2001–be returned to him. It appears that this is what the author of his being also wants.
The book closes with a long passage in which Oskar imagines the whole of September 11 in reverse:
The plane would have flown backward away from [Dad], all the way to Boston…. He would’ve walked backward to the subway…. read the New York Times from right to left…. He would’ve gotten back into bed…. He would’ve walked backward to my room, whistling “I Am the Walrus” backward. He would’ve gotten into bed with me…. He would have told me the story [again] from “I love you” to “Once upon a time…” We would have been safe.
After these words we have fifteen copies of a photograph of the side of the World Trade Center with an object in the sky that resembles a falling body slowly reversing itself, picture after picture, until it disappears back into the building.
I sat staring at the final photograph of a World Trade Center with a clean and empty sky beside it, thinking, That’s it? Is this the literary use to which “the worst day” is to be put? If only we could roll back time and still be the children who imagined themselves safe the night before? If that’s all it amounts to, Oskar’s father might as well have been killed in a car crash.
If Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is as popular with readers as Everything Is Illuminated, it will be because Foer is indeed the wunderkind the country needs and therefore deserves: a writer of talent who exploits holocaust to mythicize the most aggressive self-pity in modern American history, the kind that feeds relentlessly on a nostalgia that seriously reduces whatever chance we have of understanding what we are living through.
It seems to me that the second set of writers mentioned at the beginning of this piece achieved work of large and lasting vision while still in their 20s because–and this is what was remarkable in those so young–they wrote without sentiment, cynicism or nostalgia, looking long and hard not so much at the mood of their time as into the dark heart of the time, bringing to bear on a fired imagination a strong, grown-up intelligence that drew the reader a lot closer to “Why is this happening?” rather than “Why is this being done to me?”