BOOKENDS: Will the Real Jonathan Safran Foer Please Stand Up?

Two hit novels later, writer still struggles to find his voice

Despite the sudden maturation this country is said to have undergone on September 11th, America’s pop icons have been getting younger and younger. Professional basketball, for instance, has put all its hopes on the shoulders of a player young enough to be a college sophomore, while the music industry is being carried by artists who are young enough to be the children of college sophomores.

The literary world doesn’t appear to have entirely avoided the trend either, with debuts by everyone from James Frey to Yale Daily News sex columnist Natalie Kirinsky garnering attention at every echelon of cultural criticism. But the biggest winner in the scramble for fresh blood has been Jonathan Safran Foer, who was reportedly only 20 when he wrote his first New York Times bestseller, “Everything is Illuminated.”

In the aftermath of its release, Foer was popularly cast as something of a literary messiah–an attractive young rock star, almost, who could inspire teenagers not only to read but to wear his name on their t-shirts.

Last month, he issued his second book, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Up Close,” a quest story about a boy searching for answers about his father, who died in the attacks on the Twin Towers. By the mere virtue of the book’s “topic,” Foer has taken his place in American literary history by joining the handful of fiction writers willing to wrestle with the 9/11 terrorist attacks in their work.

Some have questioned his decision to take on something so weighty, deriding his ambition and branding the attempt contrived, but in Foer’s view, it would have been contrived not to write about 9/11 given how much of his thoughts it was taking up. Honesty is always best, Foer said in an interview last Thursday from his hotel room in Boston’s Four Seasons, and novelists are not doing anyone any favors by pretending that they weren’t affected by the attacks.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

Foer was in Boston on account of his book tour, which took him to a sold-out Brattle Theatre last Wednesday for a reading and a Q&A sponsored by Harvard Bookstore. Answering questions from wide-eyed teenagers and aspiring writers, Foer spoke softly and calmly from his podium, giving humble advice and doing his best to explain his method in specific terms. Most of the time, he was unable to pin it down, emitting vague but well-intentioned platitudes about “hard work” and “creating empathy.” He has trouble talking about his own life, he says, and even more trouble writing about it honestly.

“It just feels like one big lie, and I can’t figure out why it does,” Foer said in our interview. “Then, when I throw my voice, when I speak as someone who’s quite different from me, it starts to feel very authentic.”

Getting over that will be Foer’s greatest obstacle when he sits down to write his third book. “Extremely Loud,” for all its richness and readability, exposes his apparent fear of writing about himself, and suggests a fatal flaw that will hold him back if he doesn’t get over it soon. While his rhetoric has gotten less stilted and his storytelling has become more fluid since “Everything Is Illuminated,” his continued reluctance to just be himself, instead of impersonating a grandmother, a young child, or a goofy foreigner as he has done so far, has gotten frustrating. Instead of writing about what 9/11 was like for him, in other words, which Foer feels incapable of doing, he chose the nine-year-old Oskar Schell, whose father was killed during a meeting at the Windows of the World restaurant. Foer presumes that he knows how it would feel, and although he may come close (most of us are fortunate enough not to know for sure), he winds up creating a narrative that periodically clashes with his intended emotional effect.

THE ELUSIVE ‘I’

“It is my goal in life to narrate as myself,” Foer told his audience at the Brattle. “I’m infinitely jealous of people who have diaries that they believe in, and feel like are expressions of who they are. I’ve tried many many times and every time I sit down to write, it sounds totally inauthentic. Sometimes you have to make something unrealistic in order to make it believable, as I aspire to in my book.”

While no rule is golden when it comes to creativity, there’s a good reason why aspiring writers are always instructed to write what they know—to mine their own lives for inspiration instead of trying to concoct some purely foreign, purely fictional world which they have never experienced. Foer ignores this advice demonstratively. Unconcerned with believability, he says, and unafraid to try to say something new about the Dresden firebombing and the Nazi invasion of Europe, Foer does just about everything in his two books besides show what it’s like to be him. “Everything Is Illuminated,” for instance, takes the form of a correspondence between two writers—one is a Ukrainian translator, and the other is Foer’s namesake, who communicates only through historical tracts of magical realism about the Jewish village of Trachimbrod. Never do we get an “I” in Foer’s books, and when we do, it’s always in reference to someone else.

“Everything Is Illuminated” succeeds in spite of this gimmick. But this success is not sustainable. Until Foer gets comfortable in his own shoes, he won’t be able to transcend mere impersonation, and his characters will forever feel slightly inhuman. Throwing his voice is not a solution, but a shortcut, and the more he allows himself to take it, the less likely it is that he’ll be able to communicate his feelings with the directness he strives for.

SOPHOMORE SLUMP?

Granted, “Extremely Loud” had a lot to live up to—a curse on any sophomore effort that is made only worse by the fact that Foer, on account of his young age, is expected to outdo himself with every successive outing. When the debut was published, he was heralded in the press as a “certified wunderkind” and an “obvious talent,” while the book itself was uniformly dubbed “impressive”—a dubious honor which implies, like it or not, a measure of condescension even if it is an expression of approval.

“It’s wonderful to think that the very young Jonathan Safran Foer...can be writing so well and with such lofty aspiration,” wrote Adam Begley of the New York Observer. “It will be wonderful if he writes many more books.”

The glowing reviews were indeed widespread, but they were always accompanied by that caveat—that Foer was a young kid yet, and that his best work was ahead of him. Most likely true—Foer himself says that he’d hate to fulfill his potential so early in life—but one might expect him to wilt at the immense pressure of unbounded expectation.

His humble demeanor at the Brattle reading reveals that he’s taking it in stride, however, thanking his lucky stars for letting him be a writer and ignoring most critics in favor of following his own admittedly ambiguous literary agenda.

BAG OF TRICKS

The agenda, for now, seems to involve some deceptively risky experiments with form, as well as a complete rejection of realism in favor of that empathy and emotion he wants so badly to convey. Foer doesn’t care what it takes to get to the reader, he says, and he doesn’t care how unrealistic his scenarios and characters end up.

In “Extremely Loud,” this appears to require photographic illustrations, whole pages of blank space, disorienting experiments with typesetting, and a flipbook of a man falling from the burning World Trade Center. Although it’s an admittedly clichéd term, “Extremely Loud” is a multimedia experience, although to Foer’s credit, it’s not an offensively kitschy one.

Beneath the frills, Foer says, lies an almost archetypal tale—one that draws less from postmodern literary theory and more from the traditional fable. Although the narrative foreground is colored and clouded over by Foer’s insistence on side-stories and his obsession with the past, it really is a pretty simple tale. Oskar searches the five boroughs of New York City for information about a mysterious key he has discovered in his father’s closet. Along the way, he makes some new friends, learns some lessons, and follows secret clues. Foer tells a fairytale that might, with some adaptation, engage Oskar’s third grade classmates.

“I had zero interest in creating something that was realistic,” Foer said in our interview. “I just wanted to create something that a reader could really invest him or herself in, something the reader could, I don’t know...trust.”

The New York Times Book Review’s Walter Kim has confused Foer’s quaint simplicity with “tritenesses” [sic]. According to Kim, the avant-garde ornamentations cause readers “to ooh and aah over notions that used to make it groan.” But even though an audience less erudite than Kim might be wowed by Foer’s techniques, the author isn’t claiming to be on the cutting edge of anything.

Asked last week about his experimental style, Foer said that “I hadn’t seen it anywhere before but neither would I assume it’s original. That wasn’t really the point. The singular purpose was to make the book as forceful as I could, to express as efficiently and as strongly as I could the things I wanted to.”

GETTING COZY

Anyhow, Foer says he isn’t aiming for public acclaim. “I wrote the book in these incredibly intimate settings—on my laptop propped up while I’m in bed, or at a desk, or in a room where I’m alone,” he says. “And then people read the book in their own intimate settings—in bed, in the bathtub, in the easy chair at home. Connecting these two intimate experiences is what publishing a book is all about.”

“I know what I want to do, and I know when I feel like I’m doing it or not doing it,” he says. Now, as long as he learns to say “I” and mean it, Foer can cozy up to readers for years to come. Take it from me—the little guy’s going far.

—Staff writer Leon Neyfakh can be reached at neyfakh@fas.harvard.edu.

—Full book review coverage appears this Friday in the Arts section of The Crimson.