Everything Is Interrogated

Novelist Jonathan Safran Foer on 9-11, a Jay-Z sample, and the lowercase virtues of fiction

"War is god," says the judge in Cormac McCarthy's masterpiece Blood Meridian. If that's true, then let me confess: I have no idea what kind of shot Jonathan Safran Foer is with an M-16. Nor have I seen him parachute into a "hot zone" under the cover of darkness, or kill an enemy combatant in a vicious hand-to-hand engagement. But what I do know is that based on the evidence of his second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Houghton Mifflin), Foer is definitely a new sort of literary warrior—virtuosic, visionary, ingenious, hilarious, heartbreaking. He brings an astonishing array of firepower to the page. In fact, EL&IC could well precipitate an inadvertent recruitment campaign for a whole new wave of innovative writers and adventurous readers.

EL&IC is riddled with survivors—characters who experience a kind of emotional fallout after losing loved ones to the atrocities of war. In the opening pages we meet nine-year-old Oskar Schell, whose father perishes in the attack on the World Trade Center. ("Life is impossible," the boy tells his psychologist.) Oskar—freakishly well realized and enormously sympathetic—is verbose, erudite, and precocious (he's a percussionist, actor, Francophilee, and jewelry designer, among other things), and his grief manifests itself in a manic and often very funny (he'll probably single-handedly usher the words "VJ" and "monster cock" into our literary lexicon) rhetorical rush whose pathos powers the novel forward. While rifling through his dead father's closet, Oskar discovers a key in an envelope with the word "Black" on it. He spends the rest of the novel hunting the five boroughs for the lock that the key fits. Eventually Oskar crosses paths with a mysterious man who has sworn off speech after losing his true love in the firebombing of Dresden. The last 12 pages of the novel are totally textless—imbued with the silence and desire of a prayer—as the narrative coalesces in a deeply moving flip book.

Gabe Hudson: It's interesting to me that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, one of the first major novels about the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center, is also one of the most original books I've seen in years. As a fiction writer, do you feel it's your duty to engage with the culture? We've all heard the current eulogy for contemporary fiction: how reality runs roughshod over it, nobody reads it now, etc. What should the fiction writer be getting up to in these times? Is there something fiction can achieve that nothing else can?

"I don't see where I'm going until I'm there": Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close author Foer
photo: Shaune McDowell
"I don't see where I'm going until I'm there": Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close author Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer: It troubles me when people ask if it's too early to make art pertaining to September 11. No one asked, in the moments after the attacks, if it was too early for Tom Brokaw to report it. Do we trust Tom Brokaw more than we trust, say, Philip Roth? His wisdom, his morality, his vision? I don't. I appreciate that Tom Brokaw and Philip Roth do entirely different things, both necessary. I wouldn't want Roth giving me my information about what happened on a given day in Baghdad, and I wouldn't want Brokaw giving me my information about what it felt like. Journalists traffic in biography. Artists traffic in empathy. We need both. So why do people continually question what's the appropriate terrain for art? Why do people wonder what's "OK" to make art about, as if creating art out of tragedy weren't an inherently good thing? Too many people are too suspicious of art. Too many people hate art.

You've said that all writing is political.

Politicians are some of the least political people in the world right now. They traffic in capital-letter words, words that supposedly stand for many and much—America, Good, Evil, Islam, Justice, Terrorism—but in fact are hollow. George Bush speaks of the Arab World. What could that possibly mean? A novelist shows an Iraqi boy pouring coffee for his father. Which version is more useful? Which tells us more that we need to know?

Fiction traffics in lowercase words. It focuses on individuals, details. The inevitable result of looking closely, as opposed to generalizing, is to show how similar people are to one another, and how different—I don't drink that kind of coffee, or live in that kind of house in that kind of city, but I too eat breakfast with my father. There is nothing more political than that, and there's nothing more desperately needed right now. The irony is that the more specific one gets, the more resonance there is. You can extrapolate from an individual, but it's very hard to extract any meaning from something abstract.

Let's talk a bit about plot in your novels—or, more generally, plot as a place for a character to be buried. How much do you keep in mind the typical stuff associated with narrative?

Auden once said that he looked at what he wrote so he could see what he thought. That's how it is for me, too. Understanding comes after. I have no points to make. Not even a story to tell. I have my instincts, my past, my subconscious. Sometimes the switch is at the end of the dark hallway, and you have to feel for it with your hands. A book is a lot like a light switch.

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