Everything Is Interrogated

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

Philip Roth is a writer whose name gets mentioned in the context of your fiction. What has Roth's work meant to you over the years?

If I weren't Jewish, or if Roth weren't Jewish, the comparison probably wouldn't be made. Then again, the thought of Roth not being Jewish doesn't make any sense. It's like a cucumber not being a vegetable. (Could I not be Jewish?) In any case, it's not only a generous comparison, it's wrong. I've written two books. What makes Roth Roth isn't any one book, but how he's changed over the course of his career, over the span of dozens of books. He's outlived every title applied to him—wunderkind, misogynist, genius, disappointment, Great Jewish Author, Great American Author, Great Perverted Author, and so on—and now he's just Roth. The Great Roth. Simply being oneself—being an original—is the most a writer can aspire to. And it's not something that happens after two books.

There are many curious photographs riddled throughout >EL&IC. There are full-page images of an elephant, a doorknob, a bunch of keys. There's the photo of the pair of hands with the word "YES" written on one, "NO" on the other. Did you take these photographs?

"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

I took some of them myself, some came from photo archives, one came from The New York Times, a few from various websites. I took the photo of the hands.

Whose hands are those?

I went to the Jewish Home on the Upper West Side and found an old man who was willing to model his hands for the book. He had bad tremors and couldn't keep his fingers open for much longer than it took to snap the photo. He had a great sense of humor. When we were done, I offered to help him wash off the "YES" and "NO" that I'd written, in marker, on his palms. He said he'd leave the writing on for a while.

Within the text of EL&IC, you radically tweak the typography. Words get crunched together until they become illegible. There are blank pages, and pages with just a couple of words on them, and there are red markings overlaid on the text. What was your motivation for using such extreme typographical manipulation?

To speak about what happened on September 11 requires a visual language. My singular motivation was to create the most powerful book I could.

A good many pages of EL&IC could be hung on the walls of an art gallery. Is there an explicit curatorial impulse behind the creation of your books? How much do you consider your pages as "materials" that you assemble into an object?

Why do "artists' books" belong to the art world, rather than the book world? Maybe it's wrong to think of the "art world" and "book world" as distinct. Maybe, at least, there's some place where they overlap. That's where I want my novel to exist.

As to the question of assemblage, there are two kinds of sculptures: subtractive and additive. A subtractive sculptor looks at a block of marble and sees what he wants to release from it. He chisels away until all that's left is what he was looking for. An additive sculptor piles on the clay. He has much more room for error, which makes what he does less precious in some way, but also allows him the freedom to change his mind as often as he wants. He can start with one idea and end up somewhere dramatically different. The subtractive sculptor can't. My books are the products of glopping things on. I don't even know the subject until I'm looking at it.

Some people assume formal innovation in fiction means sacrificing feeling and emotion. But you seem to use it as a way to get at this sublime emotional terrain. Is the concept of courage, or risk taking on the page, a large part of your m.o. as a writer?

Courage is only courage when you know what you're up against and choose to go up against it anyway. That's not the story of my writing. I don't see where I'm going until I'm there—like someone who runs into the lion's den thinking it was the men's room. I do what I do not because of any grand ideas, but because it's what I do. An ant is not an entomologist.

It's a shame that people consider the use of images in a novel to be experimental or brave. No one would say that the use of type in a painting is experimental or brave. Literature has been more protective of its borders than any other art form—too protective. Jay-Z samples from Annie—one of the least likely combinations imaginable—and it changes music. What if novelists were as willing to borrow?

I've been telling my students about the "honesty" of the fiction writer. It doesn't matter how far-out or weird or syntactically rigorous a story might get—as long as the fiction writer makes herself vulnerable in the process of composition, she can pull it off. Your fiction, despite or because of the charged humor, feels especially vulnerable to me. Do you put a premium on vulnerability in your fiction?

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