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?

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.


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 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?

I'm not sure that I try to make myself vulnerable, but I know that I feel hugely vulnerable when I write. Nothing in life makes me feel more exposed and self-conscious. (That's true even when I'm writing something I know I won't share.) Nothing is less obviously meaningful than writing. It just doesn't go without saying that one should spend hours in a room putting words on a page. More than anything I know of, writing demands to be justified. It perpetually begs the question: Why do this at all? It's writing's blessing and its curse.

Kafka said that writing is a form of prayer. Does this concept ring true for you?

It does. But Kafka didn't believe in God, and neither do I. So what did he mean that I'm agreeing with? A prayer, OK, but a prayer to whom?

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