Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Everything is Ostentatious

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. Houghton Mifflin. 368 pages. $24.95.

Jonathan Safran Foer's new novel is about loss and the difficulty of communication, and it takes extravagant means to make its point. Take, for example, pages 269 to 271, where a man who has given up on speech uses a telephone keypad to communicate with his long-lost wife, much as you would when sending a text message.

Although neither party in this one-sided conversation is using a cell phone -- and the other end would hear nothing but beeps -- the reader might want to keep one handy. You'll need the predictive text feature to know that the numbers 4-3-5-5-6 translates to "hello" and 4-7-4-8-7-3-2-5-5-9-9-6-8 means "Is it really you?" Go ahead, try it. If you have time on your hands and an unlimited calling plan, you may even want to translate the whole two page message, rendered in nothing but numbers and punctuation, surely the longest cryptogrammic rant in any American novel.

And there's oh, so much more. It has pictures, pages with one line, or nothing, or where every grammatical error is circled in red, or where the lines run so close together they become an indistinguishable blur. All of this may make the book sound dense or obscure or (blurry pages aside) hard to read. It isn't. It's a modest, even rather moving story of post-9/11 grief, swathed in cut-and-paste pretensions.

The hero is Oskar Schell, a precocious nine-year-old who lost his father, Thomas, during the attack on the World Trade Center. Oskar lives in Manhattan with his mother, an attorney, and occasionally with his grandmother, who lives one building over and seems to be in the early stages of senile dementia. Oskar's name calls to mind another diminutive, shell-shocked narrator -- Oskar Mazerath in Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum -- with whom he also shares both a German heritage and a love of percussion. Foer's Oskar isn't as loud as Grass's, but he's certainly more chatty, as well as ideally bright and inquisitive, like the Glass family kids in Salinger's stories, or Max Fischer in Wes Anderson's film Rushmore. He's the kind of kid writers want to spawn: a darling, goofy, creative little bug-eyed misfit, and Foer fawns over him with loving parental affection. Oskar collects stamps, invents or plans to invent a variety of projects in his spare time, writes letters to famous people (Stephen Hawking is a particular favorite) and collects abstract photos of heads, objects and crowds, which he shows us every few pages.

He is, also, at the same emotional level as most kids his age: he cries easily, often hits himself out of anger, is deeply attached to his mother and the memory of his father and isn't easily put off by the impossibility of solving any mystery that comes his way. When he finds a mysterious key with a name attached among his father's belongings, he patiently goes through the Manhattan directory to find out the owner. Oskar's search brings him in touch with a variety of characters, all dealing with their own brand of modern isolation.

Running parallel with Oskar's story is that of his grandfather, who has been a missing person for most of his life. After losing Anna, the love of his life, during the World War II bombing of Dresden, Thomas ceases to speak and -- when he isn't trying to text-message War and Peace -- communicates only in written notes. Thomas marries Anna's sister, leaves her and spends his life writing unmailed letters to the son, Oskar's father, he will never know. We also hear at some length from Oskar's grandmother, who fills in her own side of this story in letters to Oskar that he will presumably read later in life.

Foer used a similar three-way narrative in his amazing 2002 debut Everything is Illuminated, where two writers, novelist named Jonathan Safran Foer and his Ukrainian translator, Alexei, discover a painful connection in their family histories. The book weaves together Jonathan's wildly imaginative history of his family along with comments from Alexei - writing in a hilariously mangled English -- as well as Alexei's own work-in-progress about Jonathan. It's a complex, deeply imagined novel, both wildly surreal and achingly real, where history, imagination, and the very process of language itself all blend together. As a story and a declaration of a new young talent, it more than lives up to its title. I've never read anything like it.

But where Everything is Illuminated was very much about it's own creation, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close seems to me, more than anything, to be about it's own failure, about the holes the writer can't fill in. He wants this sentimental -- and, in all fairness, quite readable -- story have some kind of greater significance than it has, and he employs all these visual aids as a way of trying to coax them out of thin air. Or maybe he wants to make a movie; no, excuse me, a film, an art film. He wants to make us feel loss by seeing it, as a director like Ozu and Antonioni  might, with static images to  signify what's missing or what isn't happening. But a novel isn't a film, a blank page is not a freeze-frame, and Foer's juxtaposition of words and random images doesn't suggest the unspoken so much as it underscores the obvious.

It's a book that yearns to be more than it is, and never stops reminding you of all that it isn't.

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