Friday, May 09, 2008

5/9/08 - Jonathan Safran Foer - how precious is too precious?

I missed out on reading Everything is Illuminated when it first came out and got the full-bore hype/critical raving treatment across the media universe (NY Times - "a touching, searing, broiling, fried platter of delicious, delicious musings on the human condition!", etc.), probably because I was insanely jealous of Jonathan Safran Foer. He was in his 20s, living in Brooklyn, and a writer. I was 2 of these things, and seeing someone else achieve a dream that I've had was vexing, even more so because it just provided a counterpoint in the writerly work ethic - Safran Foer had completed a book, and I had not. How dare he?

So out of explicit or implicit protest I gave it a pass. I gave the same pass to Fortress of Solitude by the other Brooklyn Jonathan, for much the same reason.

Once I moved to San Francisco, I revisited Everything is Illuminated, and had to admit that it was great. Not flawless, but certainly great. The great strength of the book, in my opinion, is the character of Alexis, and the way that Safran Foer uses the English-as-second-language effect for humor and pathos. Alexis is a fully realized character, and his reflections on the events of the book are consistently affecting and funny. The account of the awkward dinner scene at the diner, especially, is a tour-de-force of cultural misunderstandings and the embarrasments peculiar to cultural currents crossing and swirling. Not to mention the expertly rendered hilarity of Alex's family dog, Sammy Davis Junior Jr.

An excerpt:
And I still haven't mentioned that Grandfather demanded to bring Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior along. That was another thing. "You are being a fool," Father informed him. "I need her to help me see the road," Grandfather said, pointing his finger at his eyes. "I am blind." "You are not blind, and you are not bringing the bitch." "I am blind, and the bitch is coming with us." "No," Father said. "It is not professional for the bitch to go along." I would have uttered something on the half of Grandfather, but I did not want to be stupid again. "It is either I go with the bitch or I do not go." Father was in a position. Not like the Latvian Home Stretch, but like amid a rock and a rigid place, which is, in truth, somewhat similar to the Latvian Home Stretch. There was fire amid them. I had seen this before, and nothing in the world frightened me more. Finally my father yielded, although it was agreed that Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior must don a special shirt that Father would have fabricated, which would say: OFFICIOUS SEEING-EYE BITCH OF HERITAGE TOURING. This was so she would appear professional.

Masterful. The joke, obviously, is that "Officious Seeing-Eye Bitch" is the exact opposite of "professional", and Safran Foer carries it off with panache. Aside from the comedic aspect of Alex's character, the key function that Alex provides is to remove the authorial-focused myopia that can often grip first novels with a vengeance. At its heart, after all, "Jonathan Safran Foer" looms large as a character, and the work is clearly personal in a way that can prove troublesome to writers. Put simply, an introspective writer from Brooklyn is not interesting as a character, being prone to lugubrious navel-gazing and writerly conceits that are so stale at this point that I now skip the fiction section of certain monthly magazines with regularity. By framing the "Safran Foer" character through the lens of Alex's perceptions, Safran Foer the author is able to deflate a lot of the saggy writer-as-protagonist drag that the base story/plot of the book uses (writer searches for family history, discovers Holocaust terror).

The weakness of the book is that the family history is pretty much just cut-rate Garcia Marquez, and specifically cut-rate One Hundred Years of Solitude.


The young couple first married on August 5, 1744, when Joseph was eight, and Sarah six, and first ended their marriage six days later, when Joseph refused to believe, to Sarah's frustration, that the stars were silver nails in the sky, pinning up the black nightscape. They remarried four days later, when Joseph left a note under the door of Sarah's parents' house: I have considered everything you told me, and I do believe that the stars are silver nails. They ended their marriage again a year later, when Joseph was nine and Sarah seven, over a quarrel about the nature of the bottom of the Brod. A week later, they were remarried, including this time in their vows that they should love each other until death, regardless of the existence of a bottom of the Brod, the temperature of this bottom (should it exist), and the possible existence of starfish on the possibly existing riverbed. They ended their marriage thirty-seven times in the next seven years, and each time remarried with a longer list of vows. They divorced twice when Joseph was twenty-two and Sarah twenty, four times when they were twenty-five and twenty-three, respectively, and eight times, the most for one year, when they were thirty and twenty-eight. They were sixty and fifty-eight at their last marriage, only three weeks before Sarah died of heart failure and Joseph drowned himself in the bath. Their marriage contract still hangs over the door of the house they on-and-off shared - nailed to the top post and brushing against the SHALOM welcome mat:

It is with everlasting devotion that we, Joseph and Sarah L, reunite in the indestructible union of matrimony, promising love until death, with the understanding that the stars are silver nails in the sky, regardless of the existence of a bottom of the Brod, the temperature of this bottom (should it exist), and the possible existence of starfish on the possibly existing riverbed, overlooking what may or may not have been accidental grape juice spills, agreeing to forget that Joseph played sticks and balls with his friends when he promised he would help Sarah thread the needle for the quilt she was sewing, and that Sarah was supposed to give the quilt to Joseph, not his buddy, deeming irrelevant certain details about the story of Trachim's wagon, such as whether it was Chana or Hannah who first saw the curious flotsam, ignoring the simple fact that Joseph snores like a pig, and that Sarah is no great treat to sleep with either, letting slide certain tendencies of both parties to look too long at members of the opposite sex, not making a fuss over why Joseph is such a slob, leaving his clothes wherever he feels like taking them off, expecting Sarah to pick them up, clean them, and put them in their proper place as he should have, or why Sarah has to be such a fucking pain in the ass about the smallest things, such as which way the toilet paper unrolls, or when dinner is five minutes later than she was planning, because, let's face it, it's Joseph who's putting that paper on the roll and dinner on the table, disregarding whether the beet is a better vegetable than the cabbage, putting aside the problems of being fat-headed and chronically unreasonable, trying to erase the memory of a long since expired rose bush that a certain someone was supposed to remember to water when his wife was visiting family in Rovno, accepting the compromise of the way we have been, the way we are, and the way we will likely be...may we live together in unwavering love and good health, amen.

Yeah, sure, One Hundred Years of Solitude is great. But its one of those books that can only be written once, because the formal structure matches the central theme in such an exacting 1:1 ratio. Catch-22 is a similar book - great, and stylistically resistant to replication. So the "village" portions of Everything is Illuminated, while well-written, have a grating, imitative quality that the Alex portions do not.

I started reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and found, to my dismay, that Safran Foer attempts the same trick twice and encounters that dread beast: the law of diminishing returns. He again places much of the primary narrative in the hands of a character whose perspective as expressed is slightly off; this time, it is not to create distance from the too-easy trope of writer/protagonist, but to create distance enough to look at the fallout from the destruction of the World Trade Center towers.

A lot of it is effective, as Safran Foer is able to accurately grasp a nine-year old kid's wild mood swings and emotional responses to such a traumatic event (which veer from fantasy to catastrophic sadness and back again, like a compass needle unable to find true north). But there is a limit to this version of the conceit; it's impossible to credit Oskar Schell, the protagonist, with the outsized intelligence that Safran Foer imbues him with. Oskar's peculiar and blinding intellect provides a lot of the humor, but it also continuously yanks the reader out of the narrative by calling attention to his identity as a narrative construct, not a flesh-and-blood human being.

The best of example of this is when Oskar meets an attractive older lady in his search across the city for a lock that fits his dad's key (at least that's what he thinks he's looking for). Oskar's attraction to the lady and his proposal to kiss her are kindly rebuffed, and his longing and disappointment ring true to his age. But then he hands her his business card, which reads the following:


Funny because of the vagaries of interest, and the last 2 lines especially ring true to the 9-year old mind, but "Francophile"? "Jewelry Fabricator"? Sorry, but hell no. Those are cheap jokes by a very literary twentysomething. I don't care how gifted/peculiar Oskar is, there's no way the kid puts "Francophile" on his business card. It turns him from character to construct in an instant, which undercuts Safran Foer's very real mission to come at the tragedy from an off angle so as to better apprehend it.

What most impressive in retrospect then is that he never commits this slipup with Alex in Everything is Illuminted. He makes it seem so easy, so natural to assume that Alex is a real flesh-and-blood person inhabiting a real flesh-and-blood universe that it's a letdown when he can't repeat the trick the second time out.

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