Jonathon Safran Foer
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Difficult second novel syndrome? This sophomore effort isn't quite the great American novel, but Foer should keep trying...

By Max Leonard

Jonathan Safran Foer is one of those writers who divides people into two opposing factions, a bit like Marmite: he produces the sort of brilliant yet showy writing that elicits a strong opinion. Yet even his critics agree that he is a serious talent who will take his place, in due time, in the canon of big American writers. His second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, confirms this assessment: it is immensely entertaining, at times dazzlingly well written, but it can also feel slow, annoying and inconsequential.

Both the successes and failings of the book lie in one of Foer's now-characteristic flourishes – the assumption of different voices within the narrative. The main voice is sometimes breathtakingly rendered and is of a young manhattanite, Oskar Schell, whose father was trapped in one of the World Trade Centre towers as it fell. No ordinary nine year-old is he, however, but one who wears only white, writes letters to Stephen Hawking and counts spotting mistakes in the New York times as a favourite pastime. Sent home from school early on the day of the 9/11 attack, he arrives to hear his beloved father has left farewell messages on the answer phone. Struck by an unassailable grief, he keeps the phone in his closet, taking it out at moments of extreme loneliness. One night, as his mother entertains a new 'friend' downstairs, he creeps into his father's wardrobe to look through his things. There he finds an envelope, inscribed with the word 'black', with a strange key inside. Taking it to be a clue from his father, he resolves to discover the owner's identity – and the secret message he assumes they will convey to him from his father beyond the grave – and starts to trawl through the phone book and travel the city.

His search is punctuated with chapters told by his grandfather and grandmother, recounting the story of how they met and their flight to the usa after the allied bombing of Dresden. But while Oskar's sections vividly illustrate the thought patterns of a neurotic and precocious child, these two voices lack a certain spark. Textual and typographical tricks help to distinguish the characters, but the lack of paragraphs within his grandfather's testimony make these parts dense and laborious. Also interspersed within the different parts are numerous photos and documents; their relation to the text is never simple, sometimes reproducing Oskar's mute grandfather's notebooks, sometimes taken from Oskar's private diaries. The model is clearly WG Sebald, whose use of found photos and objects within his narratives of loss and displacement help his work to attain an unbearable poignancy, but Foer's stories in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close do not achieve the same effect. Fractured narratives of life in Dresden lack detail and fail to bring it to life so that the reader may mourn its passing; paradoxically, much of the rest of the book seems heavy-handed – layered on too thick.

Indeed, it seems at times as if the book is groaning under the weight of just having too damn much of certain things. It is stuffed with eccentric characters, full of clever turns of phrase, heavy with meaning. Consider, for example, the old man living upstairs who has hammered a nail into his bed every day since his wife died. consider Oskar's grandfather, who loses his voice for no reason; or his grandmother who spends years typing her life story on a typewriter with no ribbon; or the pair of them, who find it so difficult living together that they draw up a map of non-spaces in their apartment where they can go and cease, for a while, to exist. And then there's Oskar himself, whose loss leads him to dream up inventions like ambulances so long they stretch right from your house to the hospital, or to imagine a second sewerage system that collects all the tears from under people's pillows and stores them in a reservoir. Watch out! because on really sad days! It overflows!

This kind of writing is either your cup of tea... or it isn't.  To borrow a phrase from an esteemed colleague, 'for those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like'. Others will find that the book has a tendency to wallow and reaches levels of bathos rarely seen outside Hollywood movies from the late '90s starring Robin Williams.

Relationships progress and events become clearer during the course of the book, and we learn a few dark secrets. Everyone is damaged in their own way but grief and loss are the context of the book rather than its subject, a dark undercoat of emotion that always shows through, no matter what brighter colours are painted on top. The resolution is touching in its own way, but somehow seems insignificant, and leaves you feeling as if insight is lacking. A world-shattering event – on a personal or a social level – may make uncomprehending children of the most rational, seasoned commentators, but the book seems deafened and blinded by that which is extremely loud and incredibly close. Foer has retreated from the shock, carefully taken refuge behind the mask of his characters, sought protection in a child's-eye view. Distanciation is a response to trauma: it neutralises the effects. In Everything Is Illuminated, his début novel about the holocaust, the most powerful moments are where the writing became transparent and transcended its voices, precisely where things aren't said – four people in the dark in an empty field standing amongst ghosts, or grandpa's suicide. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is trapped within its characters’ subjectivity, and is somehow anaesthetised in comparison.

This may sound like a mauling, but that's only because the book is good enough to provoke a thoughtful response. It's committed, ambitious and emotional. The ostentatious will always be up for a fall and it takes gumption to tackle the themes he does – far better to take the risk than write conspiracy thrillers. So it's no great criticism that the book brings to mind the proverbial elephant in a dark room that has come to stand as a metaphor for the sort of apocalyptic event exemplified by the WTC attacks: we all scrabble around in the dark describing the bit closest to us – the trunk, the legs, the ears – but no-one comes close to describing the thing in its entirety. It's not even necessarily possible... and you have to be a brave man to try. Foer is a brave man and a great writer; this book shows he knows what he's about and it's impressive. In a way, I hope he runs out of big subjects to write about – he's going through modern atrocities fairly quickly – or finds a way, at least, of stripping the characters away and approaching them as himself. 'cause when he does, it'll be the great American novel.

(Bigups to Henry K)
Contributors retain the copyright to their own contributions. Everything else is copyright © Spannered 2015.
Please do not copy whole articles: instead, copy a bit and link to the rest. Thanks!