Not long after the publication of his brilliant and widely acclaimed first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer was named one of the 50 most loathsome New Yorkers by a local literary weekly. That's a stunning mound of abuse to be piled on a writer who was barely a whisker past 25. And it leads one to wonder what further such plaudits lie in wait for an older (he's now 28!), wiser and far more accomplished Foer now that he has published an even more beautiful and brilliant second novel called Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Most loathsome man in the nation? In the hemisphere? The universe? The stinging arrow of literary envy will have to arc extremely high and incredibly long to bring to earth the soaring flight of Foer's very sad and very funny story of nine-year-old Oskar Schell and his grief for his father, a victim of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center.
Fortunately for BookPage, if an Ogre Foer exists, he is nowhere in evidence during a call to the author's home in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. Instead there is merely the polite, charmingly elusive Jonathan Safran Foer, a novelist more likely to answer questions with anecdotes about the lives of poets and painters than with bold, self-regarding statements about his own life and work. Foer is married to the writer Nicole Krauss, who will publish her own second novel later in the spring. They have a dog, whose sudden barking a few minutes into the conversation alerts Foer to the arrival of the meter reader.
"A glimpse behind the scenes," Foer gasps as he struggles to cradle the phone, hold the dog and buzz the gas man in.
Ironically, Foer has just been talking about how important random events are to his work. He has invoked the poets Joseph Brodsky and W.H. Auden and confessed that he likes to write on the move. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, he has noted, was mostly composed in the New York Public Library, at coffee shops and in the homes of friends. "There's something about being out in public and open to the accidents of the world that can be very useful in writing," he continues after the gas man leaves. "I like keeping the environments fresh; it somehow keeps the imagination fresh."
"Fresh." It's an excellent word for Foer's new novel. It describes the language he uses. It suggests a reason for the unreasoning elation a reader feels reaching the fulfilling end of young Oskar's great quest and adventure through the streets of New York. It even describes the look and feel of the book itself.
"A book is a little sculpture," Foer says. "The choice of fonts, the size of the margins, the typography all influence the way the book is read. I consciously wanted to think about that, wanted to have the book really be something you hold in your hands, not just a vehicle for words. So I was involved in every step of the design, right down to how the book is stamped underneath the dust jacket."
Foer, the casual browser will quickly notice, also makes unusual use of photographs and graphics in the text of his novel. Why? "One answer is: why not?" Foer says. "Why don't novels have these things? Why is literature less accepting of the full spectrum of the arts than, say, painting or music? It's not at all strange to see writing within a painting? Why is it so strange to see painting within writing?"
Foer quickly adds, "I also think using images makes sense for this particular book. First because the way children see the world is that they sort of take these mental snapshots; they hoard all these images that they remember 20 or 40 years later. And also because September 11 was the most visually documented event in human history. When we think of those events, we remember certain images planes going into the buildings, people falling, the towers collapsing. That's how we experience it; that's how we remember it. And I want to be true to that experience. One of the important things a novelist does is choose what to look at, what to examine, because the more time you spend looking at something the more sensitive you are to it. . . . I think it's very dangerous to avoid looking at war, at violence. So I really wanted to explicitly look at those things in this book, not only through the writing, which I tried to make as visual and direct as I could, but also through these images."
Foer entices a reader to gaze intently at these troubling issues by projecting the story of Oskar's quest to unlock the secret of his father's life and death against the story of Oskar's grandparents' struggles to create their own lives after surviving the horrific Allied bombing of Dresden during World War II. The brilliance of Foer's storytelling lies in its poignant, wide-hearted, utterly seductive humor. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close brings a reader to that high level of seriousness that only the very best comedy can achieve.
Still, the singular thrill of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is, quite frankly, the utterly engaging and utterly vulnerable character of Oskar Schell. "I felt very, very, very strongly sympathetic with Oskar," Foer says. "There's a way in which he has no skin. I don't mean that he's thin-skinned. There are just no boundaries between himself and the world. Everything is personal and everything that is personal is universal. That's how kids experience the world, and that's how this kid in particular experiences the world." Through the force of his own compassion, Oskar eventually grows up.
And beyond that, Foer will not—or cannot—go. "I'm not at all sure I have the most interesting interpretation of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," he says almost shyly. "One of the nice things about sending a book into the world is that there are so many smart readers who see things in the book that maybe I didn't intend but that now become part of its meaning. For me, the shortest description I could possibly give of my book is the book. If I could have thought of another way to say it or to describe it, I would have done that instead of what I wrote. "
Alden Mudge is a juror for the California Book Awards.