A lot has changed since the age when Henry James could so easily enumerate, in his book on Hawthorne, all the things America lacked for the sustenance of a serious novelist—historic castles, to begin with, and an army, and museums. We now have castles of commerce and industry, and a grand army, and a Guggenheim Las Vegas. Yet especially in the last twenty years, even as American power increased beyond imagining, the idea became more firmly entrenched, especially in self-consciously young writers publishing first books—Bright Lights, Big City; Generation X; A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius—that, aside from some recreational drug use and anomie, nothing truly momentous could happen here—not “anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight,” as Hawthorne had put it way back when. Real history was elsewhere; the United States was still, as the impeccably dressed KGB agent says to Nathan Zuckerman at the conclusion of Philip Roth’s The Prague Orgy, just “the little world around the corner.”
Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, was in this tradition: an American travels to the Old World in search of the darkness he cannot see at home, and finds it. The book contained two intertwined narratives—the first about the trip to Ukraine of a young Jewish writer named Jonathan Safran Foer, and the second about the Foer family shtetl of Trachimbrod. The story of Trachimbrod zoomed forward in time from 1791 (the chapter headings included the dates) while the story of the American’s trip to Ukraine took him back in time, until the stories converged in 1941, and the Nazi invasion, and the work of the Einsatzgruppen.
Foer’s approach to the material had some advantages, especially his decision to make not Jonathan Safran Foer but his Russian-Ukrainian translator on the trip, Alex, the narrator of the contemporary chapters. (They are accompanied by Alex’s grandfather, also named Alex.) The young Alex writes in a skewed English, boasting of his sexual exploits, and the book’s good parts are the exchanges between him and the quiet, polite, American Jonathan, both of them barely out of their teens:
“What about the girls in America?” “What about them?” “They are very informal with their boxes, yes?” “You hear about them, but nobody I know has ever met one of them.” “Are you carnal very often?” “Are you?” “I inquired you. Are you?” “Are you?” “I inquired headmost. Are you?”
Through Alex, too, we sense a gently ironic attitude toward Americans who would find meaning in their dull lives by going on “heritage” (really: Holocaust) tours to the backwaters of the former Soviet empire. “Before the voyage,” Alex writes, “I had the opinion that Jewish people were having shit between their brains. This is because all I knew of Jewish people was that they paid Father very much currency in order to make vacations from America to Ukraine.” As Americans believed that nothing could really happen in the placid suburban United States, so this Ukrainian was certain that his country was a shithole. Life was elsewhere.
With some insistence, Foer also treated his imagined shtetl ironically. In these sections, narrated omnisciently by the young “Jonathan Safran Foer,” we read of an imagined village wracked by sectarian conflict between the Uprighters (strict adherents to the letter of the law) and the Slouchers (more liberal interpreters who frankly, Foer explains, “couldn’t give a shit”). Yeshiva students decipher a text called The Book of Antecedents, which began as a history of the town but gradually turned into a grand, master gossip column. Safran Foer, the writer’s grandfather, is a highly sought-after sex machine, who pleasures all the women of Trachimbrod seemingly without interruption. These sections were not a satire of an actual shtetl (this had been done), but they were perhaps a satire on the shtetl as it had come to be depicted in American kitsch.
What is treated with the utmost seriousness in the novel is the Holocaust. Early in the narrative a revelation about the actions of Alex’s grandfather during the war is alluded to in Alex’s letters to Jonathan, and continues to be alluded to, and is finally, dramatically, revealed. The story of Trachimbrod turns out to be not merely one of a ribald, foreign old world, but of an old world destined to be violently destroyed. In the destruction of Trachimbrod by the Germans, the Jews are lined up and made to spit on the Torah or else be shot—these deaths are presented not as brutal and nasty, but melodramatic. The same is true of the revelation about Alex’s grandfather: when the Germans came to town they lined up all the inhabitants and forced each one, Jew or gentile, to point out a Jew, who was then taken off and shot. Finally it was the elder Alex’s turn and standing next to him was a man named Herschel. “He was a Jew,” the elder Alex tells the boys in Russian. “Herschel was a Jew,” Alex translates. “And he was my best friend.” “He was his best friend.” “And I murdered him.”
In this first novel, Foer depicts the strange and difficult friendship of a talented, sentimental post-Soviet youth and his privileged American contemporary. For fifty years the West had beamed images of its wonderful life to the Communist countries—and now the residents of these countries were seeing that capitalism wasn’t all fancy houses and trips to the drive-in. Here was something new in the world, and Foer had the acumen to notice it. At the same time he clearly felt that this was not enough. Alex and Jonathan spend a week together and never meet again; instead they write each other letters about the Holocaust.
What does a terrorist attack on the American mainland mean to a writer who has previously treated his country as the sort of place where nothing serious occurs? Foer’s second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, is about a nine-year-old boy, Oskar Schell, from a well-off family on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, who, like his namesake Oskar from The Tin Drum, has suffered a great tragedy: on the morning of September 11, his loving father was in a meeting in Tower Two of the World Trade Center. In the hour after the building was hit by a plane, and as the situation deteriorated, he left a series of messages on the home answering machine. Having returned early from school, Oskar heard the messages. Since that day, this gregarious boy-genius has been filled with anger at his mother (who seems to have taken up with a certain Ron), his schoolmates, who tease him, and his psychologist, who condescends to him. One day while going through his father’s closet Oskar accidentally discovers an envelope with the word “Black” written on it and a key inside. There are no other clues, and Oskar spends the rest of the book going around New York visiting everyone whose last name is Black, trying to find what lock the key can open.
He meets Abby Black, an epidemiologist who lives in a narrow house in the Village; Abe Black, who lives on Coney Island and likes to ride the Cyclone; Ada Black, who is very, very rich. Then there is Mr. A.B. Black, who is one hundred years old and, because he is hard of hearing, speaks exclusively in exclamations. “My wife and I renovated this kitchen ourselves!” he tells Oskar. “With these hands!” This conversation goes on for five pages.
Speed is a traditional mode of novels about rapid episodic journeys. Gogol:
The troika flew up and down the hillocks scattered all along the highway that sloped imperceptibly downward. Chichikov only smiled as he bounced lightly on his leather cushion, for he was very fond of fast driving. And what Russian does not love fast driving?
I wasn’t on the flatboard before the truck roared off; I lurched, a rider grabbed me, and I sat down. Somebody passed a bottle of rotgut, the bottom of it. I took a big swig in the wild, lyrical, drizzling air of Nebraska. “Whooee, here we go!” yelled a kid in a baseball cap, and they gunned up the truck to seventy and passed everybody on the road.
Oskar is afraid of public transportation, so as he walks and takes cabs and is driven around, the speed must come from elsewhere, and it does. “What about a teakettle?” the book begins, pressing forward immediately with a question to the reader, though not exactly a question, a pitch: “What if the spout opened and closed when the steam came out, so it would become a mouth, and it could whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare, or just crack up with me?” The words “extremely loud and incredibly close” describe both the planes that smashed into the towers and Oskar’s narrative style.
Oskar’s grandparents, we learn, were refugees from the wreck of post-war Germany. Oskar’s grandfather, Thomas Schell, a sculptor, lost his fiancée, Anna, and their unborn child during the firebombing of Dresden; Grandma Schell was Anna’s sister, and discovers Thomas in an Upper West Side cafeteria years after they’d both arrived. By then Thomas, still in shock over the devastation of Dresden, has lost the power of speech. He communicates by writing on a pad of paper, and has also had the words YES and NO tattooed on his hands, to avoid wasting ink on those too-common words. The pair marry; eventually the marriage fails, and Thomas Schell returns to Germany, leaving behind a pregnant wife.
We learn almost nothing from Oskar about his grandparents; instead, we get their letters interspersed throughout the novel. Grandma Schell’s are addressed to Oskar, and are distinguished by a dreaminess of tone and a typographical tic, in which all periods are followed by three spaces:
We spent our days trying to help each other help each other. I would get his slippers. He would make my tea. I would turn up the heat so he could turn up the air conditioner so I could turn up the heat.
A realist would blame the failure of the marriage on the utility bills, but Foer is not a realist: the couple breaks up after dividing the apartment into Nothing and Something, with Something ever dwindling. No one ever seems to go to work.
Grandpa Schell, for his part, writes letters which he never sends to his son, Oskar’s father, whom he’s never met. These letters are distinguished by their intense urgency, no doubt a function of their author’s inability to speak:
I tried to count the floors above where the planes had hit, the fire had to burn up through the buildings, I knew that those people couldn’t be saved, and how many were on the planes, and how many were on the street, I thought and thought.
In one section, the elder Thomas Schell is writing so quickly—he is in this way the ultimate Foer narrator—that the kerning of the type keeps shrinking and shrinking until the letters overlap entirely and the page turns black.
After learning of his son’s death in the World Trade Center, Thomas Schell returns to New York and places all his unsent letters into Thomas Jr.’s empty coffin. The unsent letters, the silent communications, the blank book that Oskar’s grandmother writes—all of these symbolize the incommunicability of real human emotions. And the rest of Foer’s novel is filled with a series of typographical and other visual effects, all of them stressing an impatience with the written word as a marker or describer of reality. There are many, many photos; there are pages with colored markings on them; and there is a section written exclusively in numbers, at which John Updike, reviewing the book in The New Yorker, threw up his hands, but which is actually decipherable with the use of cell-phone T9 word-recognition technology. I myself got as far as “My name is el heal.” (“6, 9, 6, 2, 6, 3, 4, 7, 3, 5, 4, 3, 2, 5…”) It would have been helpful had Foer inserted spaces between the words.
For the most part, though, the novel is dominated by the voice of Oskar. Unlike the sardonic, funny, wised-up narrator of Grass’s The Tin Drum, this Oskar is a genuinely annoying nine-year-old. “I could invent a teakettle,” continues his opening pitch,
that reads in Dad’s voice, so I could fall asleep, or maybe a set of kettles that sings the chorus of “Yellow Submarine,” which is a song by the Beatles, who I love….
Oskar invents because he is sad (“in heavy boots,” he calls it):
In bed that night I invented a special drain that would be underneath every pillow in New York, and would connect to the reservoir. Whenever people cried themselves to sleep, the tears would all go to the same place, and in the morning the weatherman could report if the water level of the Reservoir of Tears had gone up or down, and you could know if New York was in heavy boots.
Oskar’s inventing is one of the few aspects of the book in which Foer manages to be genuinely resourceful rather than merely whimsical. On the other hand, the freewheeling invention is locked beneath the author’s stern direction: Oskar is never allowed to create an invention just for the heck of it. Everything matches up. The first paragraph contains a grammatical error (because he’s nine years old), while the “Reservoir of Tears” has to refer to Oskar’s particular, personal brand of sadness (“heavy boots”), and the teakettle has to read in Dad’s voice, because Dad is dead. Some punctilious reviewers objected to the idea that Oskar would be allowed to run around New York without any adult supervision while looking for the right Black; the bigger problem is that Foer never lets his character wander off without an errand.
In fact, there is hardly a line in this book that has not been written for the purpose of eliciting a particular emotion from the reader. The novel is a tearjerker. Oskar is perpetually cute—he has little business cards made up that say “OSKAR SCHELL INVENTOR, JEWELRY DESIGNER…AMATEUR ENTOMOLOGIST…FAX MACHINE: I DON’T HAVE A FAX MACHINE YET.” All the Blacks he meets are burdened in some kind of unnamed way unrelated to September 11, and Oskar says to them the darnedest things: with the very rich Ada Black, “I asked her how it made her feel to know that there were homeless people and millionaires living in the same city.” Oskar! But as we learn at the end of the novel, Oskar’s mom has been calling everyone in advance to tell them Oskar is coming. The ways in which a nine-year-old might threaten the adult world with his unrestrained ego are all hemmed in, controlled, and all the people are nice, and all a little sad and lonely. The skepticism and satire that marked the best parts of Everything Is Illuminated are nowhere in evidence here.
You can see how Foer has handled this material by looking at his sources. Extremely Loud is a mishmash of familiar maneuvers from the modernist and postmodernist canon—not only The Tin Drum, but Calvino and Borges are here, and then more recent works like Helen Dewitt’s The Last Samurai (also about a boy genius) and, most immediately, W.G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction. This is a series of essays about the Allied bombing campaign of German cities in the last years of the war, and on the silence with which the destruction wreaked on Germany by that campaign has been treated in that country for the entire postwar period. Sebald, for his part, hazards a brief description of the effects of the bombing of Hamburg on July 27, 1943:
At one-twenty A.M., a firestorm of an intensity that no one would ever before have thought possible arose. The fire, now rising two thousand meters into the sky, snatched oxygen to itself so violently that the air currents reached hurricane force, resonating like mighty organs with all their stops pulled at once…. At its height, the storm lifted gables and roofs from buildings, flung rafters and entire advertising billboards through the air, tore trees from the ground, and drove human beings before it like living torches.
Images of people turned, awfully, into something else were common in descriptions of September 11. Jonathan Schell, writing just days after the attacks: “In my neighborhood—I live six blocks from the World Trade Center—the heavens were raining human beings.” Foer’s book similarly includes in one of Grandpa Schell’s letters a description of the Dresden bombing (another short section describes the atomic bombing of Japan). Foer’s version of Dresden is both more colorful and less terrible than Sebald’s:
On my way to Anna’s house, the second raid began, I threw myself into the nearest cellar, it was hit, it filled with pink smoke and gold flames, so I fled into the next cellar, it caught fire, I ran from cellar to cellar as each previous cellar was destroyed, burning monkeys screamed from the trees, birds with their wings on fire sang from the telephone wires over which desperate calls traveled, I found another shelter, it was filled to the walls, brown smoke pressed down from the ceiling like a hand….
Sebald’s essay goes on to eviscerate a group of postwar German writers who, in Sebald’s view, treated the destruction of the cities improperly, sentimentally, and even fascistically (“the construction of aesthetic or pseudo-aesthetic effects from the ruins of an annihilated world is a process depriving literature of its right to exist”). In the passage on Hamburg, Sebald is modeling the sort of spare, concrete, only occasionally metaphoric writing that he thinks appropriate to the gravity of what is being described. Foer aestheticizes the scene. The fire, pink and gold and brown, sounds magical instead of horrible. Why is Thomas’s trip from cellar to cellar made to sound like a miniature quest narrative—why are there monkeys in the trees?
The effect of these other catastrophes in the novel is to suggest that all human suffering is equivalent, be it American, German, or Japanese, just as all the people in New York are sad for one reason or another—even the controversial Ron, whom Oskar’s mother was apparently seeing before the caterers had even removed the funeral baked meats, is actually someone she met in a group for bereaved relatives, his wife having died in a car accident.
So all tragedies are the same, and they furnish forth the materials for art. All of them are as carefully choreographed as the Holocaust scenes in Everything Is Illuminated, wherein the Germans come to town led by a blue-eyed general with a scar on his face who theatrically forces every Jew to desecrate the Torah or else be shot. That there was brutal sadism even among the businesslike Einsatzgruppen is beyond question—but the soldiers were drunk, the killing was gruesome, and it usually took place not in the main square but over long ditches dug by POWs. Death was a master from Germany, but he did not stage plays.
Foer makes the same kind of shift—from tragedy to melodrama—in his use of photographs. In Sebald’s work, the photos are typically printed at low resolution and are amateur work; they are sometimes illustrative, like the photos of bombed-out towns in On the Natural History of Destruction, but they are more often casual and ordinary, like the teakettle in the final section of The Emigrants. They complicate the written text by suggesting a documentary record of a disappearing world even as the writing implies that that world is irretrievable. By contrast, many of the pictures in Foer’s book are “art” photos, beautifully composed. In fact, in a book about September 11, there is only one truly horrific set of pictures, which have already been the subject of much discussion. It shows a man falling out of one of the towers, head first, with nothing on either side of him but forty stories of skyscraper and an endless blue sky. The man’s body is contorted. Foer has placed this at the very end of the novel and (very directly recalling the conceit from the most famous book about the destruction of Dresden, Slaughterhouse-Five, in which the bombs go back into the belly of the plane, and the plane goes back across the ocean) reversed the man’s fall, so that as you flip through the last pages of the book you see the man falling upward, back to the top of the tower, and then disappearing entirely, so that the final page of the book is a photo of the tower as it once was.
“And if I’d had more pictures, he would’ve flown through a window, back into the building,” Oskar says. “Dad would’ve left his messages backward, until the machine was empty…. We would have been safe.” Those are the last words in the book (they are followed by the photos) and with them Foer is not suggesting that if we close our eyes and wish hard enough, we can wake ourselves from the nightmare of history and bring back the dead. He is trying to get at the loss by indirection: the relief of its backward respooling suggests the pain of its actual occurrence.
But the effect of the book as a whole is in fact precisely to pull the September 11 attacks out of history—at the very moment when history has been here for a while now. Foer’s use of so many techniques of the “postmodern” novel of the 1960s and 1970s would suggest that he is dealing with phenomena like the ones faced by its writers, and that he is as fundamentally critical of American power and American political discourse as Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis and even Kurt Vonnegut. This is not the case. Rather, he has dressed a commonplace and sentimental response to his times in what are now our parents’ clothes. The eccentric New Yorkers Oskar visits come to seem, very quickly, like props; in the end, he finds the right Black—and learns that the key was in his father’s possession entirely by accident; it was the key to nothing all along.