Observer review: Extremely Loud and Terribly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer | Books | The GuardianIf Jonathan Safran Foer ever tells his readers what he thinks and feels, he tells it slant. Half of his celebrated debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated , consisted of tiresome magic-realist yarns about a Ukrainian shtetl, written by a quasi-fictional Jonathan Safran Foer. It looks at September 11 through the eyes of Oskar Schell, a weird, precocious 9-year-old whose father died in the World Trade Center collapse. In a novel about the Holocaust, this kind of oblique, even playful, strategy worked, partly because the subject has already been so exhaustively and earnestly explored. But September 11, that spectacular monstrosity plopped into the middle of an ordinary Tuesday in downtown Manhattan, is another matter. This novel, like Everything Is Illuminated , is a braided story, with the main strand told by Oskar. The other strands come in the form of letters and diaries written by his paternal grandparents, middle-class Germans whose psyches were irrevocably maimed by the Allied firebombing of Dresden in
Author on "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"
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Jonathan Safran Foer has marked out for himself the territory of literary prodigy. His first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, conceived while an undergraduate, written in his early twenties, hailed as an original masterpiece, showered with cash, trailed implications. Not the least of these was what he would do next. The answer is to make precocity his subject. But for all its apparatus of confronting the fact of the attack on the Twin Towers, an apparatus which includes, at the back of the book, a reverse flip-through photographic sequence of a person leaping from the burning building, Safran Foer's novel is most specifically a stylistic exercise, an appropriation of a singular American voice.
The hero, a nine-year-old boy called Oskar Schell, has lost his father, Thomas, in the collapse of one of the Twin Towers. Further, he is the only person to have heard the five decreasingly sanguine messages that Thomas, trapped in a meeting at Windows on the World, left on the family answering machine. The novel, traditionally a mirror held up to the Western bourgeoisie, to teach its members how to shave, dress, and behave, has focussed on adult moral choices and their consequences. With some brilliant exceptions like Dickens and Mark Twain and Henry James, novelists have not taken children seriously enough to make them protagonists. However sensitive and observant, the ordinary child lacks property and the capacity for sexual engagement; he exists, therefore, on the margins of the social contract—a rider, as it were, on the imperatives and compromises of others. Yet in recent years a number of young novelists—Stephen Millhauser and Jonathan Lethem, for two—have devoted their most ambitious and energetic efforts to detailing the fervent hobbies and the intoxicating overdoses on popular culture, the estrangement and the dependence that characterize contemporary American childhood. Older novelists up through Joyce, Proust, and Hemingway portrayed the pained shedding of this traditional baggage; the newer novelists, having inherited almost no set beliefs from their liberal, distracted middle-class parents, see childhood as the place where one invents the baggage—totems, rituals, lessons to live by—of a solitary one-person tribe.
Houghton Mifflin Company. ITS title is "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," but it will also be known, inevitably, perhaps primarily, and surely intentionally, as that new Sept. Does a novel with such a high-concept visual kicker and sensational book-club conversation starter even need a title at all? Besides containing a wealth of other photographs and attention-grabbing graphic elements, Jonathan Safran Foer's second novel his first was "Everything Is Illuminated" positively teems with text -- most, but not all, of which takes the form of prose. There's a distinction, of course, and Foer is just the sort of brainy, playful young writer, his critical faculties honed by the academy and his multimedia sensibilities shaped by the Internet and heaven knows what else, for whom this arcane distinction is second nature and a perfect excuse for fun and games. To Foer and his peers who can't really be called experimental, since their signature high jinks, distortions and addenda first came to market many decades back and now represent a popular mode that's no more controversial than pre-ripped bluejeans , a novel is an object composed of pages tattooable with an infinite variety of nonsentence-like signs and signifiers.
Michel Faber sees much to admire, but little to love, in Jonathan Safran Foer's difficult second novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Just as the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center instantly epitomised the clash between Islamic fundamentalism and capitalist hubris.
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Just as the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center instantly epitomised the clash between Islamic fundamentalism and capitalist hubris, the writing of Jonathan Safran Foer has divided readers into vehemently opposed factions. One side has given him a rapturous reception: confetti-showers of praise, numerous prizes including the Guardian First Book award for Everything Is Illuminated, published when he was only 25 and, for this new novel, a fervent endorsement from Salman Rushdie "ambitious, pyrotechnic, riddling, and above all In the opposite camp, Foer's fiction triggers violently allergic reactions. Dissenters dismiss him as an adolescent chatterbox, all artifice and no substance, all cuteness and no grit. I would have preferred not to take sides. But, looking back at my jottings in the margins of Foer's new book, I can't deny how frequently and furiously I've scribbled "Aaaarrghh!