Thursday, May 26, 2005

My love-hate relationship with Jonathan Safran Foer's writing continues ...

It started with his story in the NYT, "The Sixth Borough." Loved it. Cut it out and saved it, even.

Read his first novel, Everything Is Illuminated. Enjoyed a fair amount of it, but found it painful to slog through much of it, what with the Ukrainian kid who learned English from a mutant thesaurus, and at the end, felt cheated somehow because "everything" was NOT illuminated, as far as I was concerned.

Then I read this no-holds-barred take-down piece about JSF's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close in the NY Press, and for a while, I decided I wasn't going to be like everybody else and actually read it. (Granted, the Press is sensationalist and incredibly cruel at times -- just think of the sad incident of the Pope cover story -- but this one still rings somewhat true for me.)

The key excerpt:

Foer is indeed a sampler, throwing in Sebald (the illustrations and Dresden), Borges (the grandparents divide their apartment into something and nothing), Calvino (a tale about the sixth borough that floated off, ripped off wholesale from Cosmicomics), Auster (in the whole city-of-symbols shtick), Night of the Hunter (the grandfather has Yes and No tattooed on his hands) and damn near every other author, technique, reference and symbol he can lay his hands on, as though referencing were the same as meaning.
Still, finally, I relented and got Extremely from the library. I read it and felt like I was having deja vu. For a good deal of the book, it feels like he just went back and rewrote his first novel.

The Holocaust has become 9/11, laced with Dresden and Hiroshima for full comparative effect. But there's still the disjointed, semi-incoherent narrative coupled with a real-time story; the obsession with loss and death; the sex lives of the grandparents; the young narrator who is both innocent and jaded (this time around, a grade-school atheist too afraid to take the subway, who asks to give chaste kisses to "beautiful" ladies, who is aw-shucks adorable one moment and a cloying apple-polisher the next); and silly little expressions ("heavy boots") that are repeated over and over again until they lose whatever novelty they might have had the first or second time we read them.

To his credit, some of these things work better the second time around -- or maybe I was just numb to them by the time I neared the end of his latest. Also, to his credit, he is not a bad writer, and he's quite talented at times. He didn't get this far without some skill and creativity. At times, his writing is a small joy, and perhaps that's why I stuck it out and finished both books, looking for a few good morsels.

The problem is, the author squanders what good faith he garners from his readers by unnecessarily alienating us with photographs and illustrations of things already described clearly enough in the text or typographical peculiarities that, even if they work on some level, still push us away instead of drawing us in.

I hope at the least JSF is somewhere getting a royal kick out of all these tricks-of-print, because they don't make the inherent story better than it is; they detract from it.

(I also felt a little used by how he included a modulated version of the "The Sixth Borough" within the novel's narrative. Authors do publish excerpts and individual stories ahead of full books, but in this case, it felt like shoddy recycling. And there is no reference to the NYT publication in the book's front matter.)

Another thing that made me dread reading certain chapters (so that I could get to the halfway-decent normal parts) was the way he indescribably breaks with conventions of prose. Did he really have to: put lots and lots of spaces after sentences, write entire sections as if they were one endless pages-long sentence with lots of commas, and cram choppy dialogue between characters into one long paragraph instead of breaking it up each time the speaker changes? It would be just as easy to do what everyone else does and attempt to put meaning into the words instead of the fonts and formatting. The first is called composition, the second graphic design.

All of these affectations contribute to the sense that JSF wants us to understand this is an Important Book, when we are really just as likely to come away from it, thinking, "Jonathan Safran Foer is (rather) Pretentious."

So what happens if you strip the book of its quirks and its ostentatious printing marks? JSF still tells a decent story:

A simple story about a boy whose dad dies when he is still young (albiet in the most publicized way of our young century), who clings to things because he misses his father, and goes on a journey around New York and comes to a conclusion that T.S. Eliot put more eloquently and succintly: "We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time." Meanwhile, there is a story about the boy's grandfather: how he left his grandmother (for unexplained reasons), couldn't speak and had to write everything to communicate (for unexplained reasons), and then returns belatedly to meet and befriend his mourning grandson. In the middle, lots of people write letters: some are sent; some are buried.

I did derive some pleasure from reading his tale. So where would JSF be today if he'd written it more like that, instead of all gussied up? I don't know. It's hard to say, since this is his second novel, and somehow people decided to publish his first book, which was even more unreadable at times and had a less coherent structure and conclusion.

But this reminds me of another set of stories:

Once upon a time, there was a boy (me), who like JSF, wrote a letter to a famous author (he chose the now-late Susan Sontag; his 9/11 orphan chooses Stephen Hawking; I chose Joyce Carol Oates). This boy gets a glowing, personalized, but safely vague response back (me, just like JSF -- I assume -- and just like Oskar).

Buoyed by this praise, we head out to conquer the world. Oskar gets over his mourning period, but JSF and I both try our hand at writing fiction.

I read a sappy, heartwarming story with a great twist at the end, which had been forwarded to me via e-mail; it nests in my brain. JSF reads a lot of literature (much of it "experimental") and sees a lot of movies -- I'm assuming here again.

I sit down months later to write my own fiction piece, unknowingly based on that story. It turns out well. I publish it in my family newsletter, and my parents love it. Then I feel really guilty, because they think the idea and the execution are all mine. I mope around and finally admit to them -- my only readers -- that my subconscious basically lifted the premise from that forwarded e-mail, and in a way, I just rewrote it from memory. They say I'm still a good writer, but still I feel guilty. I don't let the story leave the house.

JSF, meanwhile, sits down and writes a full novel using some of his own stuff and some imagined stuff to form a not-all-that-complicated plot, but dresses it up with a lot of other people's hip, cool, out-there writerly techniques and rearranges things for effect. He pads it out with some photos, shrinks or obliterates the text in some places, and then -- wonder of wonders -- gets it published. The buzz machine picks it up and suddenly it becomes the It Fiction about 9/11.

And now he's a millionaire. Doesn't he feel guilty about all this "sampling"?

Perhaps (I show him my LEFT HAND), perhaps (I show him my RIGHT HAND).

Instead I'm left to sit here and suppress my own begrudging envy of him and carry around my own uncompensated guilt for once being so horribly derivative.

That is all, I'm done now. I promise.

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