In the autumn of 1999, the American literary journal Conjunctions ran a series of reproductions of pages from a pocket diary that had belonged to Isaac Bashevis Singer. In capital letters, Singer – who emigrated from Poland to America in 1935 – filled page after page with lists of words:
15 JULY: SILT, IMPINGE, OVERLAP, WIREPULLER. 24 JULY: DOCILITY, CEREBRATIONS, INSIDIOUS, AFTERMATH. 29 JULY: PARSON, METTLE, SQUIP, IMP, EKE OUT.
Next to each, a Yiddish translation or transliteration appeared, as well as an English definition or example (‘his mettle and stature as a dramatist’). The significance of these lists in Singer’s life was explained in an introductory note by a Conjunctions associate editor, an unknown 22-year-old American called Jonathan Safran Foer. ‘These pages of Singer’s are not great literature,’ Foer wrote. ‘Surely they were never intended to be published’:
But like all great literature, like the stories, plays and poems by which these 18 days are now surrounded, they are the product of a seemingly impossible faith in communication – of person to person, idea to utterance, mind to hand to paper – a faith made so much more impossible in the new era of Babel in which Singer was learning English.
In his own writing, Foer has shown both an unusual faith in the power of written communication and a true believer’s willingness to test its limits. Although most readers became aware of Foer in 2002 with the release of his wildly popular first novel, Everything Is Illuminated (250,000 copies sold in the US), a glance at his earlier output shows how carefully and inventively he has been approaching the project of putting ‘mind to hand to paper’. ‘Finitude: Selections from the Permanent Collection’, published in Conjunctions in 2000, is a suite of historical elaborations and inventions, meant to be taken as the wall-tags explaining artefacts in a museum:
Shakespeare’s Parrot’s Parrot’s Parrot’s Parrot’s Parrot’s Parrot’s Parrot’s Parrot’s Parrot’s Parrot’s Parrot. 1942–? Striped West Indian Parrot, approx. 14 x 5 in. Museum purchase.
Little is known of the man who is widely considered the greatest writer in history. The best insight into who he was may lie in the parrot perched before you, a tenth-generation descendant of the parrot given to Shakespeare in 1610 as a gift by his friend and fellow poet Michael Drayton. The Bard was exceedingly fond of the bird, and would speak to her as one might write in a journal – to chronicle, reflect and confess. When he died of fever six years later, Anne Hathaway kept the parrot, and introduced into its cage a younger parrot, to learn what the older could teach it. She never spoke to either of them, and forbade guests from speaking in their presence. A line of Shakespeare’s parrots was raised in the painstaking silence of her love, and when she died, our reverence. And so we ask you not to speak while in this sound-proof room, but only to listen. We ask you not to compromise the ever-weakening but direct line from this parrot to Shakespeare. And when it begs you, ‘Talk to me,’ as it has the habit of doing, we ask you not to give it the company of your voice – it is not the parrot, remember, who begs to be talked to, and while Shakespeare may reach us through the parrot, it will never work in the other direction.
What begins in the easy comedy of parroting parrots quickly becomes an uneasy parable about communication. Plotlessly, the story proceeds from ‘The Stones in Virginia Woolf’s Pockets, 1941’ (‘Burgled’), to ‘Sophia Tolstoy’s Carpal Tunnels, 1863’ (‘After transcribing War and Peace for the ninth time, Sophia Tolstoy lifted her wrists to the sky, tried to unball her fingers, and let her numb fists fall to the table: “I’m Sorry”’), before depositing us at last in front of ‘Lincoln’s Mirror, 1865’:
What you are looking at is the mirror that Abraham Lincoln looked into as he tried on the Brooks Brothers suit that he would wear to the performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater on 15 April 1865. If it were a wall before you, the wall that Lincoln looked at as he tried on the suit that he would wear to his assassination, you would think little of it. If it were the final portrait of Lincoln, or his last penned letter, or Mary Todd’s blood-spattered glove, or even the suit he wore that last night of his life, it would not affect you as looking into this mirror now does. What is it, then, that you think you see?
What you saw, in this inventive, idea-laden fiction (in addition to Foer’s historical curiosity and wry humour) was his ability to take what could have been merely a cutesy-clever formal notion and, through the fineness of the writing, transform it into something far more substantial. And by ‘fineness’ I do not mean a conspicuous, spotlight-seeking style. Rather, the fineness of an interesting mind at work. By assembling a group of short pieces all grounded in the idea of the finite – the limits of what we can know about Shakespeare from his parrot’s descendants; of what Sophia Tolstoy could manage to transcribe; of what Virginia Woolf could bear – Foer provided in ‘Finitude’ a reading experience that took imaginative flight. No narrative answer was provided to resolve these disparate exhibits; instead, through juxtaposition, an elegant question was posed.
Foer’s first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, is also an assemblage of unlikely parts, on a more monumental scale. Set against the historical backdrop of the Holocaust, Foer’s story has two distinct narrators: a young Ukrainian called Alex Perchov, and a young American called Jonathan Safran Foer. In baroquely butchered, often terrifically funny English, Alex gives a first-person account of a trip Jonathan – ‘the hero’ – makes to Ukraine: ‘It was pending this five-hour car drive from the Lvov train station to Lutsk that the hero explained to me why he came to Ukraine. He excavated several items from his side bag. First he exhibited me a photograph. It was yellow and folded and had many pieces of fixative affixing it together.’ The photograph, taken in 1943, was of Jonathan’s grandfather, Safran, and three other people – a girl and her parents. Jonathan and his family believe that the girl saved Safran from the Nazis: the Germans raided Safran’s town of Trachimbrod in 1942, killing most of its 1204 Jews. Jonathan comes to Ukraine to unlock the mystery of how Safran survived, with the photograph as his key. Alex’s high-energy account of that search – involving long car trips with his petulant grandfather and a flatulent dog – alternates with Jonathan’s account of the history of Trachimbrod. Jonathan, however, knows as much about the history of Trachimbrod as he does about the identity of the woman in the photograph: whereas Alex’s narration is meant to be taken as fact, within the world of the novel, Jonathan’s is to be appreciated as invention. He describes his great-great-great-great-great-grandmother being swaddled in unusual fashion by her father:
He made a bed of crumpled newspaper in a deep baking pan and gently tucked it in the oven, so that she wouldn’t be disturbed by the noise of the small falls outside. He left the oven door open, and would sit for hours and watch her, as one might watch a loaf of bread rise . . . When he pulled her out to feed or just hold her, her body was tattooed with the newsprint . . . AVRUM R KILLED IN FLOUR MILL MISHAP, LEAVES BEHIND A LOST SIAMESE CAT OF FORTY-EIGHT YEARS, TAWNY, CHUBBY, BUT NOT FAT, PERSONABLE, MAYBE A LITTLE FAT, ANSWERS TO ‘METHUSELAH’, OK, FAT AS SHIT. IF FOUND, FREE TO KEEP. Sometimes he would rock her to sleep in his arms, and read her left to right, and know everything he needed to know about the world. If it wasn’t written on her, it wasn’t important to him.
At once tender (‘If it wasn’t written on her, it wasn’t important to him’), creepy (safeguarding a Jewish baby in an oven), and funny, Jonathan’s narration is as unlikely to provide historical enlightenment as Alex’s is to offer grammatical instruction. And yet, the careful grounding of Jonathan’s narrative in palpable detail – father must read daughter ‘left to right’, not right to left, because the flow of Hebrew characters, transferred to skin, has been reversed – gives substance to what, less carefully conceived, might otherwise have floated weightlessly off the page.
In the novel’s first half, Foer handles the alternation and juxtaposition of these different strands with tremendous finesse. The gaps between the different voices telling related stories, like the spaces between the exhibits in his short fiction, crackle with expectation. After a day spent getting no closer to Trachimbrod or to the identity of the woman in the photograph, the search party happens upon an old woman sitting outside a little tumbledown house, another person to whom Alex expects he will show the photograph ‘with no fruit’. While Jonathan sleeps in the car with the flatulent dog, Alex talks to the old woman.
Ten times he asks her: ‘Have you ever witnessed anyone in the photograph?’ Each time she answers no, each ‘no’ sounding ‘like a different variety of no’ until, finally he asks a different question: ‘Has anyone in this photograph ever witnessed you?’
Another tear descended.
‘I have been waiting for you for so long.’
I pointed to the car. ‘We are searching for Trachimbrod.’
‘Oh,’ she said, and she released a river of tears. ‘You are here, I am it.’
The power of the scene derives not from the completeness of the answer it provides but the sufficiency of it: if this woman is all that is left of the past, doesn’t that say enough?
Unfortunately, both for the novel and its readers, much more remains to be told. Too many questions, delicately posed at the outset, are given clumsy answers by the end, the narrative taking on the programmatic inevitability of a forced march. For the wonder of the book, in its first half, is how Foer manages to make each strand approach the matter of the Shoah imaginatively, and from a useful distance: whether through the humour of Alex’s impossible English or the tenderness of Jonathan’s implausible fiction, the reader is freed to leave the obligations of official history and witness memoir behind. The question raised by Jonathan’s photograph of his grandfather with the woman who supposedly saved him is, after all, rhetorical: how did anyone survive? And what does it mean to survive such a thing? Rather than allowing these questions to resonate, however, Foer forces them to a facile resolution. For, yes, we come to hear an eye-witness account of the day in 1942 that Trachimbrod was erased from the world. But the scene has none of the realistic detail, however ‘magical’, of Hebrew read backwards off a baby. It is underimagined, with reason, but the wrong kind: it isn’t there to communicate ‘idea to utterance’, as Foer described Singer’s project, or to extend ‘the ever-weakening but direct line’ of a voice from the past to an ear in the present. Rather, we witness a scene of Jews being murdered to serve the novel’s plot: Alex’s grandfather hears the tale of Jews being lined up and shot, and – Shazam! – recovers his memory, long repressed. For, irony of ironies, it turns out that, in a shtetl near Trachimbrod, he had – gasp – abetted the Nazis in their murder of the Jews. Of all the tour guides in Ukraine . . .
Foer seems to know as much. You can sense his unease with the course his novel is taking, its increasingly plodding second half, its jerry-rigged resolution. Nowhere is this more evident than in the book’s final section. As the grandfather, unable to live with himself in the light of the newly remembered truth, writes out his suicide note, it cuts off, mid-sentence: ‘I will walk without noise, and I will open the door in darkness, and I will . . .’ It is as if Foer, too late in the game, were trying to leave flapping the ends of what has already been far too obviously tied in a bow.
If Everything Is Illuminated has its flaws, they are flaws common in first novels. Far more than the book’s lapses, though, its uncommon successes lingered in the mind, Foer’s linguistic flair, his sense of humour, his imagination, and his ability to surprise a reader with moments of improbable emotion: his talent was memorable. Given that seven years have passed since a 20-year-old Foer wrote the first draft of Everything Is Illuminated, it is not unreasonable to maintain perhaps exaggerated hopes for his second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The central character is Oskar Schell, an upper-middle-class Manhattan nine-year-old. On the morning of 11 September 2001, Oskar and the rest of his classmates are sent home early from school. With his mother and father at work, Oskar returns to an empty apartment where five answering machine messages greet him:
Message one. Tuesday, 8:52 a.m. Is anybody there? Hello? It’s Dad. If you’re there, pick up. I just tried the office, but no one was picking up. Listen, something’s happened. I’m OK. They’re telling us to stay where we are and wait for the firemen. I’m sure it’s fine. I’ll give you another call when I have a better idea of what’s going on. Just wanted to let you know that I’m OK, and not to worry. I’ll call again soon.
There were four more messages from him: one at 9.12, one at 9.31, one at 9.46, and one at 10.04. I listened to them, and listened to them again, and then before I had time to figure out what to do, or even what to think or feel, the phone started ringing.
It was 10.22.27.
I looked at the caller ID and saw that it was him.
Oskar’s father, Thomas Schell, is calling from Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the north tower of the Trade Center. ‘The worst day’ is how Oskar will refer to the morning his father died, one of many euphemisms he employs to describe his fragile state of mind during the weeks and months that follow.
For Oskar is as hollowed out by loss as his last name suggests. When he is overwhelmed by sadness, he tells us he is wearing ‘heavy boots’; when he is overcome with pain for which he has no safe outlet, he says ‘I gave myself a bruise’ – his body growing covered with the marks of his self-abuse. ‘Even after a year,’ he tells us,
I still had an extremely difficult time doing certain things, like taking showers, for some reason, and getting into elevators, obviously. There was a lot of stuff that made me panicky, like suspension bridges, germs, airplanes, fireworks, Arab people on the subway (even though I’m not racist), Arab people in restaurants and coffee shops and other public places, scaffolding, sewers and subway grates, bags without owners, shoes, people with moustaches, smoke, knots, tall buildings, turbans . . . It was worst at night. I started inventing things, and then I couldn’t stop, like beavers, which I know about. People think they cut down trees so they can build dams, but in reality it’s because their teeth never stop growing, and if they didn’t constantly file them down by cutting through all of those trees, their teeth would start to grow into their own faces, which would kill them. That’s how my brain was.
It’s fair to say that Oskar’s brain is unusually sharp for a nine-year-old, but, as he says, he started inventing things to ‘dull’ it (‘What about a teakettle? 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?’) to take his mind off what he otherwise can’t stop thinking about: ‘I thought about the falling body.’
‘The falling body’ is a photo Oskar downloaded from the internet and which, he worries, not unreasonably, could be of his father, the exact nature of whose death will remain for ever unknown. It is a photo the reader sees as well, at many key moments in the narrative. There are, too, a great many other images which are meant to mimic the ones Oskar slips into a scrapbook he calls ‘Stuff That Happened to Me’. A locksmith’s wall of uncut keys; a police fingerprint card; the façade of a Greenwich Village townhouse; a close-up of an elephant’s eye: artefacts of Oskar’s travels through the city, snapshots he takes with a camera that belonged to his grandfather. These photos ground the reader in the very real world of 9/11, Foer asking us to believe in Oskar as a real live boy. They are also meant to connect us instantly to the reality of Oskar’s emotional world. Oskar remembers an evening when his father tucked him in:
The front page was spread over us like a blanket. There was a picture of a tennis player on his back, who I guess was the winner, but I couldn’t really tell if he was happy or sad.
‘Dad?’ ‘Yeah?’ ‘Could you tell me a story?’ ‘Sure.’ ‘A good one?’ ‘As opposed to all the boring ones I tell.’ ‘ Right.’ I tucked my body incredibly close into his, so my nose pushed into his armpit. ‘And you won’t interrupt me.’ ‘I’ll try not to.’ ‘Because it makes it hard to tell a story.’ ‘And it’s annoying.’ ‘And it’s annoying.’
The moment before he started was my favourite moment.
It’s not just any ‘favourite moment’: it’s Oskar’s father putting him to bed on the night of 10 September. Funny, the things we don’t forget: 51 pages later, there’s a photograph of a tennis player. He is lying on his back on a court, fist pumped, mouth open, and you can’t ‘really tell if he was happy or sad’. We can tell, though, that Oskar has scrapbooked it because it reminds him of the final favourite moment of his life thus far. And, because the tennis player’s sprawl looks a lot like a certain falling body, it rhymes with Oskar’s fears. Many such rhymes play through the novel (doorknobs, at first an inscrutable presence, take on a number of meanings). Not, though, that the success of the book depends on our seeing them immediately: Foer has put a great deal else into the works to keep us busy.
Oskar’s narration is joined by those of his paternal grandparents, the chapters moving forward in a repeating pattern (Oskar; Grandfather; Oskar; Grandmother). Both grandparents are writing letters: the grandfather to Oskar’s father; the grandmother to Oskar. The grandfather, we come to understand, left his wife when she was pregnant; his letters are written to the son he abandoned. Even after he learns he died on 9/11, he continues to write to him: ‘I wish we could have sat across a table and talked about nothing for hours, I wish we could have wasted time, I want an infinitely blank book and the rest of time.’ Oskar’s grandmother is writing a sort of valediction to her grandson, about her life. She types her letters, and favours the space bar, and is willing, when writing to a grandson who has just lost his father, to risk treacle:
When I was a girl, my life was music that was always getting louder. Everything moved me. A dog following a stranger. That made me feel so much. A calendar that showed the wrong month. I could have cried over it. I did. Where the smoke from a chimney ended. How an overturned bottle rested at the edge of a table.
I spent my life learning to feel less.
That she was learning to feel less isn’t a platitude meant to cool a boy’s ears: it’s a matter of fact. When, in her Second World War childhood in Dresden, the city was destroyed by the Allies, her sister, Anna, with whom she shared a bed (‘I had never felt so in love in my life and I have not felt so in love since’), was killed. She lost the person she loved most, who, too, was the person the man she went on to marry loved most. For Thomas Schell, another child of Dresden, was going to marry Anna when the city was bombed: Anna was pregnant. Years later, in New York, Thomas runs into Anna’s little sister in a bakery. They marry, sharing a love not for each other but for the one they lost.
Lost: like the person Oskar loved most, his father. The three narrations are united by a common need. Each is telling a survivor story, trying to put into words what it is, as Oskar’s grandmother puts it, to be undone, your whole world with it:
Eve put the apple back on the branch. The tree went back into the ground. It became a sapling, which became a seed.
God brought together the land and the water, the sky and the water, the water and the water, evening and morning, something and nothing.
He said, Let there be light.
And there was darkness.
Soon after his father’s death, hiding from his mother, who he feels is trying to move on too quickly (who he suspects is dating already, or at the very least playing too much Scrabble with a man called Ron), Oskar shatters a vase in his father’s closet. Revealed is an envelope with ‘Black’ written on it; inside, a tantalisingly unmarked key. Oskar, who desperately needs something for his beaver-toothed brain to gnaw on, comes up with the crackpot nine-year-old’s idea that he will track down the lock it fits and, in so doing, find out something about his dad, perhaps the last new thing about him he will come to know. And so, after reaching the standing-on-tip-toe conclusion that the key must belong to someone in New York called Black, Oskar looks them all up in the phone book and begins to visit them, one by one. And, because he won’t take public transport (out of terror) or taxis (because he doesn’t want his mom to find out) he visits them (in Harlem, in Brooklyn) on foot.
In post 9/11 New York City.
For eight months.
The improbability of this conceit, particularly in the light of the black and white photographs reminding us of the reality of 9/11 New York (including the one of a real man falling from a real tower to a real death), seems sure to topple the enterprise with coyness. One can’t have it both ways, and the tug between the improbable and the factual opens a gulf that calls into question just how in control of things Foer is. This improbability gulf is only widened by inconsistencies that nip at the novel’s heels: as a number of American reviews have noticed, a nine-year-old who knows, thanks to the wonders of the internet, what cum is, would also know that a pussy isn’t only a tabby; and no nine-year-old, however brainy, would have the emotional maturity to observe of his sudden, post-traumatic tendency to use valuable stamps from his collection on common mail that it ‘made me wonder if what I was really doing was trying to get rid of things’.
And yet, once you get past some sloppy stage-setting and the unlikeliness of Oskar’s quest (which, it turns out, was less a matter of improbability than, in a storytelling miscue, Foer’s withholding too much for too long) the novel earns your trust. Whereas Everything Is Illuminated grows more ponderous and preposterous, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close improves and deepens. The imaginative terrain it rests on, and to which Foer is staking a maturing claim, is a place where fact can make room for fiction, and fiction accommodate fact. Coming out of a period during which our horrors have become ‘unimaginable’, Foer’s imagining of Oskar’s wish, to which the novel movingly builds, is a reminder that fiction, unlike life, finds a value in wishes that don’t come true.