A boy, a key, a journey

  • Article by: CLAUDE PECK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 22, 2011 - 4:02 PM

How writer Jonathan Safran Foer imagined a 9-year-old as the star of one of the country's first post-9/11 novels.


Jonathan Safran Foer

Photo: Judy Griesedieck, Star Tribune

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Even by New York standards, Oskar Schell is no ordinary child.

He wears only white, for example, and when he walks outside he carries a tambourine. At age 9, he's a vegan, speaks passable French and writes regularly to his hero, physicist Stephen Hawking.

One thing he does share with other New York children - with other New Yorkers, period - is despair over the World Trade Center attack on Sept. 11, 2001. In Jonathan Safran Foer's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," Oskar's anguish is heightened because his loving father was killed in the inferno.

Seeking to turn his hurt and anger into action, into something life-affirming, hyperactive Oskar emerges by novel's end as a stand-in for an indefatigable city on the mend.

Not all critics loved Oskar. In his review for the New Yorker, John Updike fretted about spending 300-plus pages with an underage protagonist.

Foer acknowledged the potential for peril, but made no apologies for his youthful narrator. "I just really liked working on him," he said of Oskar during a recent interview. Foer lives in Brooklyn with his wife, novelist Nicole Krauss. He recalled that while his books are heavily revised, the opening passage of "Extremely Loud," an extended Oskar gabfest, remains pretty much as it was when he first invented his 9-year-old smartypants. "Oskar felt like a great vehicle for energy," Foer said. "Also, I just cared about him. I wanted to see what happened to him."

An unlikely literary wunderkind

With his two-day beard, glasses, jeans and T-shirt, Foer, 28, could pass for a slender undergraduate. Thoughtful, focused, unassuming, he sprinkles his speech with metaphors and anecdotes. He rode an unlikely rocket to literary fame when a "Holocaust novel" he started writing as a student at Princeton eventually won him a reported $500,000 advance and came out in 2002 to dozens of good reviews. New York Times critic Francine Prose cited the "brilliance" and "brio" of Foer's language. "Everything Is Illuminated" showed up on the New York Times bestseller list, has sold more than a quarter-million copies, has been translated into 28 languages and brought nearly $1 million at its paperback auction. Debut novels rarely do that kind of business, and this one was not a particularly easy read.

"Everything Is Illuminated" recounts a trip to Ukraine by a young American Jew in search of the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis during World War II.

The novel braids the contemporary trip with a fantastical 200-year history of the grandfather's ancestral village of Trachimbrod. The book's questing narrator, named Jonathan Safran Foer, is soon overshadowed by the much more distinctive Alex, an ambitious, track-suit-wearing young guide with amusingly terrible English.

Los Angeles Times reviewer Mark Rozzo called the book "remarkable" and "powerful," and characterized it as "the first convincing report from Generation Y on the legacy of the Holocaust."

"Everything Is Illuminated" inspired the recently released movie of the same name, with direction and screenplay by Liev Schreiber and with Elijah Wood playing the Foer character. Asked what he
thought of it, Foer laughed and said, "Can I just not answer that?" The movie version focuses entirely on the trip to Ukraine, leaving out about two-thirds of Foer's novel. "Even the third it used it
changed so dramatically," Foer said. "Asking what I thought of it is like asking a father if his daughter looks sexy on prom night. There's no good answer."

First novel was `rejected all over'

Foer points out that breaking into print wasn't all victory parties and check-cashing. In an editing and revising process of more than two years, his first novel was turned down by numerous agents and publishers. "I had a rejection letter that said, `Dear Mr. Foer, What you've written is a work of genius, it's wonderful: I think I'm going to pass,' " Foer told a student audience at the New School, a university in Greenwich Village, in mid-October.

While his first novel "was getting rejected all over," Foer began work on his second. After the attack on the World Trade Center, the book "started to veer toward Sept. 11 almost immediately, sometimes against my desires," Foer said.

The story of "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" picks up a year later, when Oskar is "wearing heavy boots" (his term for grief). He lives with his mom, resents her new boyfriend, and remains close with his grandmother, who lives in the building across the street on Manhattan's Upper West Side. She has been separated for many years from Oskar's grandfather, who stopped speaking after surviving the Allied bombing of Dresden in 1945.

Weighed down by the loss of his father, Oskar lies awake at night inventing things, mainly ones that might make the world safer and happier: His skyscraper moves up and down in a hole in the ground, making elevators obsolete; his birdseed shirt would let someone stranded on a rooftop be carried aloft by birds. He also withholds from his mother the news that he heard several phone messages from his father on the morning of 9/11. "That secret," Oskar says, "was a hole in the middle of me that every happy thing fell into."

When Oskar finds a key in a vase in his dad's closet, he throws himself into figuring out what it might unlock. Since the key was in an envelope with the word "Black" on it, Oskar sets out to meet
everyone named Black in New York, a picaresque series of encounters that runs through the rest of the book, alongside letters to Oskar's father from his grandfather and recollections of Oskar's grandmother. The book also includes photos, color graphics and typographical oddities.

As the narrative progresses, fugue-like set pieces materialize. In one chapter Oskar recalls his dad's lengthy bedtime story, "The Sixth Borough." The bombing of Dresden is recounted in a stream-of-consciousness letter from Oskar's paternal grandfather, who lost his family and his beloved Anna. At certain junctures, as if written on overlapping tissue, the Dresden scenes could be describing Lower Manhattan after 9/11, raising (but leaving unanswered) parallels between the two cataclysms.

Making 9/11 part of literary history

Although in interviews Foer is decidedly anti-Bush in his politics, "Extremely Loud" almost entirely avoids matters of policy, politics or blame. The novel has no mention of Al-Qaida, President Bush, Homeland Security, the war in Iraq or weapons of mass destruction. In a scene atop the Empire State Building, Oskar imagines a plane coming at him, piloted by a terrorist. "I imagined us looking each other in the eyes when the nose of the plane was one millimeter from the building. I hate you, my eyes would tell him. I hate you, his eyes would tell me." A geopolitical stalemate.

"When Bush talks about America, I don't know what he means, and I don't know if I'm included in that," Foer said when asked about the paucity of topical references in his novel. While politicians
always try to speak for their constituency, Foer went on, "in novels when you talk about one person at a time, you can actually do something much bigger, when you see the ways that we're different from each other and similar to each other - which is what novels always do. That's a very political thing. That inspires political change, I think, much more than generalities. You don't want to kill someone that you know something about."

In answer to a question about the role of literature in assessing such giant public events as 9/11 or the Holocaust, Foer asked: "Is Tom Brokaw smarter or better than Philip Roth?"

"Extremely Loud" put Foer among the first novelists to tackle the subject after a fairly lengthy period of silence. Yet it is less a novel about 9/11 than "an aftereffect, both imaginative and psychological" of the event's impact on its main character, said author and critic Dale Peck (no relation), a friend of Foer's in New York.

"What he did with this novel was to make 9/11 part of literary history, to make it legitimate subject matter for the literary novel," Peck said. "He wanted to say that Literature Can, and that's a big bold thing to do. That's bound to be controversial. The one political statement here is that art responds to history and brings it within its purview."

So how does Oskar, plagued with insomnia, depression, anxiety and even self-mutilation (he bruises himself when he gets really down), deal with his loss? In ways that seem somehow to apply both to him as an individual and to all New Yorkers. He attacks the mystery of the key with a blistering work ethic, logging miles traversing Manhattan and the outer boroughs to meet with people. He writes his feelings voluminously (neurotically?) in his scrapbook. He works through the animosity he feels toward his surviving parent. And in the end, he moves toward maturity, assuring his mother, "I promise I'm going to be better soon. ... I'll be happy and normal." For readers enamored of Oskar's eccentricities, that's a promise both noble and slightly tragic.

Claude Peck - 612-673-7977

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