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Some Stuff, Illuminated

Photo by Jay Muhlin

“I am probably the most hated writer in America,” says Jonathan Safran Foer. It’s not hard to figure out why. For his first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, he was paid an advance of $500,000 — a colossal sum for a then 24-year-old unknown in a financially strapped industry. Worse, for those more likely to receive a $500 advance for a first novel, the book went on to sell 100,000 copies in hardback and another 150,000 or so in paper. It was also translated into scads of languages. Not bad for a decidedly “literary” work of fiction partly narrated in eccentric fashion by a vainglorious Ukrainian for whom English is at best a second language, and at times more like an imaginary one. (“My legal name is Alexander Perchov,” it began. “But all of my many friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name.”) The novel received ecstatic reviews, and, adding insult to injury to his foes, the movie version, directed by Liev Schreiber, will be released this summer.


I meet Foer, who is now 28, at a café in Brooklyn. Disappointingly, he is not wearing an outrageously expensive suit, designer sunglasses and a silk T-shirt bearing the legend “Brooklyn’s Richest and Most Critically Acclaimed Young Novelist.” On the contrary, he wears a hooded blue sweatshirt bearing the name of an obscure radio station. He has thick brown hair, eyes that are alternately dreamy, humorous and shrewd, and jarringly white teeth. His slender wedding ring (he is married to the novelist Nicole Krauss) looks too large for his slender finger. Though his photograph is posted by the front door advertising an upcoming reading, he might be anyone. What a drag. Doesn’t anybody know how to swank about anymore? I was so hoping he’d have a red Ferrari parked outside, preferably with a couple of supermodels in it.


But Foer doesn’t seem the type. His new novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (for which he was paid an advance of $1 million) is unlikely to change that. He gets up at 6:30 a.m., goes to bed at 9, and shuns the bright lights — he’s the anti–Jay McInerney. His best friend, the peripatetic L.A.-based artist Sam Messer, is almost twice his age but told me he feels as if he’s the young one. Foer nods in agreement when I mention this.



“Once Sam and I went out to Norfolk, Connecticut, where he runs a summer camp for Yale. They were having a party, and I was in bed at, like, 9:30. And I heard him calling through the window, ‘You fucking old man! Get up!’”


Everything Is Illuminated was a daunting act to follow, but Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close appears to have just about done the trick. Narrated by a 9-year-old magician whose father dies in the attack on the World Trade Center, the novel is as quirkily imaginative — or terminally cute, depending on your viewpoint — as its predecessor, and could have been written by no one else. There is scant pretense at realism, except the magical kind. (Oskar’s name is a nod to Oskar Matzerath, the hero of Günter Grass’ magical-realist masterpiece, The Tin Drum.) Not only is little Oskar permitted to spend his weekends wandering unsupervised around the five boroughs of New York as he searches for a lock that fits a mysterious key his father left behind, his companion on his travels is a 104-year-old man who, until Oskar showed up to lure him outside, hadn’t left his apartment in 30 years.


The novel looks unusual as well: It’s, er, illustrated. There are loads of photographs (of birds, tribal masks, keyholes, primates, doormen, cats, turtles, hands, and even that most unliterary of tennis players, the Australian Lleyton Hewitt), supposedly culled from Oskar’s Web searches, along with blank pages, pages with one word on them, pages that are nothing but numbers, pages with writing so small it’s illegible, pages handwritten in colored ink, and, at the very end, pages that, when you riffle through them quickly, send a man falling from the top of the World Trade Center soaring backward, up toward the sky and his own office.


“No art is as protective of its boundaries as literature,” says Foer, who thinks the photographs are no big deal. “If I were a painter, and I incorporated text into a picture, no one would think twice about it. But to incorporate images into a novel, people call it ‘experimental,’ which is ridiculous. Literature borrows less from other art forms than any other art form does, and I think there’s so much room to do it.”


Though he says it’s still early enough in the promotional process for him to enjoy discussing his novel, Foer also says that it’s hard to talk about it, or at least about writing. “There’s a saying that an ant is not an entomologist. Just because you are a thing doesn’t mean you know why you do things,” he explains. “You just happen to be that thing.”


One aspect of his book Foer definitely doesn’t seem comfortable discussing is its apparent thematic similarity to his wife’s new novel, The History of Love, which will be published in May. A cursory glance at the plot summary of Krauss’ novel on Amazon.com suggests the two novelists have some shared preoccupations (octogenarian World War II refugees in New York, fathers who have never met their sons). Foer seems a bit defensive on the subject, though no accusation is being leveled. He and his wife do not discuss their work, he says. “I didn’t look at her book, and she didn’t look at my book, until we were done.” In fact, since Krauss writes at home and he does his writing in cafés and libraries, they don’t even inhabit the same space while at work.




Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is not the book that Foer set out to write. Writing for him is a process of discovery, a lengthy and emotionally taxing solo improvisation, and it was only after months of going at it that he even realized he had started to write a novel in which September 11, along with the firebombing of Dresden in 1945, was destined to play a prominent role. Initially, the idea of writing about such a supercharged and heavily documented subject as 9/11 worried him once he realized he was doing it.


“My first thought was, ‘Oh, shit.’ And then I thought, why am I thinking ‘Oh shit’? Did Tom Brokaw think, ‘Oh shit, I have to cover this as a journalist’? No. It goes without saying. Nobody questioned whether he was right to cover it. So why do we question so much whether an artist is right to approach the subject matter? I think it’s because people are suspicious of art, and because people hate art, actually, people hate artists. The idea of taking a tragedy and using it for artistic ends — doesn’t that sound bad? It sounds bad. But why does it sound bad? It shouldn’t sound bad. Using tragedy for artistic ends is a great thing. I don’t trust Tom Brokaw’s sense of what’s important more than I trust Philip Roth’s.”


If Foer sounds a bit paranoid about the social status of art and artists, one can more or less understand. True, his paychecks are handsome and he was recently the subject of an adoring profile in The New York Times magazine, but he was also the object of a withering parody in the New York Observer, and he claims to be a regular punching bag for envious literati on the Internet.


“I get made fun of very widely,” he says. “I’m a favorite target of bloggers. I mean, really. I don’t look for it, but my little brother is generous enough to forward me the meanest stuff! What can you say? It’s fine. Somebody once said the world is full of petty ‘resentniks’ — I love that word, ‘resentniks.’ There are a lot of angry people, and thank God they don’t get their voices out there too much.”


The movie rights to Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close have already been sold, but Foer says he has no interest in adapting his novel for the screen. “I did it. I have nothing more to say about it, and I certainly don’t want to get involved in a process with 4,000 shitheads who’ll think everything I do and say is stupid,” he says firmly. “I don’t like committees.”


So is he already at work on his next novel? Foer winces. Looks pained. It’s too early even to think about such a thing, he groans. “I feel like I just gave birth, and I’m so sore, and to be asked that question . . .”


Point taken. No further questions.



Jonathan Safran Foer appears at the L.A. Times Festival of Books on Saturday, April 23, at 11:30 a.m. in Moore 100 for the panel “Fiction: Taking a History.”



EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE | By Jonathan Safran Foer | Houghton Mifflin | Hardback | 326 pages | $25



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