Not too long ago Logan and I had a little text dialogue about Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. It made me feel a bit guilty. I have convinced many people over the last two years to read that novel despite knowing, as Logan so aptly stated, that “it is more imprinting than impressive.” While I recommend it more than almost any other novel, it is not because I love it but because I feel it contains a valuable potential proverb.
The novel is about three characters who are struggling but failing to live in any way that isn’t grieving. They have all suffered great loss. Oskar lost his father in 9/11. His grandparents lost everyone they loved during the bombing of Dresden (a city that was almost completely destroyed during WWII). Their loss only leads them to more loss. To the loss of their ability to live at all. They’re more like ghosts than people. Foer captures this powerfully in the Grandfather’s loss of language itself. In a letter to Oskar that his Grandmother writes in which she says, “I miss you already. I missed you even when I was with you. That’s been my problem. I miss what I already have, and I surround myself with things that are missing.”
“It is ironic that Foer’s first novel is named Everything is Illuminated,” Logan said. “He doesn’t use the past to illumine, but to forsake.” These characters forsake the possibility of present joy for the unchanging injury of the past. For this very reason, I think it is almost impossible to love the book. Yet, this is also what makes it so imprinting.
Like Lot’s wife who couldn’t help but look back at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra, like Kurt Vonnegut who couldn’t help but look back at the destruction of Dresden, Foer’s characters are pillars of salt. This is their failure, it is the novel’s greatest flaw, and also why I cannot help but recommend it.*
In one of its central chapters, Oskar plays for his class an interview with a woman who recounts living through one of the atomic bombs. You as the reader get to experience it from her perspective as she recounts the desolation. It is powerful and horrific, especially as she tells you about her daughter, with melted skin embedded with maggots, dying in her arms. An interviewer asks her at the end why she’s sharing this painful memory. Why she wants it recorded for others to hear. Her answer is that she feels that if everyone could experience that devastation, if everyone could understand the human cost of war, there would never be another war. I sent Foer a letter telling him that I felt similarly about his novel.
To me, that novel is a tangible warning like a pillar of salt. Not a warning not to look back, a warning not to confusing fixing your eyes on the past as living.
Have you read this novel? Did you have a different impression of it?
*The film, that was recently released, actually succeeds where the novel fails. I was impatient for it to come out because I felt that it might fulfill the potential the story had to affirm life. I was not disappointed. While the novel is memorable but not quite good, the film is actually good. It achieves what I think most readers hope for the characters.