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Painting with words
In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, author Jonathan Safran Foer makes September 11 the canvas for his portrait of the dimensions of tragedy
BY NINA MACLAUGHLIN

BROOKLYNíS PARK SLOPE neighborhood was bright and cold last Friday afternoon, and kids were everywhere. Chasing pigeons in the playground, hanging from the jungle gym, squealing at each other on their way home from school. Jonathan Safran Foer emerged from this tangle of loose limbs upright and contained, his hands pocketed into a simple dark coat. Although much is made of his youth, and although he is slight of frame, there was no mistaking him for a child.

Why should it be otherwise? Because at 28, not only is the acclaimed novelist unusually young to have achieved great literary success, but he writes with an urgent, childlike exuberance. In Everything Is Illuminated, which he began as a senior at Princeton and published at age 25, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which just hit shelves last week, Foer makes imaginative leaps that are, at once, sensitive, brutal, and worldly.

We sat together at a small table by the window of a coffee shop a few blocks from the school and all those kids. Foer is a compact person with narrow shoulders ó all neatness, wearing a tucked-in blue-and-black-checked button-down and delicate glasses. He doesnít use his hands when he speaks. He doesnít raise his voice. He isnít someone youíd notice entering a room. It seems as though his conversation might falter in large groups. Yet for all the compactness of his bearing, his mind is spectacularly expansive.

Foer talks of how a certain misleading picture has been painted of him. "Iím very often talked about as earnest," he says. Itís not wrong, he adds, but his brothers ó Joshua and Franklin, journalists who also had precocious beginnings ó wouldnít describe him that way. Besides, anyone familiar with his writing detects a nose for the absurd, a shrewd appreciation of guile, a quality that several admirers in the literary world have described as "demented." Perhaps these baroque attributes, rather than "earnestness," explain why everything Foer says is so carefully considered. Thereís a discipline in the way he speaks: he expresses big, complex ideas in a concise and comprehensible way. If there were a word for articulate-in-the-extreme, the way "nightmare" describes an extra-bad dream, it would be used to describe Foer.

With the written word, too, Foer is drawn to things in extremis. In both his novels, the setting ó the "canvas," as he calls it, "onto which the story is told" ó is large-scale human tragedy: the Holocaust in Illuminated, and the World Trade Center attacks in Incredibly Close. In the latter, narrator Oskar Schellís dad has died on September 11, and Oskar searches throughout the city for something that will demystify the senselessness of his fatherís death. Like Illuminated, Foerís second novel is funny and devastating, with the imaginative depth and intensity of feeling that have already become his trademark.

What follows is an edited transcript of two conversations with the author.

Q: How did writing Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close compare with writing Everything Is Illuminated?

A: In a lot of ways it was exactly the same process. But so much in my life changed. I moved from Queens to Brooklyn. I got married. I just grew up. In many ways this book was harder. I saw the writer W.G. Sebald give a reading once, and he said being a writer is the opposite of being a doctor because you perform a surgery 10 times and each time it becomes easier, but with writing, it gets harder and harder. You think about all the possible things there are to write about, and you choose one. Like with this book, after the first sentence ó "What about a teakettle" ó I canceled out so many possibilities, and the farther you get into the book, the more possibilities you cancel, until youíve finished. And at the last word, thereís no book you couldíve written except this book you just wrote. Thatís kind of a funny little idea, but itís also painful, because there are so many books you want to write. And just because you do one thing doesnít mean you think itís better than anything else, itís just that you have to choose. So I felt the weight of all the things I wasnít writing when I was working on this.

Q: Is feeling that weight one of the hardest parts of writing?

A: No, I think the self-confidence is. Or maybe thatís not the right word ó but the vulnerability.

Q: Is this moment, when the book is about to come out, one of the most vulnerable points?

A: No, I think itís when you realize what book youíre writing. When you say, "Okay, this is what it is." Itís when you have an answer to the question, "Whatís your book about?"

Q: And what comes most naturally? Whatís the easiest part for you?

A: The hardest part is getting away from self-consciousness. The easiest part, once Iíve done that, is the writing itself. I spend so much time trying not to get in the way of myself, trying not to question if things are smart, trying not to question if things are funny. Itís like huge crowds of people pushing against a fence, like you see at a soccer match or something. And then the fence is torn down and everyone just runs around on the field and itís great. Thatís sort of what itís like. There are all these fences in oneself that are restraining you and restraining your natural instincts, and once you can get rid of those itís very easy.

 

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Issue Date: March 25 - 31, 2005
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