Books May 2005

A Bag of Tired Tricks

Blank pages? Photos of mating tortoises? The death throes of the postmodern novel
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In 1967 The Atlantic Monthly published John Barth's essay "The Literature of Exhaustion," a manifesto of postmodernism in which Barth argued that the possibilities of conventional storytelling had been "used up." It was time to start thwarting the public's expectations of what a novel should be—such as the silly notion that a story should be told in chronological order instead of, say, in jumbled fragments, with cheeky reminders that none of the events therein ever took place. Oh, the fun writers and readers would have together, now that the old rules no longer needed to apply! Sadly, though, most people took one look at this new style of writing and decided that conventional storytelling could stand a good deal more using up after all. Some readers were hugely impressed, but even they often had a hard time figuring out whether a given "experimental" novel grated against their sensibility because they weren't intellectually worthy of it or because it was just plain bad. Demand for expert opinion grew, and university classes, prizes, and dust-jacket blurbs proliferated to meet it.

But by the end of the 1970s postmodernism had degenerated from a startling assault on traditional narrative into a style as predictable as any other; there are, it seems, only so many ways to avoid telling a straightforward story. Since then those with a vested interest in the movement have employed various little tricks, if not always consciously, to sustain its primacy in American literature.

In the 1980s, for example, any involving story written in an unobtrusive, un-writerly, and thus un-postmodern style began to be classified as "genre" fiction. A subtler ruse followed a decade later, when we were told that postmodernism had been superseded by something called post-postmodernism, which was itself fast being superseded by—but I forget exactly. The upshot was that while the Next Big Things might look a lot like the Last Big Things, the requisite "study" would show them to be completely different. It all sounded very exciting, but when meandering, footnote-laden novels like David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest (1996) sprawled out on the display tables, it became obvious that nothing had changed. Literary critics now acknowledge that postmodernism never went away, but to distract us from its advanced age they cry up a new "pomo" wunderkind every year or two.

In 2002 it was Jonathan Safran Foer. While still a creative-writing student, he had traveled to Ukraine to investigate his ethnic roots but found "nothing to see"—not even, it seems, the museum near the site of his grandfather's shtetl. Upon returning home he decided to create the region's color and history from his imagination. Such an approach can yield fascinating results, as anyone who has read Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King (1959) will attest. Unfortunately, the Eastern Europe presented in Foer's first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, turned out to be, with its zany curses and America-mad youth, more than familiar enough to obviate the author's later admission that he had watched a lot of TV growing up. There were even fewer surprises in the novel's format. The disjointed story narrated in different "voices," the author turning up under his own name as a character writing a novel, the final chapter ending in mid-sentence, idiosyncratic punctuation and eye-catching TYPOGRAPHY—need I go on? It must be admitted that Foer at times seemed too talented for the traditions he had chosen to work in. The line "May his name be lost between cushions," for instance, is funny enough to make one overlook the staleness of the comic device involved.

On the whole, however, the reaction to the book was more interesting than the book itself. Marie Arana, of The Washington Post, promised that Everything Is Illuminated would make readers feel "altered, chastened—seared in the fire of something new," while The Times of London said, "It's a new kind of novel [and] after it things will never be the same." A reviewer in The Vancouver Sun let it be known, presumably by jiggling his eyeballs at an intern, that he was "frozen by excitement" and "dumbstruck with amazement and joy." Joyce Carol Oates and Jeffrey Eugenides loved the novel, as did The New York Times, which gave it two rave reviews. The novelist and critic Dale Peck said admiring things too, thus making one wonder if his attack on Rick Moody's similar style in 2002 hadn't been actuated by personal animus after all. The San Francisco Chronicle, Time, The New York Observer—the unanimity of the praise was as extraordinary as its almost giddy tone.

But these days a novel can be called a masterpiece without even being regarded as consistently good, and most of Foer's reviewers conceded—albeit with the air of someone noting an erratum in the table of contents—that one of the book's two narrators had done little more than make them yearn for the other. There was also a consensus that the last few dozen pages were unfortunate. Not since Don DeLillo's Underworld (1997) had critical acclaim concentrated so heavily on one part of a novel. Which part? This is Francine Prose, writing in The New York Times:

It's hard to get through the first chapters of Everything Is Illuminated. The problem is, you keep laughing out loud, losing your place, starting again, then stopping because you're tempted to call your friends and read them long sections of Jonathan Safran Foer's assured, hilarious prose.

Before anyone accuses me of seeking out the least hilarious example of this writing, here is the opening passage, which was quoted by Prose and many others:

My legal name is Alexander Perchov. But all of my many friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name. Mother dubs me Alexi-stop-spleening-me!, because I am always spleening her. If you want to know why I am always spleening her, it is because I am always elsewhere with friends, and disseminating so much currency … I have a miniature brother who dubs me Alli … Father dubs him Clumsy One, because he is always promenading into things. It was only four days previous that he made his eye blue from a mismanagement with a brick wall.

Well, it would never do if we all laughed at the same things. But allow me to state the obvious: this is to verbal comedy what cream pies are to the visual kind. If Charles Dickens and countless others have restricted their own Alexes to minor roles, it is because all forms of malapropism are in effect—as dawns on even the sitcom viewer after a minute or two—no more than variations on a single joke. The question, then, is how so many could have found this mangled-language shtick both screamingly funny and searingly new. It isn't as if Foer handles it particularly well. Alex imparts no sense of a Slavic speaker learning English (the syntax of that last sentence would put the average American college freshman to shame), and his errors are distractingly contrived. "Flaccid" is here not the wrong synonym for "easy" but the wrong antonym for "hard," an unlikely slip-up for a foreigner in any stage of English study or derangement. The word is nonetheless repeated throughout the book, much to the evident delight of Janet Maslin, who played with it in her review: "It is not flaccid to appreciate how quickly [the novel] takes flight," etc.

This is hardly the first time that fans of contemporary fiction have shown themselves to be easily amused. The infantile exchanges that helped make White Noise the most highly praised comic novel of the 1980s would have impressed no one had they been spoken on the big screen. But the fuss over Everything Is Illuminated—a fuss not least inspired by a flatulent dog named Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior—makes the peculiarity of taste all the more striking. It may be that cinema buffs, with their far livelier interest in the masterpieces of the past, are in a better position than pomo readers to know originality when they see it. And judging from the healthy revenues of recent foreign movies, and the tiny, shrinking market for translated fiction, filmgoers are also a less America-centric bunch; for this reason, too, it is hard to imagine them being quite as tickled by Foer's funny-talking Slav as was (say) Prose, whose review twice referred to Ukrainians as Russians.

But most readers are also moviegoers, even if the converse does not apply. The interesting thing is that the same person who goes to see the film The Brown Bunny, and groans as the insects pile up on Vince Gallo's windshield, will curl up at home with Everything Is Illuminated and chuckle approvingly at finding the phrase "we are writing" printed 191 times in a row. (Such assuredness—and in one so young!) In short, two aesthetics often exist in the same mind: a moviegoing aesthetic that trusts primarily in personal taste and perception, and a reading aesthetic that is more likely to defer to established opinion. Which brings us back to the style that established opinion holds so dear.

As the architecture critic Charles Jencks has noted, and without hostility, nothing is less congenial to the enjoyment of a postmodern work than to approach it with a critical temper and a consciousness of the past. For decades, therefore, we readers have been urged, though not in so many words, to suspend our cultural literacy. Talk is of meeting the writer halfway, or of helping to create the work, this being allegedly more challenging than reading a "traditional" story. But in fact pomo readers work with their writers only in the sense that volunteers from an audience work with the stage hypnotist: emptying their minds from the start, smiling through one humiliation after another, and even working up a tear or two should this abruptly be demanded of them. The hoariest plot, the tritest message—these become acceptably highbrow as long as everything is tossed out in shreds that the reader, mentally falling on hands and knees, must piece together. Older fans of prizewinning fiction have been at the game for so long that their discernment has atrophied. Perhaps the younger ones never had much to begin with. Either way, the guilelessness that once had to be willed is now reflexive; and the self-styled literary reader laughs out loud at a farting dog.

Now Foer has produced a second novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, in which a starring role is again granted to a secondary sitcom character, this time the precocious child. Oskar, as the nine-year-old is called, sets out to find the lock that fits a key left behind by his father, who died in the World Trade Center on September 11. Here is the boy's calling card:

OSKAR SCHELL

INVENTOR, JEWELRY DESIGNER, JEWELRY FABRICATOR, AMATEUR ENTOMOLOGIST, FRANCOPHILE, VEGAN, ORIGAMIST, PACIFIST, PERCUSSIONIST, AMATEUR ASTRONOMER, COMPUTER CONSULTANT, AMATEUR ARCHEOLOGIST, COLLECTOR OF: rare coins, butterflies that died natural deaths, miniature cacti, Beatles memorabilia, and semiprecious stones …

E-MAIL: OSKAR_SCHELL@HOTMAIL.COM
HOME PHONE: PRIVATE
CELL PHONE: PRIVATE
FAX MACHINE: I DON'T
HAVE A FAX MACHINE YET

Note the strenuously disarming naiveté of that last line, and how it jars with the rest. Just as Alex combined a solid grasp of English grammar with an unerring instinct for the most ludicrous of a dozen thesaurus alternatives, so Oskar sounds like a sweet preschooler and a pompous college student at the same time—which is to say that he never seems human for a moment. Though eager to impress us with the lad's imagination, Foer can think of nothing better than to offer page after page of whimsical ideas for innovations, thus stirring memories of Mark Leyner's Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog (1995), a once hyped novel full of musings about talking breakfast cereals and the like. Oskar: What if seeing-eye dogs were also drug-sniffing dogs? And since we don't have wings, what if we had birdseed shirts? What if we swallowed little microphones that played the sounds of our hearts through speakers?

I wonder if everyone's hearts would start to beat at the same time, like how women who live together have their menstrual periods at the same time, which I know about, but don't really want to know about. That would be so weird, except that the place in the hospital where babies are born would sound like a crystal chandelier in a houseboat, because the babies wouldn't have had time to match up their heartbeats yet.

Could anything sound less like a tinkling chandelier than a roomful of amplified heartbeats? Young boys are too sensible to write in such a fashion; that sort of thing comes with age, and an M.F.A. Note also how Foer tries to get away with that line about menstruation. He claims a child's point of view, the better to get everyone sniffling later on, but he won't accept the narrative discipline that comes with it. Presumably his readers will let this pass; the pomo writer's imagination must be freed from the tethers of mere realism if it is to float up to higher truths, like wouldn't it be nice if 9/11 hadn't happened?

What may hurt the book even with its intended audience are the various diversions that both writer and publisher seem to have thought would constitute a selling point. Some pages are filled with numbers, some with illegible tangles of print; there are pages with galley corrections circled in red, and a page with the words "green," "purple," and "blue" printed in the appropriate colors. There are big black-and-white photos: a doorknob, the back of someone's head, the back of someone else's head, a pair of mating tortoises. One page is blank but for the words "Ha ha ha" printed dead-center, while another says, and with a less sincere ring, "I'm sorry." At the end are eleven consecutive photographs of a man falling from what appears to be one of the World Trade Center's towers; when the pages are flipped through, the body looks as if it is rising. Never mind the poor taste; never mind the story about losing a father and finding a grandfather, which would elicit sneers from critics if the cover had The Key on it and Nicholas Sparks's name underneath. The remarkable thing is that a substantial part of the book is designed to be only glanced at. If this is a new trend in "alternative" fiction, I would like to see it encouraged.

Those who liked Foer's first novel will no doubt feel otherwise. Part of postmodernism's appeal has always derived from the drudgery of its spurious playfulness, a drudgery that, while requiring no real thought, makes its followers feel that they are dealing with something too difficult for the herd. Alexi-stop-spleening-me! wouldn't have been found quite as amusing—not as "literarily" amusing, at least—had his gag not been belabored a dozen times a page. (By praising Everything Is Illuminated's climax as a "pay-off," Janet Maslin tacitly admitted the grueling nature of the fun and games leading up to it.) Not that Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close doesn't have longueurs of its own.

Planes going into buildings.
Bodies falling.
People waving shirts out of
high windows.
Planes going into buildings.
Bodies falling.
Planes going into buildings.
People covered in gray dust.
Bodies falling.
Buildings falling.
Planes going into buildings.
Planes going into buildings.
Buildings falling.

Even the most submissive readers will skim that passage (which goes on and on), but they can at least pretend that it was meant to be taken slowly and respectfully. Not long afterward, though, is a two-page photograph of a man's palms, one with YES written on it and the other with NO, as if the author's verbal description of just such a pair of hands left too much to the imagination. After a while the gimmickry starts to remind one of a clown frantically yanking toys out of his sack: a fatal image. This book may occasion talk of sophomore jinxes, but if anything, Extremely Loud is a bolder and more historically significant novel than its predecessor. At last a writer has taken to its logical conclusion the aesthetic that John Barth invoked with a smirk at the start of his novel Giles Goat-Boy (1966): "You've got to become as a kindergartener again." Doesn't seem quite so funny now, does it?

B. R. Myers is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and the author of A Reader's Manifesto.
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