Monday, 23 July 2007

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer’s second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, is composed by three narrative voices: Oskar Schell, a precocious but fragile 9-year-old whose father is killed in the September 11 World Trade Centre attack; Oskar’s adoring Grandmother, who lives across the road, and; Oskar’s mute Grandfather, who abandoned his wife when she was pregnant with Oskar’s father. The different voices are recognisable at a glance.

click to enlarge

Oskar’s is a first-person narrative, typeset in a conventional literary way. The Grandmother’s narrative is a letter to Oskar, recognisable by unusually wide spaces between sentences – a visual que referring to the ‘tab’ space on the old typewriter composes the letter at. The Grandfather’s letters are taken from his ‘daybooks’ – he becomes mute after losing his first love in the firebombing of Dresden and communicates by writing messages in pocket books. His passages are recognisable by their erratic typesetting – sometimes a single line per page, as would be shown to someone he was communicating with, sometimes totally un-paragraphed stream of consciousness ramblings. This simple visual device assists the reader to distinguish between the three narrative voices, speaking across different continents and eras concurrently.


Unable to come to terms with the loss of his father, Oskar embarks on a fool’s errand – he discovers a mysterious key in his father’s closet and sets out to find the lock it fits, somewhere in New York. Along the way, he constructs a scrapbook he calls “Stuff That Happened to Me’. Images from this book are scattered throughout the novel. Interestingly, many images are of things that don’t ‘happen’ to Oskar; alongside photographs Oskar takes of people and places he encounters, are images he finds in newspapers and on the Internet. All these photographs relate to anecdotes or events in the written text, but they do not necessarily appear near that text. So, rather than illustrating the written narrative, the uncaptioned photographs allow the reader to see through Oskar’s eyes, providing a rich visual description of the world he exists in, and is a product of. Safran Foer considered “the visual world in which [children] are now developing”, (Khan 2005) sourcing the photographs from the Internet, newspapers and photo libraries. (Hudson 2005)

The seemingly haphazard way the photographs are presented – including a 15 page sequence of found images ranging from a wall of keys, a paper aeroplane diagram, a pair of copulating turtles and a body falling from a building when a sleepless Oskar flips through his scrapbook – emulates, for the reader, the visual world Oskar inhabits. Safran Foer says: “To speak about what happened on September 11 requires a visual language. My singular motivation was to create the most powerful book I could.” (Village Voice) The most effective way to evoke a bombardment of random images is to show the reader those images – sharing Oskar’s experience heightens our empathy with him.

Oskar finds a video of a man jumping from the second tower to avoid burning to death. Oskar speculates whether this man is his father – he feels he could cope by knowing exactly how his father died. Still images from the video appear throughout the novel – a visual reminder of how this mental image haunts Oskar. The novel closes with a series of these grainy photographs, but Oskar has reversed the sequence so the body floats back up into the building, reversing time and undoing the tragedy:
“Finally, I found the pictures of the falling body. Was it Dad? Maybe. Whoever it was, it was somebody. I ripped the pages out of the book. I reversed the order, so that the last one was first, and the first was last. When I flipped through them, it looked like the man was floating up through the sky.” (325)
As readers, we are forced to participate in this act, making the image come ‘alive’ in our hands. It is at once beautiful and terrifying, especially if the images are taken from real video footage from the Internet – the reader visually reverses a man’s actual death. The photographs in the novel evoke a vivid visual landscape of what was, for many people, a very visual event.

8 comments:

Terry said...

Zoe, Thanks for the nice reading of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I've had a hard time understanding his use of photographs until now. Terry

Zoe said...

Thanks Terry, this is actually from a longer paper I wrote for a conference - I think the shorter version is better. One issue I have to be aware of is not 'overhyping' my reading of what these visual devices are doing. I'm trying to argue that they are more than gimmickry, but not necessarily that they are the 'key' to the piece of literature. I guess it's a case of wanting them to have equal status to 'non-visual' literary devices, without claiming they achieve more. Always the struggle for those fighting for equality, perhaps...

digshot said...

Hi Zoe,

You mention the use of typography to distinguish between narrative voices. Do you think it would have made for a more powerful book if Foer had used handwriting for the letters and day-book instead of big spaces between sentences, squeezed leading and so on? (Oscar might have used a computer, which would account for the text for his bits.)

Is all of the book actually being presented as his scrapbook/journal? Are we tacitly being asked to create a fantasy in which the book in our hands is the book he wrote and stuck things in, including the letters and day-book? If so, do you think it would have been better if it were made more realistic?

You mentioned somewhere else that these big spaces are sort of like the breathy voice of an old woman. I like that, but perhaps you’d get some sense of the person expressed in their handwriting…

I like the idea of an unspoken contract between writer and reader. The reader is asked to suspend their disbelief; in return the writer does what they can to make the experience as immersive as possible – incuding using graphic interventions.

Maybe Foer could have gone further with this book?

Zoe said...

One of the things that bothers me about the book, and this is a really stupid designer thing, is that there are sections the father is supposed to have 'edited' with a red pen, but rather than a hand drawn pen line, it's a fairly badly rendered vector line. Why bother to print in red and make the marks, but not make them in an appropriate way? Does it matter that it's not exactly the right kind of mark (and does anyone but me care?)

This is essentially the same as wondering whether the 'daybook' pages would have been more affective if they were handwritten - is it enough to IMPLY the form of a letter, or does it communicate significantly more if you actually render it in handwriting? That some critics and readers find the way this book was presented challenging enough, would they have been able to cope with further experimentation? Is this just an early start to what COULD be achieved using graphic devices - when there is a more receptive audience, will writers employ more ambitious graphic devices?

I don't think the whole book is supposed to be Oskar's scrap book, I think it's supposed to be an experimental storytelling experience. Looking at Safran Foer's previous work, it's all quite experimental (Everything is Illuminated also experiments with layout and formal structure, A Convergence of Birds, which he edited, asks various writers to compose short stories based on images) So I think this is an example of a writer who is willing to experiment with the form of the book and the different ways you can immerse a reader, and his book has been held up as a really progressive example (it won the V&A Illustration award in 2005) but there is still so much backlash against the visual 'gimmicks' that for him, or any writer, to be more experimental, there has to be a shift in how these books are embraced by readers and critics. What you and I are doing with our research is attempting to help this shift in perception along.

Casper said...

I think you're right on the mark, when you say that there needs to be a shift in how the books w/ visual elements are viewed by critics. It seems like after Sebald, any time b&w images are used in prose works, the works in question will always be compared (most likely unfavorably) w/ Sebald's. Which seems ridiculous to me, b/c there were so many writers who used images in literary texts; I'm also thinking of Kluge.

That said, I still haven't seen a recent writer who's used images as effectively & imaginatively as Sebald. Foer included. Mostly because I found the writing in the book to be quite maudlin and bad in patches, and I think people tend to view images as 'crutches' used by writers in such cases when prose fails - "why couldn't he/she say it in words?" is the usual question. Which I think is completely unfair, b/c writers like Foer, despite certain limitations, was really going for it all.

I also read in some places that the reverse flip-book image is not genuine but actually doctored (not by Foer, but by someone who put it on the net.) Do you know anything about this? I remember such knowledge adding to the sense that some images in the book were manipulative...

Zoe said...

Hi there,
Sorry it's taken so long to respond, I hope you come back to read this! I am not sure about the doctoring of the images, and not convinced that, in the context, it really matters. Once a photograph is incorporated into a work of fiction, does it's authenticity matter? I actually need to think about this more thoroughly. The photographs of the "yes no" hands were set up by Foer - he apparently went to a Jewish retirement home and wrote on a volunteer's hands with marker and took the photo.

The constant comparison to other novels with photos seems like a 'safety net' in some ways - if you can say "it didn't strike me as being as affective as Sebald's use of photography" you can easily skirt around having to suggest a reading of the images yourself.

Thanks for reading... Zoe

Darren said...

Excellent reading, by far one of the best and originals papers I read.


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