Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Good snark goes bad

I'm not enjoying this snarky trashing of Foer's new novel by Harry Siegel as much as I normally might. I agree with the sentiment; I'm not a huge fan of Foer's writing (though he interviews quite well). But I'm beginning to think that clever zingers are easy. It's better in principle just to say nothing at all and talk about what matters than it is to talk trash, as pleasurable as that might sometimes be.

That said, it's sometimes hard to stick to principle.

Much has been made of the flipbook with which Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close ends, a series of pictures of a silhouette falling from the towers, rearranged so that as one turns or flips the pages, the figure ascends instead of falling. Some advice to our young author: Don't walk the streets naked and complain that no one takes you seriously, and certainly don't write a book culminating with a flipbook and then complain that your words aren't taken seriously.

So far, this is good snark. But Siegel goes a little over the deep end when he brings up the flip-book a second time:

And then the flipbook, which, like the other illustrations, serves no purpose but to remind us that this is an important book, and what a daring young author this Foer is, offering us authenticity, a favorite word of his. In an interview, he explained that "Jay-Z samples from Annie—one of the least likely combinations imaginable—and it changes music. What if novelists were as willing to borrow?" Yes. Jiggaman and "Hard Knock Life" are surely what the novel needs.

Foer is indeed a sampler, throwing in Sebald (the illustrations and Dresden), Borges (the grandparents divide their apartment into something and nothing), Calvino (a tale about the sixth borough that floated off, ripped off wholesale from Cosmicomics), Auster (in the whole city-of-symbols shtick), Night of the Hunter (the grandfather has Yes and No tattooed on his hands) and damn near every other author, technique, reference and symbol he can lay his hands on, as though referencing were the same as meaning.

And with the same easy spirit in which he pillages other authors' techniques, stripping them of their context and using them merely for show, he snatches 9/11 to invest his conceit with gravitas, thus crossing the line that separates the risible from the villainous. The book's themes—the sense of connection we all feel when the coffee or acid hits and everything is illuminated, the brain-gurble and twitch and self-pity we all know better than to write about—have nothing to do with the attack on the towers, or with Dresden or Hiroshima, which Foer tosses in just to make sure we understand what a big and important book we're dealing with.

The first paragraph is ok. But the second paragraph above is show-offy, and the third is basically nonsense. Writers are allowed to use tragic events as material for their imaginations. 9/11 is not off limits. Deal with it.

And once Siegel starts to go wrong, he really goes wrong. Near the end of the review is the following bit of bareknuckled crap:

All of this brings to mind the infamous post-9/11 issue of The New Yorker, in which author after author reduced the attack to the horizon of their writerliness, epitomized by Adam Gopnick's comparing the smell to smoked mozzarella. I was at Ground Zero, so didn't hear about the issue for weeks or read it for months (or smell mozzarella at all), but I understood both why such words were vile and how writers curled into what they know. They felt that the world had become too large and ill-contained to do anything else.

Oh, Harry Siegel, come on. So you were at Ground Zero; are you going to play that card every time a liberal opens his mouth? Adam Gopnik is harmless, and the bit about smoked mozzarella is just a line, an idea -- one person's response to a catastrophe. Save the venom for the real bad guys.

5 comments:

coolie said...

James Wood's review of Ian McEwan's new novel Saturday is worth reading for a more generous and mature consideration of 9/11 and how it informs the modern novel. As always, Wood is an insightful and precious pleasure to read.

The events of September 11, 2001, would appear to resemble any other great and appalling historical irruption; to offer the contemporary novelist the same capacious dualism that war and revolution offered Tolstoy or Hasek. But there are two major differences....

The lento of novelistic gestation -- two or three years, it seems -- has now brought about a number of fictional treatments of, or allusions to, September 11, chief of which are Ian McEwan's novel Saturday, Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, David Foster Wallace's novella "The Suffering Channel," and Joyce Carol Oates's story "The Mutants." (I except a clearly belated addendum at the end of Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex, a novel from 2002, in which the narrator refers to recent ghastly occurrences.) All of these works concern themselves in different ways with the gap between a character's reading of the world and the media's reading of that world

Read it all:

http://www.powells.com/review/2005_04_14

coolie said...

I just read the Harry Siegel review,and all I can say is *ouch!*

I would love to read a reply to it in defence of Foer's writing. However, this part of the article resonated with me, in particular, because even though he references American writers and the literary scene, I can relate it to how things are in Britain, too.

Once upon a time, Playboy supported a whole generation of worthwhile authors, from Shel Silverstein to Isaac Bashevis Singer and a host of talented goys, too. Before that, Sports Illustrated published Faulkner. Now, there's The New Yorker and the Paris Review and little else, and the consolidation of publishing houses has nearly wiped out the mid-list author, leaving young authors with just one chance to write that great book before they get dropped, and just a handful of editors deciding who gets that one shot at the brass ring. With the decreasing number of outlets for quality fiction, each season's "young stars" find themselves praised regardless of the quality of their work—there's a common readership for Lahiri and Eggers, even though she's brilliant and he's anything but.



The writers who make it get treated as symbols. Whitehead gets compared to Ellison, because they're both black; Lethem writes a book about race invisibility, but since he's a white boy, no one thinks to mention Ellison. In the same vein, Foer is supposed to be our new Philip Roth, though his fortune-cookie syllogisms and pointless illustrations and typographical tricks don't at all match up to—or much resemble—Roth even at his most inane. But Jews will be Jews, apparently.

The effect of the multi-national gigantic publishing corporations and retail outlets that have marginalised and to a certain extent extinguished mid list publishers is something worth examining in the UK context too. And with regard to the 'young stars' who become the template for publishers, in the UK, read Zadie Smith, not so much her as a writer, but the publishing phenomenon that was White Teeth. and I also empathise with how he says that we need to step back and take a broader perspective when we consider the context of a writer's work: mere pigeon holing into ethnic (and national) traditions is good for simplified marketing, but not good for the appreciation of the art.

Anonymous said...

I hate hatchet jobs. I read this one a few days ago in the print edition, and I disliked it for much the same reasons as you did. Yes, JSF is overrated. Yes, his excessive cleverness is an irritating shtick. But is it okay to lay into an enthusiastic, gifted and hard-working twenty-something year old with this much vitriol?

It's funny how such nonsense is rarely ever written by accomplished writers, who know the blood sweat and tears that go into the making of even a bad book.

Abdul-Walid

Dafina Girl said...

As a longtime reviewer of books I can attest that it is much easier (and therefore often lazier) to write a bad review. I no longer enjoy reading bad reviews, including Anthony Jay Lane's New Yorker film reviews, particularly now that I understand how hard it is to produce a work (or at least a diss). I really don't think that there needs to be ANY bad reviews. If we were to function in the spirit of generosity, we might take up each other's ideas as though they always had something to offer. More than that, we would find ways to respectfully disagree in the service of dialogue not self-congratulation.

Ms. World said...

Honestly, I think some in the literary scene were jealous by Foer`s early and huge success. I read the New York Times Magazine article about the new book. I don`t have any interest in the book because it sounds a little over the top in its concept of the grandfather`s letters, whatever. I do think he is a talented writer. I agree with Prof. Singh, he does interview very well which can be an art in itself.