In the aftermath

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Author: Sam Munson
Date: May 2005
From: Commentary(Vol. 119, Issue 5)
Publisher: Commentary, Inc.
Document Type: Book review
Length: 2,275 words

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Saturday by Ian McEwan Nan Talese. 289 pp. $26.00

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer Houghton Mifflin. 326pp. $24.95

WRITING A novel about catastrophic events that are still inescapably present in our collective imagination makes strenuous demands--demands that have hindered or defeated even writers of great intelligence and ability. But in the case of 9/11, and in spite of the dangers, American and European novelists have found the challenge irresistible. Heidi Julavits opened the floodgates last year with The Effect of Living Backwards. Joyce Carol Oates contributed a short story, "The Mutants," included in her latest collection, I Am No One You Know. Frederic Beigbeder's French bestseller Windows on the World appeared in March in English; Nick McDonell's The Third Brother will be out in September. And that is only a small sampling.

Even in this decidedly mixed company, Ian McEwan and Jonathan Safran Foer make the strangest of bedfellows. McEwan is British; Foer, American. McEwan is the author of a series of intelligent, highly regarded novels, most recently Amsterdam (1998) and Atonement (2001); Foer made his debut in 2002 with the bestseller Everything Is Illuminated. Formally McEwan is a traditionalist, and an unapologetic realist, as deeply interested in the voluminous physical data of life as he is in its large, stony questions. Foer is an experimenter and a comic surrealist, playful and endlessly loquacious.

Despite the differences between them, 9/11 is a natural subject for each. Death, murder, crime, abandonment, and social breakdown are persistent themes in McEwan's work; Foer's career-opening novel is about the Holocaust. That they have both turned their attention to September 11, 2001, and that their books have appeared more or less simultaneously, gives readers an opportunity to observe two sharply distinguished, even opposed, writerly temperaments placed at the service of a common end.

MCEWAN's Saturday narrates a day in the life of Henry Perowne, a successful neurosurgeon. The Saturday in question--February 15, 2003--falls a little more than a month before the beginning of the American-led campaign in Iraq. The day opens with Perowne standing naked, in the early morning, before his bedroom window, watching a cargo plane with one engine on fire descending to its uncertain fate over London. As his weekly day of rest progresses, the peculiar story of this plane and its pilots plays itself out in the background, depressing him, elating him, and disillusioning him by turns.

Perowne putters about his house waiting for the early television news to come on; watches an exuberant crowd of protesters gathering in the square on which he lives; retrieves his Mercedes from the garage; plays a round of squash with his anaesthetist; visits his senile mother; and prepares dinner for his family--prosecutes, in short, the unremarkable, absorbing weekend routine of an affluent Westerner. But the sense of unease the plane has brought into his sunny life turns out to be justified.

As Perowne wends his way through the protest march to his squash game, a deranged, twitchy thug named Baxter sideswipes his car. Held down by one of Baxter's flunkies, Perowne avoids a beating by diagnosing the gang leader's twitch as a symptom of a neurological disorder, Huntington's chorea. Hours later, however, Baxter reappears at Perowne's house as he is serving the dinner he has prepared, holding his wife at knifepoint and threatening his newly pregnant daughter with rape. With the help of his daughter and his son, Perowne subdues Baxter, who then ends up in the emergency room under his care. Perowne spares his life, and the novel ends with the neurosurgeon gratefully surrendering to sleep in his wife's arms.

The disruption of the established movements of life, often by means of violence, is a preoccupying theme of earlier novels by McEwan--in particular, The Cement Garden (1978), Enduring Love (1997), and Atonement. Rather than enervating him or making him facile, the subject appears to put him at his ease. In Saturday the prose is as supple and as replete as Henry Perowne's own minutely observed responses to his life's rich, menacing, and incomprehensible tapestry. His first confrontation with Baxter, a moment of isolation and terror, forms a piece of that fabric:

   The men have stopped to look at
   something in the road. The short
   fellow in the black suit touches
   with the tip of his shoe the BMW's
   shorn-off wing mirror.... They
   stare down at it together and
   then, at a remark from the short
   man, they turn their faces toward
   Perowne simultaneously, with
   abrupt curiosity, like deer disturbed
   in a forest. For the first
   time it occurs to him that he might
   be in some kind of danger....
   There, behind him on Gower
   Street, the march proper has begun.
   Thousands packed in a single
   dense column are making for
   Piccadilly.... From their faces,
   hands, and clothes they emanate
   the rich color, almost like warmth,
   peculiar to compacted humanity.
   For dramatic effect, they're walking
   in silence to the funereal beat
   of marching drums.

The highly textured but low-pitched prose, with its accretion of detail and its insistent use of the present tense, allows the submerged uncertainty of life after 9/11 to emerge not as an occasion for rhetorical or stylistic fireworks but as one of the many tonal strains, albeit an intense one, pervading a man's daily experience. Perowne's ambivalence about the state of the world--he shifts between cautious support for the Iraq war and anxiety about it, tempered in each case by a groundnote of despairing detachment--does not impair his everyday moral compass. One of the last scenes of the book has him sitting by Baxter's bedside, contemplating "precisely what should be done." McEwan leaves open here the possibility of a quiet, undetectable murder; only as the book ends are we given to understand in a deliberate anticlimax that the question Perowne has been trying to answer for himself is whether he should press charges.

In no way does Perowne serve as a stand-in for the author, although there are a few autobiographical flourishes: like his protagonist, McEwan lives in a large private house on a busy square, and Rosie Perowne bears a suspicious resemblance to McEwan's wife, Annalena McAfee. But Perowne himself is devoid of all writerly sentiment: he does not think in vivid or elaborated figures of speech, and his closest involvement with literature comes only by way of his daughter Daisy, a poet; in the confrontation with Baxter, it emerges that he does not even know who Matthew Arnold is. A master of his own difficult art, Perowne is an exceptionally alert, receptive, and meditative man; but he is not a mouthpiece for his creator. By thus absenting himself, as it were, from his protagonist, McEwan has paradoxically permitted this novel's conflicted vision of life in the aftermath of 9/11 to step forth in its own colors. In that respect among others, Saturday stands in stark contrast to Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.

FOER HAS a natural gift for choosing subjects of great import and then pitching his distinctive voice sharply enough to be heard above their historical din. This may be in part what accounts for his coronation as the voice of his generation (a laurel that admittedly gets bestowed afresh every three to five years). His first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, concerned a young man named Jonathan Safran Foer in search of the unknown woman who saved his grandfather's life during the Holocaust. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close concerns an even younger protagonist, the nine-year-old Oskar Schell, a New Yorker of German-American ancestry (the allusion to Guenter Grass's Oskar in The Tin Drum is anything but accidental), who is in search of the meaning of his father's death in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

Both the search and its possible meaning are neatly symbolized by a mysterious key, in an envelope labeled "Black," that Oskar finds among his father's possessions. Key in hand, he wanders determinedly through the five boroughs of the city, searching out everyone named Black in the hope of revelation. In the process he meets a whole cast of characters: Abby Black, the beautiful scientist; Ada Black, the socialite; A.R. Black, the quirky old man who ends each of his sentences with an exclamation point (and these are just the As).

In the course of his wanderings, Oskar also comes face to face with the fact of his own isolation from his peers, of his mother's budding friendship with the widowered Ron, and of his crushing guilt at having failed to pick up his father's final phone calls, recorded on the morning of 9/11 on an answering machine that Oskar has kept hidden in a closet. By the novel's end, Oskar discovers that the key has an entirely different meaning from the one he had so fervently hoped to find; presumably, he must now look elsewhere for a way of coming to terms with his life.

The plot, however, is only half the story. As he did in Everything Is Illuminated, Foer makes use of a variety of formal devices in Extemely Loud & Incredibly Close, two of them prominent by their familiarity. Like Alex Perchov in the earlier novel, Oskar speaks in a chirpy, whimsical dialect--"heavy boots" is his clever, private idiom for depression, "dip-shiitake" his clever, public bowdlerization of "dipshit." And Foer again tells a story about the brutality of World War II. In Everything Is Illuminated, this story centered on the destruction of a shtetl in the Ukraine; in Extremely Loud, it centers on the firebombing of Dresden as experienced by Oskar's traumatized grandfather, Thomas Schell.

Oskar is, in principle at least, an ideal subject--a precocious, winsome, obsessively curious boy, a constant dreamer-up of improbable inventions, from a detachable pocket to a shirt made of birdseed to various other instruments of concealment and escape. One of his most elaborate technological fantasies is of a

   device that knew everyone you
   knew.... So when an ambulance
   went down the street, a big sign
   on the roof could flash
   DON'T WORRY! DON'T WORRY!
   if the sick person's device didn't
   detect the device of someone he
   knew nearby. And if the device
   did detect the device of someone
   he knew, the ambulance could
   flash the name of the person in
   the ambulance, and either
   IT'S NOTHING MAJOR! IT'S
   NOTHING MAJOR!
   or, if it was something major,
   IT'S MAJOR! IT'S MAJOR!
   And maybe you could rate the
   people you knew by how much
   you loved them....

And so on and, garrulously, on. All this is Foer's way of showing us, or belaboring us with, Oskar's great pain, fear, and susceptibility. The trouble is that, despite the long stretches of time a reader spends listening to Oskar's hyperactive narration, his habitual and unstoppable overstatement prevents one from ever coming to know the inner character of his pain and fear and susceptibility. The same is true of his grandfather, whose recital of his climactic, painful reunion with Oskar becomes, literally, less and less legible as it goes on, the spaces between the letters decreasing to the point of near-total blackness. We are meant to understand, obviously, that an impenetrable darkness descended on Thomas's life after the firebombing of Dresden, that this darkness persists just as strongly in the present, and that it has been revived at the sight of Oskar's own suffering--an understanding that presumably excuses Jonathan Safran Foer from conveying the actual experience of this darkness by means of language or, in a sense, from writing about it at all.

Oskar himself has been invested by Foer with little other than an intense desire for our attention. Perhaps for that reason, in those moments when he finally has our ear, he appears an utterly empty vessel. This would be a serious flaw in any novel so dependent on the voice of a single character. In a novel about a recent, world-altering tragedy, the failure is particularly egregious. There is little in Foer's book that we are not meant to grasp as a signpost, but what these ubiquitous and stagey signals direct us to remains unclear. In striving to come to terms with evil, Extremely Loud falls back on that most convenient of crutches, a child's suffering; in the process, it reduces the attack on the Twin Towers--an event filled with black intent--to a mere symbol, a conceptual shorthand.

ADMITTEDLY, FEW works of literature have succeeded in drawing lasting meaning, whole or fragmentary, from modernity's string of catastrophes: Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End, Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus, the poems of Paul Celan, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, a handful of others. A recent book that can be added to this list, and one relevant to Foer's enterprise, is W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz (English translation, 2001). A dense, hypnotic novel, it is dominated by Jacques Austerlitz's focused but circuitous account of his childhood, youth, and manhood, his obsessive researches into his own history and that of his century, and his slow-won but inexorable conclusion that every supreme human effort casts a long and prominently visible shadow--the shadow, in Sebald's phrase, of its own destruction.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close owes a large, unacknowledged debt to Austerlitz--from the coincidence of subject, to Thomas Schell's recursive, comma-peppered narrative style, to the polymath protagonist, to the black-and-white photographs that appear in its pages. But the two books are on such vastly different levels that comparison becomes ridiculous. Where Austerlitz proceeds from a profound knowledge of history and its depredations, Extremely Loud is little more than a collection of information gathered from history's grab-bag. And where Austerlitz leaves the reader with a shattering climactic scene--a family of ghostly dark-haired musicians at a third-rate circus near the Austerlitz train station in Paris, their wild, Eastern notes an emblem both of life's possibilities and its awful potential for extinction--Extremely Loud ends with a flipbook. In it, a series of doctored photos shows a man, in the midst of falling from one of the towers, reversing his course and ascending to an unseen heaven. Foer evidently considers this piece of bathos a worthy final meditation on history and time.

Sebald's title, Austerlitz, refers to Napoleon's brilliant victory in a major battle that took place in the fall of 1805. Bound up with this is another reference, namely, to the moment in War and Peace when Tolstoy first hints at his book's true theme, which is the powerlessness of the individual before the massed forces of history:

   Just as, in a clock, the result of
   the complicated motion of innumerable
   wheels and pulleys is
   merely a slow and regular movement
   of the hands which show
   the time, so the result of all the
   complicated human activities of
   160,000 Russians and French--all
   their passions, desires, remorse,
   humiliations, sufferings,
   outbursts of pride, fear, and enthusiasm--was
   only the loss of
   the battle of Austerlitz, the so-called
   battle of the three emperors--that
   is to say, a slow movement
   of the hand on the dial of
   human history.

Tolstoy's terrible "only" looms large throughout the novels of W.G. Sebald. It tints Ian McEwan's latest novel as well. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close remains completely untouched by it. It may be the case that tragedy defeats us, particularly tragedy on a historical scale. But the best writers can, somehow, adapt themselves to the condition of radical uncertainty. Others, like Foer, baselessly confident, fond of the obvious, imposing on their readers' good will, simply pretend it away, and impoverish not only their novels but us.

SAM MUNSON's review of two collections of short fiction appeared in the December 2004 COMMENTARY.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A131965283