These days, the New Yorker fiction issue is so bad it’s hard to imagine anyone liking it who wasn’t told to. It wasn’t always this way. Through his “New Yorker short stories,” J.D. Salinger reveals himself to be more than a writer for teens who’ve discarded Ayn Rand and have yet to discover Dostoyevsky. John O’Hara spun his filthy yarns into portraits of middle-class misery. And so on.
A lot of things used to be. And now what do we get? “A sensitive writer-type moves to a big city and finds things are not as he expected: nobody will publish his manuscript!” Or: “A man divorces his wife and has a few drinks, wakes up hungover and regretful, portrayed through short sentences that affect to be unaffected.”
Heavy, original, existential stuff, for listeners of Terry Gross and readers of “The Borowitz Report.” This is what happens when fiction is so dependent on commercialism and genre it loses all originality, all vitality, wearing down into a colorless and lifeless class exercise.
Ever the bourgeois and salesman, Foer conned most of his readership through a first impression:
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, and performing so many things that can spleen a mother.
You probably recognize these as the opening sentences of Everything is Illuminated. They’re pretty good! There’s a distinct authorial voice, wordplay, decent jokes, repeated gags, an imaginative economy of material, all made possible by a strong idea of “character.” It seems no issue that Foer writes in another’s voice when he does so with such polish and verve. Like a classical musician, he’s clearly “read through” the passage dozens of times, and the result is a sustained and skillful performance he maintains for nearly seven pages.
Then this happens:
It was March 18, 1791, when Trachim B’s doubleaxle wagon either did or did not pin him against the bottom of the Brod River. The young W twins were the first to see the curious flotsam rising to the surface: wandering snakes of white string, a crushed-velvet glove with outstretched fingers, barren spools, schmootzy pince-nez, rasp- and boysenberries, feces, frillwork, the shards of a shattered atomizer, the bleeding red-ink script of a resolution: I will...I will...
Suddenly the musician has had a memory lapse; he loses track of the voice he is to imitate, and is left to improvise. His own efforts at originality fall flat. His arabesques fatten into ponderous and verbose associations. The material loses all form and memory of itself, assuming that “out-there” quality which is the opposite of creativity. And all this is in third-person narration, much simpler to pull off than the tour de force a mere page earlier.
Debut novels and first dates are often like this. The first sentence is brilliant. The first page is excellent. The first chapter is good. Everything is Illuminated, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and any number of mass-market novels fit this mold.
Anything after the first chapter doesn’t even need to be passable. Like Adam and Eve’s relationship in “Blind and Deaf,” Everything is Illuminated “was good until it wasn’t”—because Foer “works until he doesn’t.” Why should he? Lots of people buy the book; some of them even like it. For buyer and seller, the appearance of quality outshines quality itself. Readers stop paying attention in a hurry. Who remembers any part of Everything is Illuminated, past the first chapter? No one—otherwise, none of Foer’s other books would have succeeded.
Needless to say, they pick up where Everything is Illuminated left off. Each one is worse than the last. Here’s a selection from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close:
What about a teakettle? What if the spout opened and closed when the steam came out, so it would become a mouth, and it could whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare, or just crack up with me? I could invent a teakettle that reads in Dad’s voice, so I could fall asleep, or maybe a set of kettles that sings the chorus of “Yellow Submarine,” which is a song by the Beatles, who I love, because entomology is one of my raisons d’être, which is a French expression that I know.
This is the first paragraph of what is plainly not a first book. Again, who would like this unless they were told to? Only an established and bankable author could get away with it.
The decline from Alex is most manifest in the lack of jokes. Yet the self-parody is evident from even the dust jacket: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is narrated (and presumably entitled) by one Oskar Schell, who is nine. References to Shakespeare aside, the prose is so unliterary that it becomes self-consciously so. How else would Foer get to have it both ways? This is a serious book, but not his; this writing isn’t bad, it’s good because it’s good at being bad.
Schell’s invention offers the possibility of getting away with this tautology. Who would rag on a kid? More to the point, what nine-year-old thinks exactly like Jonathan Safran Foer in his late twenties? Oskar is not a new perspective so much as the loss of all perspective: JSF doesn’t know himself.
All of this is made worse when the reader learns what the subject matter is 9/11. The narrator’s father died in the Towers. What is there to say about such an experience? A lot, maybe, if it actually happened to you. And what would Foer know about it? Nothing. And still he gets off on identifying with victims who would, I imagine, find him preposterous. What is this but the height of wonder-bread, upper-middle-class white privilege?
Foer’s narrators aren’t characters so much as externalizations of his own inner Gary-Stu fantasies about himself. You’d think 9/11 was the most facile, cliched, lightweight subject matter that Foer could construe as personal tragedy. But then you wouldn’t have read his next book, Eating Animals:
Dogs are wonderful, and in many ways unique. But they are remarkably unremarkable in their intellectual and experiential capacities. Pigs are every bit as intelligent and feeling, by any sensible definition of the words. They can’t hop into the back of a Volvo, but they can fetch, run and play, be mischievous, and reciprocate affection. So why don’t they get to curl up by the fire? Why can’t they at least be spared being tossed on the fire?
The sentiments are trite, the subject is uninteresting, the style is cloying, the association at the end tries too hard, and the psychology is as revelatory as a third-grader’s essay on the family cat. By his third book, one-third of the way through his life, Foer is spent.
He is his own genre of bankable awful.
And so we come to “Love is Blind and Deaf”:
Adam and Eve lived together happily for a few days. Being blind, Adam never had to see the oblong, splotchy birthmark across Eve’s cheek, or her rotated incisor, or the gnawed remnants of her fingernails. And, being deaf, Eve never had to hear how weakly narcissistic Adam was, how selectively impervious to reason and unwonderfully childlike. It was good.
You can almost see Randall Munro’s stick figures or Allie Brosh’s depressed grotesques, drawn as crudely as this is written. It is so inept that offering edits, other than “do anything else with your time,” misses the point. I would say “Blind and Deaf” reads more like a mean parody of JSF than JSF, but the fact is that it encapsulates the full maturation of, what I hope is, his late period. Indeed, there is something postmodern about the whole thing: is he just fucking with us?
The style is so pungent and so terrible it renders the subject matter meaningless. Foer’s “interest” in Judaism and victimology has reached its logical conclusion: he has given us a Bible fanfic. But, as is always the case with JSF, the tone is so self-centered that the subject matter becomes universally irrelevant.
A great writer is someone who can make the most banal topic interesting; Foer makes even the most interesting topic banal. Foer’s stories obscure, hint at and extend into no depths. He is all tip and no iceberg.
The real theme of “Blind and Deaf” is something closer to: “Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so.” The best way to avoid ugliness is to avert your eyes from it and suspend all judgment. This is a stupid idea; after all, what is literature but seeing, understanding, judging, and taking pleasure in it? “Blind and Deaf” pretends to ironize its theme, but it’s obvious Foer means it. The proof is in his prose, as bumbling as a child’s flipbook of 9/11. It is like a drawing whose artist realized it was too botched to reflect reality, so he scribbled in a few lines, added devil horns and a frowny face, and called it a day. The main purpose of Foer’s style is always to revel in his laziness and obscure his incompetence. Its voiceless jokes, inserted as afterthoughts, aspire to irony. What could be more self-serious than that?
This kind of next-level “weak narcissism” is, as I see it, the defining feature of contemporary literature. It is also what connects the current McSweeney’s generation to the old guard of Updike, Bellow, et al.—far from the only artists to experience fame and get the wrong idea. All writers are narcissists, the ones who pretend not to be most of all. The lives of the Brooklynites call to mind another line in “Blind and Deaf”: “None of the paintings, none of the books, no film or dance or piece of music, not even green nature itself was capable of filling the sieve of aloneness.” What good is it to have material and social wealth when your writing blows? Poor, rich Jonathan Safran Foer.
Foer and company differ hugely from their forebears in their lack of experience. At least Roth and Mailer knew that the only way to overcome trauma was to have it; at least they lived interesting and often reprehensible lives. But Foer’s self-image as a “nice guy” isn’t even wrong. It’s impossible to imagine him taking a controversial position or offending anyone. Instead, we get anodyne characters, onanistic prose, literariness as a selling point only, jokes over characters, flourishes over plot, and a kind of unerring professionalism that, shamefully, the critics go along with. At this point in his life and career, Foer is done experiencing—though he still bows to fantasies of turning back the clock, which would mean abdicating his hard-won position. In their innocent world, the Brooklynites wallow in white guilt that is the opposite of introspection.
Within living memory, George Orwell’s 1984, a book about a secret book fomenting rebellion in a totalitarian society, was circulated secretly and fomented rebellions throughout totalitarian societies; now, McSweeney’s is chuckled over by the thousand people in on the joke as meaningless as a New York name-drop.
This is what Kurt Vonnegut called literature that has disappeared “up its own asshole.” Like the deity of “Blind and Deaf,” Foer “simply doesn’t exist enough.” His Garden of Eden is nothing, but it represents something: a prelapsarian state prior to criticism and negativity. It’s an inbuilt defense against judgment, a preemptive rebuttal against the haters who are the fall of mankind:
They understood why the new plants were green, and where breezes begin, and what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object. Adam saw spots; Eve heard pulses. He saw shapes; she heard tones.
Would that we could retrieve that lost innocence before we had the five senses. Damned if Foer doesn’t try; writing does involve sensory deprivation. This is truest on the internet, and JSF likely has this in mind when he alludes to “a book without edges,” an anachronism from the era of Kindle Fire not too outlandish in the land of the burning bush. I scrolled down the page to see what the critics had to say, but they’d been silenced and spoken for halfway through the story:
You’re ugly! You’re stupid and wicked!
As a mimicry of criticism, this is ridiculous. As a mimicry of Foer’s response to criticism, it is perfect. Pointing out that a story sucks becomes worse than writing a sucky story. Negativity redounds throughout all of human history. From the Garden of Eden to internet comment sections, from the Holocaust to 9/11, haters have hated. And in the mind of Jonathan Safran Foer, the biggest victim is Jonathan Safran Foer. That may be the one thing Foer gets right. He has achieved success, but at what cost?
To write literature is to achieve perspective on the world by wrestling with your narcissism, to use judgment to understand human experience by taking an interest in yourself; to write it well is to admit to committing a thousand idiocies and embodying a thousand uglinesses, to try and fail to transcend them by the hard-won and insufficient redress of insight; it is to forgive yourself, to change your mind, to laugh at yourself, to unflinchingly stare cruelty in its wild eye.
Once upon a time, America’s public intellectuals traveled the world and grappled through language experience with questions of life, death, judgment, and irony. Now they just sit in their brownstones and wring their hands about having fish for dinner.
The difference between Illuminated, a source of cheap uplift, and “Blind and Deaf,” which abnegates that uplift, is trivial. Foer continues to offer us not literature, but the appearance of literature. If you write, goes the fantasy, you don’t need to do anything; you don’t need to be anyone. Like Adam and Eve, JSF yearns for oblivion; like them, JSF has no need to “be right,” but he’s deathly afraid of being wrong. To make something that won’t change the world for the worse is to make something that won’t change the world at all. JSF writes to distance himself from himself.
This is what ensures Jonathan Safran Foer is blind, deaf, dumb, and weakly narcissistic. “Diminish me until I can bear it,” say “the first humans” in “Blind and Deaf,” who, like all of Jonathan Safran Foer’s characters, are carbon copies of Jonathan Safran Foer. It is possible for Foer’s characters to be nothing, but it is too late for him—unfortunately for all of us, maybe fortunately for Foer.