The History of Love, Nicole Krauss
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer
Ray Romano had a joke that went something like this: if you're a little ugly, and there's only one of you, then no-one's really going to bat an eye. But if you're twins, people are really going to notice. That's the deal with these two horrible, lousy, stupid, insipid exercises in literary fartsmanship. The level of thorough horseshit both books throw at you in some kind of bid to merge magic realism with the New Yorker school of quirky character dramas featuring the Glass Family Players must be read to be believed.
(I should probably preface this by saying I'm probably not the best audience for contemporary 'literary fiction' - as opposed to illiterate fiction? - so those who feel that the art of the novel, like the shark, must keep moving forward or die, caveat emptor.)
A big part of the problem is the basic plots and themes of both books are too similar to be mere coincidence - the authors are married, after all - but they claim no. To sum up both the plots and background, I turn to an extended quote from Wikipedia ("You Unvetted Source for 'Facts' Since 2002"):
The History of Love was published in early 2005 as was Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, written by Jonathan Safran Foer who had just married Krauss. Both books feature a precocious youth who set out in New York City on a quest. Both protagonists encounter old men with memories of World War II (a Holocaust survivor in Krauss and a survivor of the Dresden firebombing in Foer). Both old men recently suffered the death of long-lost sons. The stories also use some similar and uncommon literary techniques, such as unconventional typography.
The similarities, however, are likely coincidental. Foer and Krauss were introduced by their shared Dutch publisher after their books were written.
Now, that makes the books sound kind of interesting. Let me please warn you away. The devil is in the details in these books, only rather than being an interesting and scary or seductive devil, this devil is the demon of boredom and rue. Just a random sampling of said details from either book:
- A grade schooler who is busy building a very large ark in an abandoned lot, convinced the next deluge is coming
- A Centenarian former war correspondent who hasn't left his apartment since his wife died twenty-five years earlier, who keeps an extensive card catalog of his own making with just one word to describe every single person of note he's ever met and who has driven a nail into his bed - which bed is made by him from a tree he personally felled in Central Park - every single day since his wife died, and now the bed is not only so heavy that he's erected a column in the dining room below, but the bed is also now magnetic
- A Holocaust survivor whose primary means of communication is rhythmic tapping
- A Dresden firebombing survivor who now only communicates in writing, who saves every book he's written in a spare bathtub, and who is married to a woman who is pretending to be blind and writes a full memoir on a typewriter without a ribbon and who also happens to be the sister of his lost teenage love
- A married couple that has mutually agreed upon places in their apartment where you can go and 'not exist'
- A man who loves books so much that he buries them in his yard rather than destroy them, and also replaces the wall of an outside shed with a wall of books
And on, and on, and on. And the lame details are also compounded by the most unconvincing shifting first person narratives ever committed to the page. Krauss tries to write in the voice of an aging German Jew, and does so so poorly that you wonder not only if she ever met the type of person she's trying to channel, but if she has, in fact, ever met a man, period.
Foer has some of his narrative given over to letters from the grandmother, which feature breathless descriptions of sex with the grandfather. Foer also has the central theme carved around the twin historic tragedies of 9/11 (where the protagonist's father died) and the Dresden Firebombing (where the grandfather lost the urge to speak, ever again).
Now, first: I think everyone can agree that not only does Vonnegut 'own' Dresden, but once the beautiful metaphor of a man so traumatized by the experience that he not only feels himself moving around time periods in his life, but also pictures himself as human breeding stock in an alien zoo has been created, no other literary allegory of the experience will hold up. And second: while I believe it is quite possible that great, moving art can be created from 9/11, the massive hunk of insulting shit that is Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is not it. Not by a country mile.
Artists - a caution: a recent national tragedy is not the canvas you should use to paint your clever little formalist exercises. You asshole, you.
I guess that if I had to pick which twin is uglier, it would be Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The History of Love was cutesy, annoying and about as believable as a display at the Creationist Museum, but Krauss has a way with prose that at least carries you through the story quickly, and can work up something like a reasonable facsimile of what it's like to be a 'teenager in love,' so to speak. But there is not a single convincing word in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Even the vowels and punctuation have an air of falseness about them, as if each one was thought over long and hard and then placed just so for maximum irritation.
Rather than the Ray Romano joke of ugly twins being more noticable than one ugly dude, I think I'll sum up with a quote from another comedian - Steven Wright, this time: "I do really abstract paintings. No brush, no canvas. I just think about them."
Both books have had serious praise heaped upon them. Both were front stock from their respective publishing houses and both have been optioned for films. Both also made me seriously question the state of American letters. And both makes one wonder why we need two when one would have done just swell.
And, really, we all would have been better off if, rather than committing them to print, both authors had just... 'thought about them.'