Reader’s report from a Jonathan Safran Foer event: is Foer the first post-literate writer?

Nick Kocz, a regular email correspondent, sends in this report from Jonathan Safran Foer’s “reading at a packed Barnes & Noble in Charlottesville Saturday as part of the Virginia Festival of the Book.” Before the Foer reading, Kocz attended an event held by former Poetry magazine editor Joseph Parisi, and he weaves in some reflections on that event, too.

JSF handled some rather hostile audience questions with aplomb. The kid’s got impeccable manners. One guy with a tan baseball cap repeatedly told JSF how appalled he was with the use of images in Extremely Loud‘s final pages. JSF tilted his head to one side — a thoughtful pose — and listened. When the guy’s rant concluded, JSF stroked the stubble on his chin and politely agreed to disagree.

Still, thirty minutes later, he looked rather shaken. I had just reached the front of the line for a book signing and, pulling out my copy of Illuminated, mentioned how much I liked his first book.

His black wire-framed glasses had slid down his nose a bit and he pushed them back into place. “Thanks.”

I complimented him for how he handled the difficult questions but he did not raise his head from the book he was signing. He shrugged and I had the distinct impression that virtually everyone else in line before me must have mentioned the same thing and that, by now, he was sick of hearing about it.

He mumbled something — “thanks,” maybe. Or maybe he just cleared his throat.

JSF’s inscription in the book he signed for me is a minor work of art. I mean this with all sincerity. He possesses the most playful penmanship I’ve yet encountered from anyone not currently enrolled in grade-school. The lettering of his simple inscription (“for nick with thanks jonathan safran foer”) runs virtually over the entire title page, no two letters seemingly drawn from the same font. I’d like to think Lewis Carroll’s lettering would be equally amusing if he were alive today and signing copies of Through the Looking-Glass at major chain stores.

What I’m getting at is that his fascination with different typographies seems genuine. His experimentation with symbols and emoticons (most notably in his New Yorker short story, “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease”) probably springs from an authentic fascination with such things rather than a childish quest for the gimmicky.

Answering a question about his choice for distinctly Jewish subject matter in his first novel, JSF said that such a question presupposes that there are choices involved. He repeated an oft-heard observation — “an ant is not an entomologist.”

“A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease,” Foer said, was borne from an attempt to bridge that which can not be communicated with words.

I’ve now had a day to peruse Extremely Loud, reading a few pages here and there while my children scamper around the house throwing Lego blocks at each other. Extremely Loud strikes me as a further step in the direction of “Punctuation” (and, as such, a repudiation of the Old World convictions that in many ways guided Illuminated).

Jonathan Safran Foer may very well be our first post-literate novelist. Not that he is illiterate but that he’s writing for a world that has lost faith in the primacy of the written word. As an aspiring novelist myself, I’ve long feared this post-literate world that I’ve seen springing up all around me.

Just before the JSF reading, I attended a presentation by Poetrys former editor, Joseph Parisi, at an auditorium on UVA’s campus. Parisi, graying at the temples, wore the de rigueur outfit of a poet: black slacks, black tee, and black jacket. From my vantage, I could not appraise his choice of footwear.

The event (“Did the Modernists Get Rejection Slips?) was sparsely attended, which was a pity because it was the most fascinating and entertaining of the four programs I attended while in Charlottesville. During the Q&A session afterwards, Parisi let slip that he could not imagine what a contemporary poet could write nowadays that might provoke the same sense of scandal, rebellion, awe and liberation that the early modernists managed to create.

I left the auditorium with the feeling that poetry might be a spent art form. Think about it: what can possibly be done to refresh an art form after all its once-rigid formal rules and strictures have been blown to pieces? I know this is rather small-minded of me — after all, the same arguments could have been used against painting 55 years ago at the emergence of Jackson Pollock and the New York School.

Still, as a small-minded practitioner of fiction, my mind was abuzz with reasons why fiction was still a viable art form. There are so many untried ways to spin the bottle of narrative fiction — point of view tricks, ways to modulate with narrative flow, stylistic tics to employ and experiments with the Absurd. Some of these things may come dangerously close to the gimmicky but, heck, they’d all fulfill Ezra Pound’s dictate to “make it new.” . . . .

I arrived at the Barnes & Noble with only a few minutes to spare before the Foer reading. The place was packed — one would have thought Madonna was in the house to sign copies of her over-priced childrens’ books. All the seats were taken and people were jammed against the nearby bookshelves in the “Spiritual” section of the store. I wedged myself between a wooden column and a shelf of travel books and considered myself lucky — had I succeeded
in scoring a lunch beforehand, I might not have been able to fit into the small space. People arriving after me had to crane their necks over my shoulder.

The number of people in attendance was evidence that fiction is not a spent form. I can not imagine a single poet (okay, Jewel’s the one exception) capable of drawing such a crowd. That people could have such fierce and passionate reactions about Foer’s experiments in his new novel was another sign of fiction’s vitality. I bristled with discomfort at the
vehemence in which some audience members took to grilling Foer. Then again, having someone like John Updike pull a Dale Peck on you in the pages of the New
gives license to every yahoo across the land to take a pot shot at you.

“Can you sign another book for me?” I asked, slipping a new and as yet unpaid-for copy of Extremely Loud on the table just as Foer finished signing my copy of Illuminated.

Foer looked up at me, his eyes narrowing.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I hope I’m not being a pig about this.”

“No,” he said, picking up his pen again. “You’re not.”

A Barnes & Nobel representative approached as Foer was signing the second book for me. She put her hand on the shoulder of his tweed jacket and, in hushed tones, complemented him for just how well, really, he handled the more difficult questions.

Foer stiffened. “It was nothing.”

Foer sank back into his chair when the woman snuck away. He told me that this was his first book store signing in a couple of years. There was a weariness to his voice, his words displaying none of the playfulness evident in his inscriptions. Never before had I felt sorry for a millionaire.

When I asked Kocz in email if I could post his observations, he said I could, and added these further thoughts:

Foer’s work is very threatening. While others have used images and drawings to supplement
their texts (Barthelme, Thurber and Haddon come quickly to mind), Foer’s images are used to replace words. The anxiety this causes among those who love words has got to be what’s fueling a lot of the negative reviews he’s been getting.

Slipping back to the Jackson Pollock analogy — I think we have to appreciate that the post-literate world is already upon us and, as much as this pains me to admit, that there’s nothing you or I or any other writer can do to challenge the pervasiveness of the image. With this in mind, might Foer be the Willem de Kooning of our time — a man who re-introduces the figure into abstraction?

Again, this report, and these thoughts, come to you courtesy of Nick Kocz.


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