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A Book Review Review

Thursday, April 21, 2005
    Did You Miss Me?

    Sorry I haven't been here in over a week; I've been doing a lot of book reviewing, plus I got married, so you can imagine I haven't been reading other people's book reviews all that closely lately. I have, however, been bookmarking them, especially the ones about Jonathan Safran Foer, since Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the book that seems to work everybody into the biggest tizzy lately. I'll start with Steve Almond's essay in MobyLives (following his Boston Globe review), because the prominence of its author raises the stakes to the literary equivalent of an East Coast/West Coast gang rivalry. "I can think of no recent book that has served as such a pure litmus test of literary sensibility," Almond observes, and "hat really troubled me about the book was not that I found it disappointing, but my sense that a great many people would read ELIC and--like the flak who first hipped me to the book--be genuinely moved."

    Almond's use of the condescending term "flak" in describing the publicist at Houghton Mifflin isn't accidental, since his attack on the novel is all about its manipulation of the reader's responses, i.e. "how can you tell someone that their emotional reaction to something is fundamentally bogus, that they got played?" In opposition to "narratives of false actualization" like ELIC, Almond holds up downbeat tales like The Tin Drum and The Plot Against America which "confront the heartbreak of this world without the reassuring promise of repair" as (so he says) real art does, as opposed to "well-meaning dreck" like Foer's novel. The idea that art is meant to irritate the consciousness is, of course, hardly a new one, nor is the rebuttal that the "emotional reactions" Grass and Roth generate in their readers are just as "fundamentally bogus," since they're merely pulling on different heartstrings. Of course, Globe readers who stumble onto the MobyLives piece might wish he'd gone into this kind of detail the first time around, instead of complaining about how good novels don't need photographs and typographical legerdemain. They might also have been curious about the critical statements superficially referring to Oskar, ELIC's protagonist, that come off like backhanded slaps at the author:

    "Jonathan Safran Foer's new novel is the mirror image of its young protagonist. The book is energetic, inventive, and ambitious, while also, at times, indulgent, contrived, and crushingly desperate for attention."

    "[The narrator of The Tin Drum] tells us his story not for narcissistic gain, not to dazzle or soothe an audience, but to reveal the world in its full, tragic measure."

    Of course, Almond might seem mild-mannered when one turns to Harry Siegel's New York Press screed, in which he declares "Foer isn't just a bad author, he's a vile one." Then compares him unfavorably to " the masturbating uncle in Mr. Sammler's Planet," just for good measure. Other writers have been considerably kinder; Beth Kephart (Baltimore Sun) gushes, "I don't mind if you quit this review right now and get in your hybrid car and drive to an independent bookstore and buy yourself a copy. There, I've said it: I love this book. And I will love the readers who embrace it." The thing is, I think she means it. Well, maybe not the part about the hybrid cars, but I wouldn't want to be in the same room with her and Steve Almond anytime soon.

    Unless maybe Richard Eder (LAT) were there to keep the two apart. Because while he likes Foer's novel well enough, he's not about to place young Oskar into the pantheon with Holden Caulfield and Huck Finn, because "Oskar's precocious piping over the abyss is ultimately a sentimental, not a transfiguring, irony." But Almond and Siegel might get some backup from Roger Gathman (Chicago Sun-Times), who goes back to Everything Is Illuminated to suggest "how close Foer came to playing a cheap moral trick, the easy juxtaposition of humor and horror that made the reader feel vaguely guilty for laughing, which is an unpleasant and unworthy form of authorial point-making." (Unworthy?) "This time," though, "the hawking of poignancy and tears is less successful, the authorial manipulation more unpleasant." Gathman does conclude with an interesting proposition:

    "Perhaps we need to process 9/11 first through writers more like the World War II generation of novelists, writers who might provide something meaty, stolid, novelistically dense, true to social fact, and above all, unflinching before they get cute with it."

    I'm not sure "stolid" is quite the right word to describe From Here to Eternity, the example Gathman gives of a great WWII novel, nor am I convinced (based on my partial reading) that ELIC falls short of being "novelistically dense" or "true to social fact," whatever the latter precisely means. But it's an interesting proposition nonetheless.

    As previously noted, though, the Mr. Big of the Foerbashers is probably Walter Kirn, who showed up on the cover of NYTBR and damned ELIC as "not necessarily better suited to get inside, or around, today's realities than your average Hardy Boys mystery," taking a swipe at most of contemporary postmodernism along the way. All this naysaying has led my friend Pauline Millard (The Simon) to wag a finger at the critics, observing that "trashing Foer is an exercise in futility." She points out that no matter what people don't like about how he displays his talent--or about his public image--the guy's got the talent and the drive, and he's out there writing and getting published.

    posted by ron @ Thursday, April 21, 2005 | Permanent link


BEATRIX archives

Ron Hogan is a freelance writer who reviews books and interviews writers for publications such as Publishers Weekly. He is also the author of an illustrated overview of American films from the 1970s called The Stewardess Is Flying the Plane, due out from Bulfinch Press in November 2005.

How did this season's hot books generate their heat? And why do other novels surrounded by buzz turn into duds? Beatrix, a subset of my longrunning literary blog Beatrice.com, openly speculated about these questions in the form of "book review reviews" from January to August of 2005.

Beatrice; or, Where It All Began
I first launched Beatrice.com in 1995 as a venue for author interviews. In late 2003, I switched over to a daily blog of news and commentary about books and authors. What you see here now is essentially one side of that blog's original makeup, the side that dealt with how books were received by the literary culture. The full blog contains not only these "book review reviews," but news items about various writers and original insights from the authors themselves in the form of interviews, blog excerpts, and guest articles.


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I'll Show You Mine
One of my regular gigs is as a freelance reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Although some people have a problem with anonymous reviews in PW, I'm all for them in general principle (though I think embargoes are a crock, but that's a different story)...anyway, I'd like to give any reveiwers who might be reading this the same opportunity to critique me, so I'll look into whether it's kosher for me to pull back the curtain. And I'll try to land some assignments with bylines, too. (In fact, if you're reading this, and you can assign book reviews...)


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