Amy Fox

Writer. Editor. Feminist knitting designer.

I talk about John Green a lot: a review of Jonathan Safran Foer

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I have been struggling for a couple of days to write a blog post about Jonathan Safran Foer’s two novels, Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. I absolutely loved them both – halfway through reading each, I declared it to be my New Favourite Book, slightly illegitimising my own statement – but when I tried to explain why, I couldn’t.

But, dedicated new blogger that I am, I kept struggling on, determined to share my Safran Foer epiphany with the world in a well-written and structured post which would inspire people to open up a new tab, head straight to Amazon and order them both. But I couldn’t. I should have known that I couldn’t – when trying to explain the book to my housemate a few days before, I had said, “He just – he uses all these – it has all these, like, different ways, you know?” Needless to say, I am far more eloquent on paper (or rather, through screen) than I am out loud, and my housemate was left looking confused, and also amused.

But even through-screen, I couldn’t really get my thoughts across. The literature student took over and I just banged on about “narrative voice”, put the word “about” in quotes (a pretentious habit picked up in a Contemporary Writing class), and reverted to rather dry phrases like “non-traditional methods”. Now, that would all be fine if I was writing an essay about the two books, and I kind of hope one day I’ll get the chance to, because writing essays about things you love ought to be the whole point of writing essays, and often sadly it isn’t. But I was writing a blog post, and kind of boring even myself.

In the end, crippled with post-book sadness and frustrated that I couldn’t accurately portray my mid-book rapture, I just started copying out whole chunks of quotations in the hope that they would do my work for me. Spoilers: this is also not how you write a good review.

And then I just gave up completely and wrote a post about Fifty Shades of Grey for someone else’s blog instead, because it is a whole lot easier to just make fun of all the stupid stuff in the world than it is to write something meaningful. Finally, I decided to just put the review aside and come back to it later, and instead went about my daily life, giving my various siblings lifts to various places, answering emails about Concrete (my university’s student newspaper, which I am editor of and without which this summer I feel bereft of all purpose), and moving on to the next book waiting in the pile – in the form of The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.

This was also a good book. I mean, it wasn’t Safran Foer good, but it was pretty great. It’s a Kids With Cancer book, but the kids are doing their utmost to avoid the Kids With Cancer stereotypes, and frequently point out that most of those stereotypes are a load of crap. It did really well at portraying Kids With Cancer who were actually just kids who wished they didn’t have cancer any more, because they are too young and it’s not fair and the universe can be kind of terrible. But they were also incredibly funny, and the book made some beautiful observations about life, while acknowledging that life can often kind of suck. I enjoyed it a lot.

And it was talking about The Fault in Our Stars that I finally realised what I wanted to say about Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. My dad asked, as I was around 20 pages from the end and hadn’t moved in a while, probably looking quite distressed, how it was. I told him that it was sad, “but then it is a book about cancer.”

“Oh. So not a comedy then?”

“Actually, it’s really funny. Just not right now. The best sad books are also really funny.”

It was a slightly pretentious-literature-student comment to make (what the hell gives me the right to decide what makes the best sad books? Maybe what makes the best sad books is being sad ALL OF THE TIME, with no humorous respites to remind you of the beauty of life whatsoever) but it made me realise that it was also exactly what I wanted to say about Safran Foer.

Because both his books were also immensely, heart-breakingly sad. The first was about (or maybe “about”) the Holocaust. The second, 9/11. These are not fun topics. Neither, I don’t need to tell you, is cancer. It doesn’t take a literature student, pretentious or otherwise, to make this observation.

But it was the humour of all three books I am writing about which made me love them the most. And it was Safran Foer’s humour which I enjoyed more – the difference between “I really like this sad-funny book” and “this is my New Favourite Book, no really this time, I can’t even put it into words, please just read it and find out for yourself.”

It was all in the language. Everything is Illuminated is narrated – partly – by someone who learned English through a thesaurus (“all of my friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name”), while Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is narrated – partly – by a nine-year-old boy who can’t stop inventing (“… 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.”)

Safran Foer created totally unique and hilarious characters, who were also completely traumatised and deeply sad. But it wasn’t one-minute-you’re-laughing-the-next-you’re-crying. The laughter and the sadness were all mixed up into one, each trying to conceal the other, adding to the other, taking away. I’m getting pretentious again, but I sort of can’t help it. I really loved these books.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, especially, stuck with me. It’s very visual – there are photos and diagrams; two pages of numbers and punctuation as a man who can’t speak tries to communicate what may be a lifetime’s worth of thoughts down the phone to his wife, but we’ll never know; partially-overheard conversations with huge gaps missing in the text; a flip book of a man falling from the World Trade Centre in reverse, so he appears to be flying upwards.

These could easily come across annoying, gimmicky or too Literary (capital L), but I enjoyed them – and they worked just perfectly at their own points in the novel, adding just enough to make it stand out from all the Good Books I’ve read to become Maybe My New Favourite Book. I absolutely adored it, and if I could, I would force everybody I know to read it just so that I could look them in the eye and say “I know, right?”

But then again, I’ll probably change my mind in a couple of weeks.

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