Jonathan Safran Foer: The American way of death

Bestselling novelist Jonathan Safran Foer has written about the Holocaust and, now, September 11. He talks to John Freeman about the language of loss
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The Independent Culture

It's 10.15 on a Friday morning at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, and the seniors of "Great Books" English class are restless. As they file into a classroom toting water bottles and improbably large backpacks, they glance at the man in a black zip sweater and jeans sitting at the front. He is too young to be a teacher, but clearly not one of them. After the bell rings and the giggles stop, he introduces himself.

"Hi, I am Jonathan Safran Foer, and I am not a dead author, but a living one." More sniggers, but once they stop it gets very quiet. The students have been reading Foer's first novel, Everything is Illuminated, and having the real writer here is a bit like having Holden Caulfield in as a guest. And then discovering that he is really J D Salinger in disguise.

But there is a frisson of something else today that makes Foer's appearance especially loaded. His new novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99), revolves around a nine-year-old boy whose father dies during the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. Three and a half years ago, the students in this room had just begun their first year of high school when two planes slammed into the World Trade Center, one block away. When the towers collapsed, the explosion blew out the windows of their schoolroom, sending students and teachers sprinting up the West Side Highway.

Today, the Ground Zero site is an empty construction pit. In the classroom, the subject of That Day remains an empty pit as well. Sensing their nervousness, Foer reads the opening pages of his two books back-to-back and begins talking about what might be perceived as their similarities. Slowly, hands go up.

"Did you really begin writing your first book as a student at Princeton?" "Yes." "Do you ever get annoyed when people miss allusions to another book?" "I never put something on my novels for somebody to find. I don't have a point or a message." "When did you decide to write about September 11?" "Writing's funny, it's like walking down a hall in the dark looking for the light switch, and suddenly you find it, flip it on, and then you discover the hallway you passed through is papered with the novel you've written."

And then comes the statement which explains what makes his new book so very powerful, but also controversial. A student asks Foer if he ever writes in his own voice. "It's odd, I don't write in a journal, it feels too self-conscious. And boring. But when I throw my voice, I start to sound like my voice, I start to sound like myself - and what's weirder is the further that I throw it, the more like myself that I feel. Then, after I'm done I look at what I wrote and people point out that it has these themes and I think, 'I didn't do that'."

Foer looks around waiting for the next question. He is small-boned and tidy, his head a little too large for his body. For a moment, you almost believe him. But Foer did do it - he did imagine his way into the Holocaust in his first novel, and he has imagined his way into the head of a child whose parent died on 11 September. Sitting later at a diner in the Park Slope neighbourhood of Brooklyn, where he lives, Foer explains that three years ago he had completed a novel called "The Zelnik Museum" which featured a diarist and a museum of curiosities. When I interviewed him for Everything is Illuminated, he told me the book was done. "I guess it wasn't," Foer laughs.

Foer kept revising and revising, and eventually wrote an entirely new novel. He worked through 39 drafts of the new book. The only afterimage that remains of "The Zelnik Museum" is a grandfather who survived the firebombing of Dresden. Everything else is new, including the young narrator, Oskar Schell, searching for the lock that will fit a key he believes was left by his father, who died because he attended a meeting at Windows on the World restaurant.

Oscar copes with his grief by keeping his mind running at full tilt. He pitches us headlong into the story with a frenetic first-person voice. He invents tea-kettles which talk and apartments that act like music boxes. He writes letters to his heroes, like Stephen Hawking, and talks to everyone he meets.

Once again, Foer is writing about loss, and specifically the urge to name it, claim it, define it and control it. But language crumbles beneath his characters like fresh powder under a mountaineer's foot. Oscar's grandmother and grandfather, survivors of Dresden, whose story unfolds alongside Oscar's, invent a language which demarcates things they will not speak about. When that fails, they write letters. When that fails, they have words tattooed on their hands. When that fails, they are no longer a couple.

Up to a point, the book resembles Everything is Illuminated in this obsession, but Foer pushes it further. He splices into the text ephemera from the street, business cards and a picture of a man falling from the tower, making it a kind of novel-cum-scrapbook. At one point, the text shrinks down to a size that's so small it becomes merely a single block of words.

"I have so much to tell you," writes Oskar's grandfather in a letter to his wife, explaining not just his feeling, but the anxiety over communication which suffuses this book. "The problem isn't that I'm running out of time, I'm running out of room".

In person, Foer cannot help but dramatise this worry. He answers questions deliberately, often with metaphors or stories. "I remember as a kid I used to read the phone book and think that in 100 years, all these people would be dead." I ask him if he thinks that morbid, or if this fascination drives his interest in loss. "I don't know. I write about things I am afraid of now because sometimes they turn out to be the same things everyone else is afraid of."

Later on, sitting in the garden of the Brooklyn townhouse he recently moved into with his wife, novelist Nicole Krauss, Foer tries again to explain his obsession with erasure. "My family was really supportive growing up," he says, fending off the advances of his dog, George, a Great Dane mix nearly as tall as Foer is short. "At dinner, we used to go around the table and we all got 15 minutes to talk."

In many ways, Foer grew up like a lot of middle-class Jewish boys of a certain time: success was expected, but not ordained. The Holocaust was a generation removed. All three children attended Ivy League universities, but did not grow up taking lavish vacations. His father couldn't leave his jewellery business.

The one thing Foer's parents or education couldn't provide him with is a sense of his past. Which is why he took that trip to the Ukraine and imagined his way into his grandfather's shetl; then imagined himself imagining his way into that past. The interplay between these two activities became Everything is Illuminated. For a long time it was "the heaviest paperweight I owned", Foer says.

Though the world now knows this book as a runaway success, it didn't feel that way for Foer. "I was turned down by six agents; one finally said yes. She submitted it to every publisher in New York. All of them turned it down. I would have just been happy if it was published at all... Then my first agent got sick, I got a new agent, and everything changed."

Everything is Illuminated was serialised in the New Yorker, became a bestseller and the most talked-about debut of 2002. While a great deal of the reading public seem to love his work, there are people with large mouthpieces who don't just dislike him. They seem to hate him. A city alternative weekly has included Foer on its list of its most-hated New Yorkers for two years running.

I ask Foer how he feels about these attacks. "I feel like we're at a really destructive point in culture," he says, "where we don't just have to criticise something, you have to kill it." I ask him why it seems some people are more interested in his marriage than this book and he says: "Probably because it's easier to speculate about someone's marriage than to talk about 11 September and why it happened, or how we deal with it today." But he has clearly touched a nerve. Long lines greet him at readings, and letters have arrived from people whose loved ones died. And most of the reviews sound like love letters.

Meanwhile, the city tries to build over the event and fails. Take the subway into Manhattan from Foer's house and you will pass through the scoured-out foundation hole, visible from the skeleton of a station crushed when the buildings fell. It is dusty, brown and very empty in there.

Biography: Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer, born in 1977, grew up in Washington and studied at Princeton University. He won the Zoetrope story prize in 2000, and has edited an anthology inspired by the artist Joseph Cornell, A Convergence of Birds. His stories have appeared in the New Yorker and Paris Review. Everything is Illuminated, a novel based on a search for his grandfather's village in Ukraine, was published in 2002, became a bestseller and prize-winner, and has now been filmed by Liev Schreiber. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, his second novel, is published by Hamish Hamilton. He has also written a libretto for German National Opera in Berlin, Seven Attempted Escapes from Silence. Jonathan Safran Foer lives in Brooklyn with his wife, novelist Nicole Krauss.