Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (Houghton Mifflin, 367 pages, $24.95); The Disappointment Artist And Other Essays by Jonathan Lethem (Doubleday, 149 pages, $22.95). Form, say the new writers, doesn't always follow function. Form, in fact, is whatever they say it is. Which is another way of saying that the rules no longer apply -- not even the rule that states "the rules no longer apply." American literature -- fiction, essays -- will now do pretty much what it wants, however it wants to do it. And the results will be extravagantly reader-friendly to the same degree that so much of High Modernism and even Postmodernism once proved to be reader-resistant.
Jonathan Safran Foer's magnificent "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" can start with a headlong, headstrong reminiscence of Gunter Grass' dwarf prodigy Oskar Matzerath in "The Tin Drum" (Foer's impossibly precocious nine-year-old protagonist is named Oskar). And, before it ends in a flip-book sequence of profoundly poignant starkness, its Vonnegutian comedy and Barthelmean urban fantasy (complete with photographs) will pointedly tease each other without any painful jostling. It's a wildly playful book. It's also a funny and very sad one.
Imagine, if you can, the writer you might get if the two Brave New Daves of American writing -- David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers -- somehow mixed and matched so approachably that Hollywood fought for the rights to adapt the resultant book. That's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." (We should see Liev Schreiber's adaptation of Foer's first novel, "Everything Is Illuminated," starring Elijah Wood by August.)
In Jonathan Lethem's "The Disappointment Artist and Other Essays" you've got an exemplary specimen of the kind of re-thinking of the American personal essay that seems to happen every decade. No movie version is forthcoming of a Lethem essay, but that doesn't stop Lethem from writing with prickly originality and personal exhilaration about movies a couple of times -- on John Ford's "The Searchers," for instance, and the films of John Cassavetes (an essay delightfully titled "Two Or Three Things I Dunno About Cassavetes.")
The major work, though, is Foer's"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," a magical and moving tale about nine-year old Oskar Schell, the precocious son of a beloved father who perished in the World Trade Center on 9/1 1 (but not before leaving five increasingly frantic phone messages only Oskar has heard). It was predictable that the defining event of our era would finally show up in major works of fiction. What wasn't predictable was a novel as complex, original and exceptional as "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close."
It is simultaneously a carefully layered investigation of an impossible family and a mystery, as Oskar, discovering a hidden key of his father's endeavors to find every person named "Black" in New York's five boroughs. A whole century's worth of wartime and urban apocalyptic horror appears -- Dresden, Hiroshima. And out of the kind of antic formal invention that puts Foer into the category of a 21st century Laurence Sterne assembling a "Tristram Shandy" from trauma, the depth of pathos finally becomes moving, even truly haunting.
In our culture, such writers are a triumph for literature itself.
-- Jeff Simon