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Thinking of writing as a saving grace

Special to The Times

On a Friday afternoon in West Los Angeles, the Wildwood School is abuzz. The excitement, though, is not about the upcoming weekend but rather a small, thin figure who stands behind a podium in the school’s auditorium, waiting for it to fill.

This is Jonathan Safran Foer, who three years ago, at 25, exploded onto the literary scene like a supernova with “Everything Is Illuminated,” a debut novel about a young man’s phantasmagoric journey to Eastern Europe in search of the family history he never knew. Now, Foer is back with a follow-up, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” which also deals with the intersection of family and history, this time in the shadow of the World Trade Center’s fall.

As the author waits, high school kids pack rows of chairs or sprawl across a terrace of bleachers like human moss. Foer, for his part, looks slightly lost in a zippered sweatshirt, jeans and worn brown shoes. He doesn’t seem much older than the students, with a light crust of stubble, eyes wide behind square-cut glasses. This is the cliche about Foer -- that he’s an innocent, a boy genius, a savant. Such an image is encouraged by his fiction, especially “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” which is narrated by a precocious 9-year-old named Oskar Schell.

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There’s a sense that Oskar is a stand-in for the author, a kind of literary inner child. It’s an idea Foer shrugs off, saying, “The further I get from my own voice, the more it feels like I’m telling the truth.”

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He’s no kid

Any lingering questions about his childlike nature dissipate the instant his presentation starts. From the outset, he is funny and engaging, while remaining utterly in control. As the students listen, he tells a few stories, then reads the opening of his new book before taking questions from the floor. When one kid asks if he “hung out” with 9-year-olds for research, Foer cracks, “I spent three months at the Neverland Ranch.”

His enthusiasm is striking, not least because it’s been a long day; he arrived in L.A. at 6:45 on this morning and has already toured the school and eaten lunch with a group of 11th-graders. This is important, he says, “because with high school students, often I’m the first author who has ever talked to them, and that personal connection is going to mean something in terms of making literature direct and real.” As if to illustrate the point, he recalls a high school teacher of his own, who, for a unit on “The Odyssey,” brought in a bow and arrow, which a student accidentally shot off. “I remember thinking,” Foer jokes, “literature is now alive.”

Yet the key moment comes when someone asks how he came up with all the odd bits of information that Oskar -- something of an intellectual prodigy, a highly analytical child -- regurgitates throughout the novel, like a human trivia machine. “I Googled ‘interesting facts,’ ” Foer responds. The students laugh, but he’s not finished. More important, he adds, “I kept my ears open. You know how sometimes you’re in bed, and you get an idea, and you have to decide whether to get up and write it down? Writing a novel is a lot like getting out of bed a hundred million times. I want to be someone who doesn’t lose things. Writing is less about creating things than keeping them.”

The idea of writing as an act of preservation stands at the center of “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” which traces Oskar’s search to reclaim his father, who died in the twin towers’ collapse. It can be risky material for a novel. “I did a reading in Boston recently,” Foer says later in the afternoon at a coffeehouse in Santa Monica, “and a woman said, ‘I’m also a writer, and I was working on a novel for the last few years that kept veering toward Sept. 11, and at a certain point, I made a conscious decision not to write about it.’ I think a lot of people have made similar decisions. But writing about it seemed the most natural thing in the world.”

For Foer, the idea is to consider the tragedy in personal terms, less a matter of politics than one of loss. As the book progresses, Oskar wanders New York, trying to place a key he found in his father’s closet, a key he hopes will unlock the secret of his loss. He fantasizes about inventions, like a birdseed shirt, so that if you’re ever in a burning building, birds will rescue you.

“I wanted to tell a different kind of story,” Foer explains, “one that wasn’t politicized. The book never talks about good or evil, and it never talks about why Sept. 11 happened or how to prevent it -- those are absent from the conversation, even as they take up almost the entirety of the real world’s conversation. They’re part of the story, sure; they have to be. But I don’t think that’s how most people experience it. I think most people just get sad.”

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Always in doubt

Of course, to write about Sept. 11 at all is, in its own way, political, a statement of engagement with the world. This is a concept with which Foer wrestles, both in regard to “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” and his career as a whole. “I’m not sure that writing is self-evidently positive. It’s an act that has to justify itself.” Asked to elaborate, his face clouds a little, as if he’s having an argument in his head. “I sit down,” he says finally, “and I’m always doubting what I’m doing. There are so many urgent causes I could devote my life to, but instead I sit in a room and write.”

That’s a fascinating admission, not least because Foer has never been anything but highly visible on the literary landscape, a defining presence, if you will. Yet his high profile is a subject in which he appears to take little interest, deflecting it whenever it comes up.

At the same time, he acknowledges that every culture needs its artists, for they can offer seeds of change. “There’s a line by the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert,” Foer notes, “about how imagination is the instrument of compassion. I believe this, that writing is a compassionate act.”

Last fall, during the presidential campaign, Foer -- with his wife, the novelist Nicole Krauss, and Dave Eggers -- put together “The Future Dictionary of America,” a lexicon of neologisms and definitions by nearly 200 writers, including Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Straight and Art Spiegelman. The proceeds went to progressive causes and candidates. He also coordinated a pair of high-profile readings, one in New York and one at UCLA, to benefit the political group Downtown for Democracy.

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An invitation

It was at UCLA, in fact, that he first made contact with Wildwood. “There was a cocktail party that people had paid tons of dough to go to. And I could see someone at the door, unable to get in. She said, ‘We’ve got these students here, and they’ve read your book and they would love to say hello.’ So I went out, and they were so enthusiastic. I opened the door and they came in. They said, ‘When you’re next in town, why don’t you come to the school?’ ”

For Foer, all this is part of a larger strategy for reimagining literature and its place within the world. On the most basic terms, it has to do with staking out new audiences, finding alternative delivery systems for the work. “Books,” he claims, “can’t depend on people finding them. They have to find the people. If you go to a school and one kid walks out feeling inspired, it’s worth it.”

Lest this seem idealistic, Foer stresses that there are practical issues also, starting with the diminished role of writing in a society that increasingly considers itself post-literate. “Writers count on the fact that there will be readers in the future, and I’m not convinced there will be or that the number won’t dwindle to a self-selecting, classist group.”

As to why this is, Foer believes it has to do with literature’s essential intimacy, the way it requires us to pay attention, to have a conversation with a text. That is both its reward and its challenge, the connection it offers some people and the reason it puts others off. Where writers get into trouble, Foer suggests, is in believing this means literature is smarter than other means of expression, or even than its audience.

“Writing,” he says, “has perpetuated the myth that sadness is more serious than happiness in a way no other art has. That’s very dangerous because it encourages the idea that if you’re smart, you have to foster a kind of darkness. So I want to let the guard down a bit, and say, ‘Maybe writing is less popular than other art forms, but that’s OK; it doesn’t mean we’re too smart for people to understand.’ It just says something about the form, even something we value, which is that it requires a lot of work.”

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Encountering resistance

Of course, in a culture as hidebound as that of literature, ideas like this can’t help but generate resistance, as does Foer’s tendency to play with form. “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” features all manner of extra-literary elements, including photographs and colored ink. On one page, the text is reproduced so densely it becomes indecipherable, a reminder of the limitations of the word.

Such devices have inspired something of a backlash with certain reviewers -- most vehemently, Walter Kirn in the New York Times Book Review -- dismissing Foer as gimmicky or immature. Ultimately, though, it’s not a matter of maturity but of exuberance, a quality literature’s gatekeepers have never prized.

“When I was working on this book,” Foer says, “and I started including images, I knew there would be people who wouldn’t like it. But I thought it was the best way to tell the story. I knew it was going to look different from other novels. But that’s not a reason not to do it. I don’t want to be a prisoner to the idea of a novel. Anyway, a book is more like a soil than a flower. You create a kind of soil, a reader drops a kind of seed into it, and the flower is dependent on both. So I thought it might facilitate a different conversation.

“And actually, I’ve heard a lot of younger readers saying things along those lines.”


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