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April 06, 2005

Foer on the Floor

by Ron Hogan

If I were feeling especially lazy, I could simply direct you to the NYT write-up of the Jonathan Safran Foer and William T. Vollmann reading at the 92nd St. Y (surely the only time we can expect to see Vollmann in an honest-to-goodness gossip column!) Monday night. But that would be cheating...besides which, I took all these notes, and I'm darned if I'm not going to put them to use.

It's worth noting that the auditorium was packed with a much younger crowd than I usually see at 92Y; in addition to the hipsters who caught the listing on Gawker's to-do list that afternoon, there were also several rows of high school students. I learned later that both Foer and Vollmann had spoken to the students as part of the Unterberg Poetry Center's Schools Project; I was slightly dubious at the thought of introducing high-schoolers to Vollmann's intense subject matter, but was assured that it all went very well.

So Michael Cunningham introduced Foer with a great story about trying to comfort creative writing students who feel like they've hit a wall by not letting the conversation turn to the "two revolutionary and beautiful novels" Foer's written at the age of 28, marvelling, "I know I could pick a Jonathan Safran Foer sentence out of a hundred others." Foer read from the opening chapter of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, noting that he was reading through his own deletions, which he'd made when he tried to whittle the chapter down to seven minutes to leave more room for the Q&A, before he learned there wouldn't be any audience questions. He had the crowd laughing along quite easily, and it was interesting to gauge their reactions as the chapter turned darker and the young narrator slowly confronted the trauma of 9/11 more directly.

With Vollmann's Europe Central, though, the hard stuff was foregrounded quite heavily. The two stories he read from, "The White Nights of Leningrad" and "Zoya," dealt with the Soviet experience of the Second World War; the second was particularly powerful, dealing with the execution of Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya and her subsequent transformation into a national martyr as seen through the eyes of a Soviet general. Vollmann was introduced by Melvin Jules Bukiet, who was downright enthusiastic about the bulk of Vollmann's tomes, declaring them as evidence of "a vision of enormity" in the tradition of "a literature of excess that seems almost forgotten."

I was chatting with friends afterwards, watching the long line of Foer fans, when one acquaintance commented that EL&IC was "a full-length tribute to Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai." Since I'd just started the Foer and, I admit, never read the DeWitt, I didn't really protest so much as offer an "oh?"; it was then pointed out that Foer himself had told Robert Birnbaum he considered her novel "the best book, for my money, published in the last five years or so." Whether this new theory can be reconciled with the interpretation currently making the rounds, which claims that Foer's novel is almost just like his wife's, remains to be seen.

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