Jonathan Safran Foer published his first novel, Everything is Illuminated,
to critical acclaim only three years after graduating from Princeton University, where he won the Freshman, Sophomore, Junior and Senior Creative Writing thesis prizes. (His thesis advisor was Joyce Carol Oates.) Foer just published his new novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,
and is currently working on two public art projects in New York. In addition, he recently finished a libretto, "Seven Attempted Escapes from Silence," which was comissioned by the German National Operahouse in Berlin. His next book, Joe,
is a collaborative art project between Foer, the sculptor Richard Serra, and the photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto.
Jonathan Safran Foer is 28 years old.
Reviews of Foer's latest novel make consistent mention of its extraordinary visual component: among other things, the book combines blank pages and playful typography and ends with a striking series of photographs, prompting one critic to call it the most beautiful and heartbreaking flip book in all of literature. (Obviously, not all critics have been wooed by Foer's unique blend of visual experimentation and sober realism, labeling such efforts gimmicky and mannered and somewhat precious: in the words of one naysayer, little more than a "razzle-dazzle narrative technique.") But to visit Foer's website
is to realize that flip-books are just the tip of a very large multi-disciplinary iceberg: from a creative perspective that appears to know no boundaries, Foer's emergent body of work includes film and video, public art installations, theatrical collaboration, expressive typography, and a fairly prolific jumpstart as a writer. Cumulatively, all of his projects — which range from collecting empty pages of famous writers, to constructing parabolas in a public park, to collecting anonymous self-portraits — seem to look for ways to formally address "deep" issues such as time and space and the human condition.
It is rare, though not unprecedented for a work of literature to accommodate photography in this way. Earlier this year on Design Observer,
Rick Poynor looked at what he termed the "sophisticated marriage of writing and imagery" in the work of W.G. Sebald, noting "[Sebald] makes you realise, with some discomfort, that we often fail to look attentively enough at what we see." But where Sebald's composited narratives used photography to alternately catalyze and crystallize a story, Foer is more overt in his use of the image as an almost cataclysmic tool, a way of skewing perspective or exposing point-of-view without using language to get you there.
Personally, I'm less interested in forging a literary comparison than in the idea that photographs, depending on how they are presented, can deeply affect not only our perspective but our judgment, our belief — even our faith in someone or something. In the current issue of Eye Magazine,
Val Williams looks at vernacular photography
and raises the question of a picture's relative authenticity over time. In making sense of found photographs, Williams observes, reconstructed narratives typically deviate from whatever truth the subject originally intended: what follows are, not infrequently, a set of implied fictions.
Foer's work locates itself somewhere in this shifting landscape, between memory and monumentality, image and immortality: it's the personal odyssey writ large. (Both of Foer's books deal with tragedy and memory: the first was a tale of the Holocaust, while the new book is narrated by a nine-year old boy whose father has perished in the collapse of the Twin Towers.) Photography in general (and photojournalism in particular) has always mined this territory: but when a photograph accompanies a work of fiction that is based on a factual event, the veracity of that photograph is undeniably called into question.
That graphic design has any bearing on such forms of visual and verbal expression seems self-evident. Yet there is a tendency among many designers to resist precisely this kind of work, as though to invoke or incorporate an image of this kind is tantamount to a kind of stultifying post-modern paralysis. Such ahistorical preconceptions suggest that the only good work being done is work that is completely new. But is such novelty even remotely possible? It seems both idealistic and highly improbable, and assumes that found photographs used as points of departure can only generate contrived, sentimental work. Yet Foer has proved the opposite: armed with only a yellowing photograph, the protagonist in his first book embarks for a Eastern Europe in search of a woman who, he has reason to believe, saved his grandfather from the Nazis. That his new novel uses photography as a postscript for a moment in history which will forever be indelibly inscribed upon our souls is a gesture both probing and poignant. That visual thinking should factor so compellingly into a form of storytelling is nothing short of phenomenal. I only wish I'd done it first.