Review: Jonathan Safran Foer at Rackham Auditorium
One of the first things that bestselling author Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything is Illuminated, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Eating Animals) mentioned in his talk at Ann Arbor’s Rackham Auditorium on Friday night was that he’d always rather engage in conversation than do a straight-up reading.
The reasons why became evident soon after the evening’s host, author/U-M professor Doug Trevor, invited audience members – from the crowd of about 550 – to approach one of two microphones to ask Safran Foer a question. When the second fan at the mic said that his favorite author, Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom), once claimed that the reader was his best friend, Safran Foer’s wit kicked into high gear.
“Now I’m jealous of Jonathan Franzen,” said Safran Foer. “Did you have to say that? … Couldn’t you just ask, ‘What’s your relationship with your reader?’ And his first name is Jonathan, too, which just made it that much worse.”
After Safran Foer asked for the fan’s first name (Justin), he said, “My favorite reader’s first name is also Justin.” When Justin responded by saying, “I greatly respect you, too, as a writer,” Safran Foer quipped, “Respect is for losers.”
Digressions weren’t likely to throw off Safran Foer’s readers, of course, who have come to appreciate the author’s sometimes funny, always insightful literary side-trips.
Though Safran Foer’s latest novel, Here I Am, focuses on a marriage in decay, a family in crisis, and an earthquake in the Middle East, it primarily draws its title from the biblical story of Abraham. For when Abraham called upon by God to make an unbearable sacrifice, he simply replies, “Here I am.”
Safran Foer - whose visit was sponsored by Literati Bookstore, and who was dressed casually in a gray plaid button down shirt and camel brown pants on Friday night - spoke at length about not feeling a need to focus on momentum and plot when writing novels. “Why is the plot so important?” said Safran Foer. “TV takes care of plot these days. Books don’t have a burden to entertain people. Books have a different burden, which is really hard to articulate, even though it’s so unmistakable when it happens. I think it has something to do with … the feeling of being known. If you really love a book, or really moved by a book, transported and changed by a book, the physicality of it disappears, and the characters and plot disappears, and language disappears, and you’re just left with this feeling of being known. … When I write, I want my books to be forceful expressions of my sensibility.”
Safran Foer’s work is often called “cerebral” and “ambitious,” but during Friday night’s talk, he insisted, “I don’t think unless I’m either writing or in conversation with somebody. I do not. I’m always curious, if other people are really different, or if they just haven’t thought of it that way before. I don’t have an active interior monologue. I don’t walk down the street by myself thinking things other than, ’It’s unseasonably cold,’ or, ‘I feel like Chinese food,’ or whatever. I do not have thoughts. They don’t self-generate. They’re always responsive. So that’s why I love conversations, and that’s why I love writing, because writing creates a context for thought.”
A father of two young boys, Safran Foer made non-literary headlines in recent years when he and author Nicole Krauss (The History of Love) separated and divorced; when an email correspondence between him and actress Natalie Portman – the only person who actually appeared in the story’s sexy accompanying photographs – was published in the New York Times’ T Magazine; and because he’s been dating actress Michelle Williams. But Friday evening’s talk focused solely on Safran Foer’s work and his newest book, which nonetheless deals with the challenge inherent in sustaining a marriage over time.
“People who are married and entertain the notion of divorce get divorced,” said Safran Foer. “Even if they don’t legally or technically get divorced, to entertain the notion is to break something, because marriage is the absence of divorce. That’s what it is. … Some people choose to do it, and that is what it means to get divorced. Some people will not allow that to be a choice. And that’s what makes it a marriage.”
Finally, Safran Foer talked about how changes in his life and perspective feed into his sense of his work.
“I always feel like I hear a little voice saying, ‘This is the last thing you’re ever going to write,’” said Safran Foer. “Not in the sense that I’m going to die, and not in the sense that I won’t write another book, but in very straightforward sense that, the person writing this book will not write another book. And proof of that is when I look at my old books. I did not write those books. Obviously I have more in common with the person that did than anybody else, but they are not reflections of my sensibility. They’re reflections of the sensibility of the person I used to be.”
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.