The Quiet Tragedies
by Joel Caris
There's something amazing and inspiring—for me, at least—about a writer who can take an event whose scale towers far above what we would consider normal, and find the small, personal stories within it. In fact, I believe some of my favorite stories are about small events, small moments, small personal stories that take place within a broader, affecting context. It's perhaps no wonder, then, that I have so enjoyed Jonathan Safran Foer's two novels.
I first wrote about Foer toward the beginning of the year, when I labeled his second novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, one of the best books I read in 2006. Well, I just finished his first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, and found myself nearly as impressed.
Extremely Loud takes place post-9/11 and uses that event as a backdrop for the story of Oscar, a nine year old who lost his father in the attacks. I wrote at the time that the novel was "a brutal, emotional, exhausting book." Meanwhile, Everything Is Illuminated uses the Holocaust as its backdrop, interweaving three narratives which slowly tie together throughout the book, with the atrocities of genocide asserting themselves as the reader moves deeper into the novel.
In other words, Foer's two novels have used two of history's most well-known events as their backgrounds, which is pretty damn ambitious, to say the least. What's particularly impressive about this, though, is that Foer manages to use both of these events to exquisite effect, wringing small and personal stories out of them that help to illustrate why these two historical events were so horrifying. He manages to boil them down so they no longer loom over us, imposing, casting their too-long shadows, and instead become stories about humans—small, fragile, individuals whose lives have been irrevocably altered by these massive events. He takes these historical happenings—which, for those of us (like myself) who were not directly affected by the events, often become so massive, so terrible, so legendary that the true horror of what happened is lost, or becomes nothing more than a numb, almost surrealistic memory—and he distills them down into brutal, haunting stories that encapsulate the broader narrative. His two novels have taken these incredible events and shrunk them from murals on the sides of buildings to Polaroids that we can hold in our hands, that we can see in one long, lingering glance, whose detail we can study.
For the Holocaust, no longer are we talking about millions of Jews murdered, but we are talking about one man witnessing the cruel, efficient killing of his family and his choice to instigate his own murder rather than continue to bear that pain. Rather than trying to wrap our minds around 3,000 people murdered in the collapsing World Trade Center towers, we instead witness one nine year old frantically scouring New York City in an attempt to better understand his murdered father, and we watch as his family crumbles and as he suffocates under the hidden knowledge of his father's last words, his last messages to his family as he faced death.
In the end, I think this is the only true way to understand these events. The scale is too immense. It's too much pain, too much horror, to truly understand and absorb, to calculate and to file, to make sense of, to categorize and then continue on with life. You have to discard the sheer size of it and then, to really understand, take out that one Polaroid, that small snapshot that discards 99% of the image but ultimately allows you to focus on the 1% that contains all the important details—all the truths and pains and devastations—and stare at it, study and learn it, memorize it and slowly, slowly, begin to comprehend. Begin to absorb. Begin to grasp, through that small scale representation, the true size of what happened—the true horror, the true incomprehensibility.
I don't think we're made to truly understand large scale events and concepts. We need them small, manageable. In this, art can give so much. Art can create those small pictures, it can take impossibly complex emotions and boil them down to their most elemental truth, allowing them to be grasped and studied. Ultimately, all these large-scale horrors are nothing more than a collection of small-scale tragedies, of personal horrors, of small, individual, heartbreaking stories. By understanding one, we can understand them all—perhaps with many of the details lost or obscured, but with the emotional truth stark and bright, bared. With his two novels, this is what Jonathan Safran Foer has done, and they are monumental achievements. They're something to be read, experienced, absorbed.
His two books are two Polaroids—there, waiting, ready to be picked up and examined if you want to know, if you really want to see the picture.