Jessica Helfand | Essays

Extremely Young and Incredibly Everywhere: The Public Art of Jonathan Safran Foer

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.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, History, Photography, Theory + Criticism

Comments [20]

I'm not sure what "projects" you're talking about. Foer's web site lists a bunch of project titles, but each project title links to what are essentially blank pages. No "public art installations, theatrical collaboration" etc. Is there somewhere else I should be looking?
Christopher Fahey

Just finished "Extremely Loud and incredibly close" a couple of days ago. I really liked the story although i have my doubts about style and boldness in a literary sense.

Sometimes the photographs in the book really contribute with cinematic experience of the story, sometimes is just a nice breath.

The way he handle typo to transmit the feeling of desperation of Thomas is quite incredible. The playfull game of color and words and pens were also interesting to me.

Definetely a great literary achievement of image and words. Sad but hopefull. Different and fresh. I loved it.

Nice to read about this book in here. Critics are really mixed about the experimentation of Foer on this one. My opinion is that is better to have it than not. It worked a lot to me.

I checked the Project Museum website a few times and haven't found much either...?
Geraldine Juarez

Ironically apt, Christopher - one of his projects is collecting the blank sheets that famous writers were about to print/type their next great words onto.

I must confess, I've been more impressed by Foer's marketing instincts than by his creative ambitions.

The cover for Everything is Illluminated by Grey 318 was one of the best of the year. Black and white in the hardcover edition, it appeared in a collectable set of a half dozen or so vivid color combinations in paperback. In foreign editions, the handlettering was carefully modified to incorporate other languages while keeping the appearence absolutely consistent.

Likewise, Extremely Loud's, again by Grey 318, again handlettered, incorporates a silhouette of a hand that's reiterated in advertising and point of purchase displays. I don't know if Foer takes any direct control in this sort of thing, but it's brand management at its finest.

Design victim to the end, I bought Everything is Iluminated based on the cover alone, without reading a single review. I found it funny in small doses but too cute to get all the way through. Some of the reviews suggest that Extremely is similarly self-conscious. I am trying with all my will to resist adding that pretty package to my collection.
Michael Bierut


As one reader to another, I would suggest you give in to your designer eyes and pick up EL&IC. It's a powerful read and second novels from strong writers have remarkable ways of overcoming their first. I had a chance to hear Foer read from and answer questions about his book in NYC and the author took the subject matter seriously (in a good way). I found this novel to contain more bittersweet than sickly sweet parts.

But if I can't win you over on EL&IC, perhaps I can smooth the way by recommending A Convergence of Birds, which was only edited by Foer and has short stories and essays inspired by Joseph Cornell. Many of the stories and poems are good (aside from Foer's, there's a wonderful short story dedicated to Mamet, a poem by a McSweeney's author that was suprisingly moving, and one about the Grand Hotels . . .), but aside from that the book has nice tip ins and lovely endpapers.

Margaret, I didn't need much of a push. I'll give it a try. Thanks.
Michael Bierut

I can't speak to the quality of his writing, but I'm surprised that the blank page gimmick has been mentioned, with mostly neutral-to-positive comments.

When Bret Easton Ellis left did the same in The Rules of Attraction (a blank page was reprentative of the characters inability to speak after an abortion), it was derided as cheap and easy. After all, writers are supposed to write.

And it's also been disappointing that no one has found fit to try an situate the use of type as a visual element in the context of any number of modernists or premodernsist, dating back to Laurence Sterne (1760). I mention this only because it isn't particularly original, but nor it is oft used -- I've always assumed this was because Sterne did such a thorough job of considering the physical aspects of a type that it was, in the end, a distraction from the process of developing a narrative.

And the 'flip-book' should perhaps be explicated a bit more, to allow for people to determine to judge if it merits such praise: it is a series of images that invert the falling (or jumping) of one of the victims of the WTC attacks. This is extremely loaded imagery that I suspect some people might find offensive.

As to the gimmick of running time in reverse, well, as recently as Martin Amis (Time's Arrow) has the technique been deployed to give new perspective on as difficult a topic.
nic musolino

I don't know if Foer takes any direct control in this sort of thing, but it's brand management at its finest.

I would very strongly suspect that Foer is intimately involved in the entire bookmaking process, just based on his interest in visuals and his desire to make the book a more total visual/verbal experience (I can't believe I just said that). Plus authors have at least nominal approval on cover and interior designs.

But "brand management" is the problem for me. I had the exact same reaction the first time I saw the new book. And I immediately wondered if branding--visual branding-- is what you want if you're a serious fiction writer. Cynically, of course, it's possible to say (and it often is) that everything has a brand, even writers, and I suppose it's true in that amorphous way. Any well-known name is a brand--Sontag, Angelou (her own Hallmark line, no less), Eggers--etc etc.

But to actively pursue packaging your brand in a specific way? That seems very strange to me. It seems antithetical to the earnest and difficult work of being an artist, which Foer very much seems to be in pursuit of. Maybe it's romantic to think that writers should be above (yes: above) such branding, but I don't think we should lower our cultural expectations of artists just because the branding industry has foisted itself on everything else so totally.

You could also say, Foer's real brand has to do with parallel narratives, one of which involves a youthful precocious narrator and the other of which is pure Judeo-magical realism--at least then you'd be talking talking about writing and not packaging. These are the things he is consistently and strategically on-message with.
Sam Potts

Calling it branding may not be accurate, but authors have been using book covers — and the consistent design of book covers — for some time, John Updike (in the early days) and Vladimir Nabokov (his whole career) to name two.
Michael Bierut

Thanks, Michael, for echoing my sentiments about Everything is Illuminated that felt almost a crime to admit when the book came out. As both a Jew and a designer, it seemed to be a book destined for both design inspiration and inclusion in my own personal canon of Jewish experience literature.

Unfortunately, what could have been a very moving story, was buried by self-conscious, overly clever and post modern literary devices that were more maddening than anything else.

I guess that's the legacy of my generation of artists/designers--the combination of coming of age in a time of peacetime affluence and our inability to connect to the world emotionally amidst the din of technology and media leaves us with only our own insular and self-conscious cleverness. Can you imagine anyone of my generation writing a book with the ghosts that haunt W.G. Sebald's work? (No.) Hopefully Foer can outgrow these immature tics and write something on the level of other greats such as Bellow, Roth, or Malamud. He's certainly got time, that little whippersnapper.

For better or worse, it's now a McSweeney's world, we designer-literature enthusiasts just live in it. So off to the bookstore I go to buy Extremely Loud and Incredible Close. I hope it doesn't end up being just Extremely Loud and Incrediblly Empty. At the very worst, I'll have another cover design to covet.

Eric Heiman

This post made me think of Richard Eckersley from the University of Nebraska Press -- and specifically The Telephone Book. In it, Eckersley uses typography in "crazy" ways -- the book is about schizophrenia. Like Foer's use of photography and expressive typography, does Eckersley's design enhance the book's meaning? Or is it decorative and gimicky and therefore lacking integrity as a book?
John McGowan

I read the first chapter online (one thing the project museum does have) and, well, ran out and bought the book. The character, Oskar, reminds me exactly of Oskar from The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, only now set into post 9/11 New York. He's well beyond his years, but still has the fast running imagination of a nine year old. Based on the first chapter, I believe I'm going to enjoy this book. And it sure is visually enticing!

I am still wondering how it is that Jessica was able to determine that Foer's "emergent body of work" is anything beyond a simple list of titles for potential future projects. And how does Andrew know about his collection of "blank sheets that famous writers"? Is there something on the website I am missing? Or is it possible that these "projects" don't exist?
Christopher Fahey

Christopher: You can read more about the Empty Page project here. More about Foer and projects including the recent libretto can be found here. The project with Serra and Sugimoto is discussed several places online, including here. The Whispering Parabolas project is a collaboration with an acoustic engineer: two structures set at opposite ends of the park's reservoir that will conduct sound across the water. You can read more about that here.

Jessica Helfand

Jessica--at your recommendation, I went out and bought the book Friday. I read the first chapter right away and had to put it down, it was so magnificent and heartbreaking; it was all I could manage emotionally. Today I went back and read chapters 2 and 3, and will likely spend most of the rest of the day continuing onward. I wanted to write in and mention two things:

1. Back in the 1759 (no, that is not a typo, I typed 1759!) a writer named Laurence Sterne wrote a book called The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. No book ever looked or read like it before--he preceeded James Joyce with "stream of consciousness" and all other graphic novelists by also including blank pages, black pages, pages with little or indecipherable type, entire passages in Latin, pages in a made up language, pages filled with asterisks, squiggly line drawings, lists, commentary on the novel (within the novel), complete rewrites (or alternatives) on previous chapters (I believe it was the first book to experiment with time, unless of course, you want to include the Bible), empty chapters and on and on.

From the moment of its publication, it caused huge controversy (remember it was 1759!); many critics thought the book was utterly ridiculous, and that it would never sell or last. Happily, they were wrong. As I peruse through my 25-year-old paperback copy--torn, yellowed and dog-earred, I have to remind myself this book was written over 300 years ago. It is one of the truly original books of ours or any time.

2. I think that "Extremely Close and Incredibly Loud" is astonishing (at least thus far!) and while I agree some of the photographs aren't as good as the text--the flip book is one of the most extraordinary things I have ever seen. It made me cry.

Thanks for writing this piece. I, like Michael, had seen the cover, and was put off by it. Good to remember that you can't always judge a book that way. Or maybe you can...
debbie millman

This text is quite hyperbolic and press-release oriented. It just serves to makes me wonder if the cliches about design versus art have reasons for existing. I hardly see any knowledgeable insights as to what has been going on in the arts for some time, since you point out his talents, which amount to basic, run-of-the-mill conceptual output. IF that website is anything, it is far too safe, far far too late in sensibility. We have really been there and back with the trains that once were or were never, the imaginary or almost built or archaeolgical routings of mind, soul, civitas, etc.. that are a bit TOO cleanly resolved, with the whole masked by a citation of genteel beauty posing as aesthetic, with a soooo basic taskwork: Draw a portrait, send it in.... I have them on my wall to wonder about....oh REALLY.

This is a cliche of conceptual art circa 70s, only lacking any reason for the supposed link to society and reality it claimed to wish for. It is white-bread conceptual art far too late, correct for the Princeton literary set I guess, and their collectors, but nothing to do with what is going on in reality, and arts. Neither rigorous enough, nor entertainment enough, nor anything actually demanding a position. Is that the role of contemporary art? Please.

As for working with Richard Serra, yes ok - and!? What does that mean? When was THAT street-cred? What young-turk 28 year old works with some granddaddy...and when so, WHY? When I was 28 I would not have thought it serious if someone my age would work with Serra after his "public art" story and I am 48 now. It probably more follows Matthew Barney's attempt to make Serra hip again, and all that usual closed-island art scene tagging - more power games then arts (which returns me to 28 year old authors atitudes certainly)

So what may indeed be an author worth noting, and maybe (although i disagree) a book design worth noting, doesnt lead to the whole package you are obviously trying to sell here as some wunderkind. What exactly IS so special? The fact that he does this but also that? It is really sounding naive in relation to what is going on in our multi-task artworld since...two decades at least.

IF I wrote on designers like this, I doubt Design Observer would take it serious. It seems the larger issue remains on distinctions between fields. As soon as an author attempts (literary-based) taskwork art, instead of noting this has the tendency to fall more into a parody of the literary-based artist than not, you think it astounding... compared to what or whom exactly? Other artists since two decades, precedents? or "how you feel"?

Artist produced books exist since two decades that do much more than insert blank pages, typography and the like, believe me, they as well have texts, contents, positions references, etc.. From Europe and US.

If the idea is considering intriguing authors/arts links, then how about looking away from just knighting another "so young" book-author and onto the change in conventions of authoring, the ever-strengthened role of text-based producers because of the new nature of the ongoing developments within cultural fields around a term: "scripting"... Which is quite different than the old-fashioned literary-bias and their very old conventions, and thus the idea that it is just an author that transpose their writing from book page to "art field" with no remainders or loss.

art: have you read the book?
debbie millman

Thanks for the links, Jessica. The "Empty Page Project" seems believable, now that it is clear that the project is mostly from other famous living writers who can probably appreciate the logrolling aspect of the project.

As for the other projects, the extent of whose existence we can only verify from his publisher's press releases... well, I guess I'll beleive it when I see it. My point being: Let's not yet credit a 28-year old with accomplishments that only exist as ideas in press releases. They sound like neat ideas, though.
Christopher Fahey

What strikes me about this discussion is how much of it is fixed on Foer's use of stylistic devices. It would seem that artifice has eclipsed the essential communication. We've lost the importance of the story in the distracting vehicles of its delivery.

Then again, maybe it's just the particular interests of this audience (packaging, packaging...).

The kid's right on schedule in his development as a writer in that he's playing with sylistic devices for the sake of playing with stylistic devices. It's like being in design school and discovering all the pretty typefaces for the first time. You want to try them all!, and you want to do it in your very next project.

I think Foer's talented; I also think he has some heavy proponents whose weight has garnered him a lot of attention (JH included). The bigger the buzz and the bigger the controversy (literature or gimmick?), the bigger the sales volume (as Micheal Beirut put it, impressive marketing instincts-very subtle. Also very underground-reminds me somehow of 'zine subculture. Everybody wants to be In The Know and then wants to tell about it, engendering more discussion, etc). The NYTimes Sunday Style section of 4/24 reported the kid just bought a $1.2 million apartment in Brooklyn (part of a new trend putting Brooklyn on the map as a place to live unashamedly). This mention alone seems somehow to attest to his talent, makes people want to learn more, read the book. Big gestures bear reporting and attention attracts more attention. Success in itself engenders success.

Meg Dreyer
Meg Dreyer

I know this is straying from the direction of this discussion, but I just wanted to explain my commute while I read the book this morning. It's very insignificant, but, I thought, amusing. As I came to the part where Oskar is visiting the man upstairs and thinks of all the lonely people, "Eleanor Rigby,"I just happened to have my iPod on shuffle and "Eleanor Rigby" just happened to begin playing just before I got to that paragraph. Without Foer even trying, a new media entered and pertained to the book, even if it's cliché. Just found it sort of serendipitous. I don't know anyone personally reading the book right now, so I wanted to tell someone. That's all.
Jennifer Bankenstein

Jobs | July 23