April 24, 2005

Eyes of Children

In the course of reviewing Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, John Updike wonders why so many novelists are seeing the world through the eyes of children:
This reader’s heart slightly sank when he realized that he was going to spend more than three hundred pages in the company of an unhappy, partially wised-up nine-year-old.

The novel, traditionally a mirror held up to the Western bourgeoisie, to teach its members how to shave, dress, and behave, has focused on adult moral choices and their consequences. With some brilliant exceptions like Dickens and Mark Twain and Henry James, novelists have not taken children seriously enough to make them protagonists. However sensitive and observant, the ordinary child lacks property and the capacity for sexual engagement; he exists, therefore, on the margins of the social contract—a rider, as it were, on the imperatives and compromises of others.

Yet in recent years a number of young novelists—Stephen Millhauser and Jonathan Lethem, for two—have devoted their most ambitious and energetic efforts to detailing the fervent hobbies and the intoxicating overdoses on popular culture, the estrangement and the dependence that characterize contemporary American childhood.

Childhood’s new viability as novelistic ground may signal a shift in the very nature of being a human being, considered anthropologically as a recipient and continuer of tribal myths, beliefs, and strictures. Older novelists up through Joyce, Proust, and Hemingway portrayed the pained shedding of this traditional baggage; the newer novelists, having inherited almost no set beliefs from their liberal, distracted middle-class parents, see childhood as the place where one invents the baggage—totems, rituals, lessons to live by—of a solitary one-person tribe.
Seems plausible enough. And yeah, I'm browsing through reviews of Foer's new book, so that I can arm myself with sound opinions on the offchance I get invited to a cocktail party. (As for reviews: The Slate folks are good, the New York Press is hackish.) The one minor, nitpicky thing that bothered me about EL&IC was that, sometime in late 2002 (in novel time), the protagonist logs on the internet and randomly finds a picture of an American soldier getting beheaded in Iraq. Which, obviously, is impossible. I wouldn't mind so much, but at that point in the novel, this is the only clue you have as to how much time has elapsed since 9/11. So a news junkie would say, "Ah! a clue!" and assume it's 2004. But no, later on you're told it's not. Annoying.
-- Brad Plumer 5:11 PM || ||