Postmodern Type Treatments in the Works of the Foers

Beginning what I hope to be a lifetime of editing books, I have begun to notice what is “normal” in book format. How should they look and feel? How many blank pages between the acknowledgement and the title page? What size font for chapter titles? Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss are a married couple living in New York and are among my favorite living authors. Their bestsellers include Everything Is Illuminated and The History of Love, respectively. Like many of their readers, I was shocked to learn that they were married, followed quickly by a smack to my forehead. It should have been obvious.Their themes are so similar: love, European immigrants, precocious child narrators, elements of magical realism, and an obvious penchant for all things nature.

Many readers have complained of the “gimmicky” or “tricky” typography. They describe it as being an interruption, or trite. Purists have even argued that it’s a cop out – that the Foers should use the power of words rather than visualizations.

I reread Krauss’ The History of Love most recently. Despite the title, you don’t have to be a romantic to enjoy the novel, although I’m sure it helps. It is driven by three narrators, a melancholic old man, a teenager coping with her own grief and that of her mother, and a third, omniscient narrator, whose prose made me close the book at times to form philosophical renderings in my head. Just as Krauss nontraditionally explores some of the same themes as her husband, she also employs some of the same post modern devices. Unlike almost any other novel, it would be impossible to suck the words out of their books, spit them into an ebook, and result in the same book. This is because both authors use methods such as blank pages, condensed typography, different paragraph spacing for different narrators, or just a few words on a page to prove their point. One particularly poignant example from Everything Is Illuminated:

“There won’t be enough pages in this book for me to tell you what I need to tell you, I could write smaller, I could slice the pages down their edges to make two pages, I could write over my own writing, but then what?” the narrator asks as the text becomes more and more condensed until it becomes unreadable.

I don’t believe that either authors intended any of these devices to simply disrupt or destroy the reader’s idea of what a novel should conventionally be, nor are these devices superfluous. The physical manifestation of how the text appear changes how we read and internalize the words. Why can a novelist not be a visual artist as well? Ultimately, no one can argue the point better than the author himself.¬†When queried about his use of photographs (including a fifteen page flip book of a man falling from one of the World Trade Center towers, but in reverse) and images in his novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer answered:

“One answer is: why not?” Foer says. “Why don’t novels have these things? Why is literature less accepting of the full spectrum of the arts than, say, painting or music? It’s not at all strange to see writing within a painting? Why is it so strange to see painting within writing? “A book is a little sculpture. The choice of fonts, the size of the margins, the typography all influence the way the book is read. I consciously wanted to think about that, wanted to have the book really be something you hold in your hands, not just a vehicle for words. So I was involved in every step of the design, right down to how the book is stamped underneath the dust jacket.”