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Interview by Jane Zwart


Those Things Tumbling Around Inside

A conversation with Jonathan Safran Foer.

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One of the other things that you keep coming back to (for whatever reason) is, I think, the imagery of reversal. Readers of your novels will probably notice the trope of reversal most clearly in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close—and especially in that book's ending, where the images of a man plummeting from the World Trade Center are reversed so that he ascends instead of falls. Could you talk a little bit about why such images of reversal are so compelling for you?

It's so funny you should mention that because I just reread an introduction I wrote for a book called The Heavens Are Empty, and I only read it because you had the book with you backstage. Anyway, that introduction contains—you might not have even remembered this—just such a reversal. I imagine the Jewish Diaspora that flowed out of Eastern Europe across the world reversing and going back.

Still, I can't explain why it interests me. It's just something that has always interested me. I like watching things happen backwards. I don't know why. I don't. But I find it very beautiful.

For one thing, I think seeing things occur backwards, because it is really disorienting, can make the mundane seem really spectacular again. I guess part of why I care about that is my anxiety about missing life, you know? I don't want find myself on my deathbed saying, "Ooh, that was so fast. Did that really just happen?" I would prefer to have been present for everything as it happened. Things that make me present, then, I appreciate. Or like. And often I find them very beautiful. Watching something in slow-motion, watching something in reverse, takes these little daily acts that are sort of throwaways and lets us notice them.

What might be an example? Every morning, let's say, my older son comes downstairs. We brush his teeth. Put toothpaste on his brush. Brush his teeth. He spits into the sink. To think instead of the water in the sink going back into his mouth—to think of him unbrushing his teeth and then taking the toothpaste back into the tube and walking backwards to his bed and the bed tucking him back in—well, it's kind of weird and it's kind of beautiful. More importantly, though, it turns this thing that is actually a wonderful, wonderful five minutes, but totally forgotten (because we do it every single day and it just becomes mundane) significant again. Worse, this ritual sometimes becomes a chore. So if there's a way to re-envision these little things so that their beauty is revealed, that's really exciting.

In fact, that's the most that art can hope to do, since art can't be more than life. That wouldn't make sense, because there is nothing more than life. Still, art can reveal what is amazing about life.

Do you think there's any sense in which that reversal, getting something back by getting it backward, is a way of keeping those eleventh and twelfth commandments you talked about last night? The commandments "Don't Ever Change" and "Change." Is there a way in which looking at things backward enacts that, do you think?

Maybe. Maybe in seeing things reversed, you get to have it both ways.

Again, kids are a great analogy. You want your kids to grow up and you don't want your kids to grow up. And you can't have it both ways. You want your kids to become independent of you, but it's also in a way a parent's worst nightmare: for them to not need you. So, how do you reconcile those two very strong emotions? You don't. You live with that problem. It's the real tragedy of parenting. And maybe there's some sense in which in art you can have it both ways whereas in life you can't.

Is there any possibility, do you think, whether for you personally or not, that religious belief lets us have it both ways: changing and never changing? Whereas in life, without that, we can't?

What do you mean?

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