Jonathan Safran Foer hasn't always been like this. "I was a flamboyant child," he says. "I used to wear, like, very crazy outfits all the time--bow ties, big blazers, glittery stuff. I was a little mini-Liberace." Not anymore. Foer is so buttoned-down and serious he makes Philip Roth look like Andre 3000.
It's not that Foer--it's one syllable, "like the number four"--isn't funny and charming, because he is. But there's something deeply, essentially earnest about him. Gone are the bow ties: he dresses to disappear, in a gray sweater and blue jeans. He is neither hip nor cool. Skinny and delicately handsome, he looks even younger than he is. He doesn't go out. He is a vegetarian.
He is, however, remarkable in other ways. Right now Foer is the LeBron James of the literary world--young, preternaturally mature, enviably well compensated (he got a seven-figure advance for his last novel), and coming off a wildly successful rookie season. In 2002 his debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated, put him in the first rank of interesting young fiction writers. The movie version, starring Elijah Wood, is due out in August.
Everyone is watching Foer's new book, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Houghton Mifflin; 326 pages), which drops later this month, to see if it holds up. It does, and more, but it also makes clear that Foer is different from other hyperachieving young writers. Where young Turks like Dave Eggers get tagged as ironic, and even snarky, Foer is profoundly serious. The way some other 28-year-olds are interested in beer and video games, Foer is interested in the Truth with a capital T, and he's not afraid to go for all the big themes at once. In Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Foer takes on death, love, sex, pain, war and Sept. 11.
The hero of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is someone even younger, smarter and less hip than Foer. Oskar Schell is a weird, compulsive, deeply nerdy 9-year-old kid who lost his father in the destruction of the World Trade Center. Oskar's many obsessions include physicist Stephen Hawking, playing the tambourine, looking for mistakes in the New York Times, and inventing things: "There are so many times when you need to make a quick escape, but humans don't have their own wings, or not yet, anyway, so what about a birdseed shirt?" And so on. When Oskar discovers a mysterious key in his late father's closet, he embarks on a picaresque journey through New York City to find the lock it opens. It's his strange, private, obsessive way of dealing with death.
As subjects for fiction go, 9/11 is pretty much in the maximum-degree-of-difficulty category. "I was very hesitant," Foer remembers. "I felt like I wasn't sure how much it was my story to tell." But he thought somebody needed to write about the attacks in a way that was depoliticized, stripped of ideology, of everything but pure tragedy. "So much of the reason I wrote the book was because I was tired of the tellings of [the Twin Tower bombings] having messages, having points. What I wanted was exactly to make something that didn't have a point: These are people who lost something, this is what it looks like."