Tuesday, July 5, 2016
Jonathan Safran Foer's excellent NYer story and why writers should show don't tell but don't show off either
X-country flight and a lot of time to read a # of stories yesterday including catch-up on some old NYer issues and the story that impressed me the most was the long piece by Jonathan Safrzn Foer, Maybe it was the Distance, in the NYer summer fiction issue. He's a writer who for me has had ups and downs, who hasn't, but more than the usual, so much so that at times it seems he's writing not to communicate, express, or entertain but to show off - how smart he is, how clever, how funny. I felt that on and off in his first novel but hoped, expected in fact, that he would relax and settle into a style and mature as a writer, and this story is evidence that he's really doing so in mid-career, working toward a break-out. The story tells of a lifelong friendship and rivalry of two male cousins, Jacob and Tamir, one a marginally successful, cautious, timid, self-conscious novelist (not JSF) living in suburban DC and the other a boisterous, bearish, enterprising, successful business guy living in Israel. The story takes place at a meeting at National Airport in DC (like the characters in this story, that's what I call it) - it gradually becomes clear why this meeting is happening, I won't give it away) - and involves a # of look-backs at the childhood behavior of the two men, now in mid-40s, and sketches of the other (male) characters in their lives, particularly their two sons, as different from each other as the fathers are, and Jacob's father, Irv, a wise-cracking set-in-ways elderly Jewish man. Much of the rivalry concerns issues of Judaism and in particular the loyalty, pride, and sometimes shame American Jews feel about Israel - though none of this is heavy-handed or didactic. All told - and I compare this w/ other stories I read last night including one in the NYer that was, as I noted about earlier JSF pieces a good less in show don't tell but don't show off either, another an example of why commissioner short stories almost always fail, another showing that when an author discards a draft of a story there's usually good reason - JSF's piece is a great portrait, with humor and drama, of a family in turmoil and two men going at each other in high style.