Boys in the Corner

Jonathan Safran Foer, Wes Anderson, Conor Oberst, and the new male infantilism

In the loudly acclaimed and suddenly backlashed Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Oskar Schell, the nine-year-old son of a dad immolated in the Twin Towers (a Big Bruisee, like most Foer parents), imagines that it might be neat to invent a sign that families could flash at an ambulance carrying their loved one away, maybe forever: "Goodbye! I love you! Goodbye! I love you!" As he toddles around an Eloise-ish (read: Tenenbaum-ish) Manhattan with a key from his late dad, to open a mysterious lock, Oskar concocts a gizmo that will gather all the tears of New York in a reservoir. For all its borrowed experimental-fiction gimcrackery (illegible pages, blank pages, even Berlitz pages--"I'm sorry, this is the smallest I've got"), Extremely is old-timey yiddishkeit tear-jerking in hipster garments--it's Tuesdays with Morrie for the yellow Converse set.

Like most creative-writing-class escapees, Foer writes in patterns of dreamy-fantastical list-making ("Oskar Schell-- Inventor, Jewelry Designer, Jewelry Fabricator, Amateur Entomologist, Francophile, Vegan, Origamist...") that here constitute the most pathological version yet of the salient LittleBlue SmurfBoy™ trait--the endless running of fingertips over Stuff I Really Really Like. Foer's infantilism might be as harmlessly engaging as Anderson's if only his when-you-wish-upon-a-star monkeyshines didn't alight on the World Trade Center. Using Ground Zero as a locus for SmurfBoy's first toddle toward naptime without Mom--oof! Queasy-making.

Why are these boy-men ascending all at once? I can only quote one of the brightest LBSB's I know, an aspiring screenwriter and pushing-30 dweller in Mom's guest room, who casually dismissed Raging Bull by sniffing, "That movie doesn't matter, because masculinity isn't like that any more!" He's right, it isn't. (To gauge whether I'm right: Utter the words "Clive Owen" to a heterosexual woman and watch the pupil dilation.) Also: Especially in the world of blue-state liberal-arts grads, and most especially in the world of movie/book/music criticism, there ain't a lot of Big Bruising going on. In this Blue Smurfy climate, the outsized obsessions, red-hot rhetoric, and violent argument of the Bruisers would give the tastemaking class a panic attack. And to be painfully blunt, LBSB art makes critics and editors feel...relaxed, the way '80s decadents like David Salle and Jay McInerney once made them feel rich and hip. In our Age of Terror, educated art consumers and taste arbiters want nothing more than for Mom to make them a grilled cheese with some Swiss Miss Instant Cocoa on the side. The hand-carvings of the sensitive son--sexless, multi-allergic, bubble dwelling--represent a return to comfort, to nonresponsibility, to sleep.

Wide awake, ready for his Cocoa Puffs: Leading boy-man Conor Oberst
Press Here Publicity
Wide awake, ready for his Cocoa Puffs: Leading boy-man Conor Oberst

I can only pray some hibernating Bruiser--Don DeLillo, say, or Robert Rauschenberg--will spring from his cave, tear LBSB's Saint-Exupéry scarf off his pencil neck, and show him how it's really done: art-making revealed as high-wire act, fire-eating contest, bare-knuckle barroom brawl.

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