Literature loves a list

Noticed something funny while reading (or having read to me) Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Jonathan Safran Foer employs (among many, many other offbeat stylizations) lists from time to time as his narrator chronicles things that happen to him, odd observances, or other amusing bric-a-brac that illuminates the quirks of his characters.

I was intrigued by how the list functioned in the story. Here’s one: Nine-year-old Oskar is listening to Mr. A.R. Black recount his long life, full of references he doesn’t understand.

He had reported almost every war of the twentieth century, like the Spanish Civil War, and the genocide in East Timor, and bad stuff that happened in Africa. I hadn’t heard of any of them, so I tried to remember them so I could Google them when I got home. The list in my head was getting incredibly long: Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, powdering her nose, Churchill, Mustang convertible, Walter Cronkite, necking, the Bay of Pigs, LP, Datsun, Kent State, lard, Ayatollah Khomeini, Polaroid, apartheid, drive-in, favela, Trotsky, the Berlin Wall, Tito, Gone with the Wind, Frank Lloyd Wright, hula hoop, Technicolor, the Spanish Civil War, Grace Kelly, East Timor, slide rule, a bunch of places in Africa whose names I tried to remember but had already forgotten.

What’s engaging to me about the list (aside from its great delivery when read by Jeff Woodruff, as I’ve previously posted), is the reader’s subconscious desire to imagine the conversation that would have threaded all these topics together. It tells a lengthy story all by itself, simply by omitting nearly every article of speech but a handful of nouns.

Here’s another: Oskar’s homemade business card:

OSKAR SCHELL

INVENTOR, JEWELRY DESIGNER, JEWELRY FABRICATOR, AMATEUR ENTOMOLOGIST, FRANCOPHILE, VEGAN, ORIGAMIST, PACIFIST, PERCUSSIONIST, AMATEUR ASTRONOMER, COMPUTER CONSULTANT, AMATEUR ARCHAEOLOGIST, COLLECTOR OF: rare coins, butterflies that died natural deaths, miniature cacti, Beatles memorabilia, semiprecious stones, and other things

This occurs on page 99, so Foer can’t be accused of taking a cheap shortcut for conveying the personality of his protagonist — Oskar has had plenty of time to display most of those traits by now. Instead, I see this list as an aptly timed, alternate glimpse into the character: how he sees himself.

It reminded me of another amusing list I recalled from Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age, and had dog-eared years ago. Stephenson was describing the Design Works, a campus of nanotechnology engineers. Using his loaded-for-bear vocabulary and his obsession for the motes of detail, Stephenson devotes an entire page to a fresco on the ceiling of the main hall depicting the nano engineers as heroes of the age.

Why a whole page?I can’t imagine — perhaps to illustrate the rarity and importance of a decision to make “hard art” (when it would have been easier to make the fresco a billboard-sized TV screen); or perhaps it’s a shorthand to show how this society regards itself. I suspect it’s a third possibility: It was just too damn much fun to cut.

And when Stephenson is having fun, we ALL are. The whole description is like a free day at a water park, but here’s just the final paragraph:

The corners of the fresco were occupied with miscellaneous busywork; in the upper left, Feynman and Drexler and Merkle, Chen and Singh, and Finkle-McGraw reposed on a numinous buckyball, some of them reading books and some pointing toward the work-in-progress in a manner that implied constructive criticism… On the left were the spirits of generations past who had shown up too early to enjoy the benefits of nanotechnology and (not explicitly shown, but somewhat ghoulishly implied) croaked from obsolete causes such as cancer, scurvy, boiler explosions, derailments, drive-by-shootings, pogroms, blitzkriegs, mine shaft collapses, ethnic cleansing, meltdowns, running with scissors, eating Drano, heating a cold house with charcoal briquets, and being gored by oxen.

Yeah. That was pretty much just for yucks.

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