THE SOURCE: "Wonder Bread" by Melvin Jules Bukiet, in The American Scholar, Autumn 2007.
A WARM-AND-FUZZY COX HAS infected Brooklyn, New York's newly hip borough. There, a clique of extremely successful young writers has taken up residence and begun producing Brooklyn Books of Wonder (BBoWs). BBoWs, says novelist and Sarah Lawrence College writing teacher Melvin Jules Bukiet, are produced according to a sure-fire recipe: "Take mawkish self-indulgence, add a heavy dollop of creamy nostalgia, season with magic realism, stir in complacency of faith, and you've got wondrousness."
Among those infected with wonder are Jonathan Safran Foer, Dave Eggers, Myla Goldberg, and Nicole Krauss, all of whom have written briskly selling novels (in Eggers's ease, a novelistic memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) in recent years. Others belong to this writing school in spirit. Pulitzer winner Michael Chabon, for example, is a wonder boy, though he lives in the San Francisco Bay area and is slightly older; Alice Sebold is an out-of-state lady of the dub. It's time, Bukiet suggests, that these books come in for the shaming they deserve.
Most BBoWs display several of the following symptoms: child protagonists (often orphans); triumphs over great adversity; epiphanies and lessons learned; "mothy, softcore sex" and "pallid, softcore religion"; wisdom doled out by sage elders; and escapist fantasies "garnished with intellectual flourishes."
Take Sebold's 2002 novel The Lovely Bones, which is narrated by Susie, a 14-year-old who has been raped and murdered and looks down on her family and friends from heaven. The real crime in The Lovely Bones, according to Bukiet, is the healing handed out to everybody. Even the heaven-bound Susie eventually gets to experience beautiful sex vicariously by occupying a young friend's body during the act.
Ditto for Foer's treatment of the Holocaust and the 9/11 attacks, the subjects, respectively, of Everything Is Illuminated (2002) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005). In both books, wonder is history's antidote. The young protagonists' quests for personal answers to grand tragedies evoke "deep nostalgia" for the past and an inability to confront the "grotesque reality" of the present.
Yet people buy BBoWs "by the truckload" because they "instantly trigger the 'Awww' reflex of narcissistic empathy," Bukiet sniffs. To make matters worse, some BBoWs are actually well written, rendering them even more "insidious."
Serious fiction sharpens reality, Bukiet says, while BBoWs rescue us from it. "Your father is dead, or your mother, and so are most of the Jews of Europe, and the World Trade Center's gone, and racism prevails, and sex murders occur. What is, is. The real is the true, and anything that suggests otherwise, no matter how artfully constructed, is a violation of human experience."