The Mysterious Case of the Missing Jonathan Safran Foer Novel
Something mysterious is afoot in the land of books. A Jonathan Safran Foer novel---one promised by the publishing industry and highly anticipated---has gone missing. MISSING! Vanished with no trace and no word from Penguin Random House, the publishing company who bought rights to the book.
The book, Escape From Children's Hospital, teeters between fiction and nonfiction. It's based on the true story of how, at nine years old, Jonathan and his best friend Stewart were at summer camp and an explosion in the chemistry lab burned the skin off Stewart's face and hands, and left Jonathan with a handful of first- and second-degree burns, though none so damaging as Stewart's. Though based on a true story, some parts of the book are fictionalized.
Perhaps if Jonathan Safran Foer wasn't as popular as he is, no one would've noticed. I'm assuming, much like film rights for TV and movies, that books are acquired by publishers and delayed or never published at all on a fairly frequent basis. But JSF is one of the most prolific writers of our generation. He gave us the sheer brilliance that is Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. So to tempt the world with a new JSF novel then hold back is a particular kind of cruel and unusual punishment.
Naturally, I'm not the only one itching to read Escape From Children's Hospital. There have been several articles by people just as excited as I am at the prospect: The Atlantic's The Wire, The London School of Publishing, The Bookseller, Book Riot, writer Paul Cunliffe who interviewed Foer, and Penguin Random House themselves. Not to worry. I've followed the internet rabbit holes and am hot on the trail, metaphorical magnifying glass in hand.
News of Escape From Children's Hospital first arose in spring of 2012, where it was shared that the novel would be released in "early 2014," as stated by the publisher, Penguin. In the statement Penguin released on its now defunct communications blog (likely rendered defunct due to Penguin's merger with Random House, thus forming Penguin Random House), Penguin stated:
A fictionalised account of a life-changing event that happened to the author as a nine-year-old - an explosion in a summer camp science class, which left his best friend without skin on his face or hands, and whose brunt the author avoided by inches and for no good reason - this is a story about the shared trauma of childhood, the potential destructiveness of storytelling, and the redemptive power of friendship. Weaving precariously between non-fiction and fiction, and existing at the intersection of different styles (suspense, memoir, imaginative storytelling), the book moves out from that moment in 1985 to the repercussions on the ever-expanding circle of those affected by it.
The statement also included a statement from Foer himself: "What actually happened that day? What is a novel capable of? These are the two questions I have been living inside of, and I hope they will answer one another: my novel is what happened that day; and a truthful, experiential telling of that day is what the novel is capable of."
Intriguing, no? Of course, the goal of a statement from the publisher is to whet readers' palates and make them want to read the book. So it seems odd that they would share information before the book was ready for publication, then hold back. I've got a handful of theories...
Theory 1: The novel was lost in the shuffle of the Penguin Random House merger.
Escape From Children's Hospital was first announced in 2012 and was set for publication in 2014, but between these events Penguin, Foer's publisher, merged with fellow publishing powerhouse Random House. As with any merger, there are shifts of power, layoffs, and other business messiness. It's quite possible that in the hectic mix of change, Foer's book was delayed. However, publishing houses are in the business of making money, which a new Foer novel would undeniably do, so while this theory is a possibility, I don't think it's the most likely.
Theory 2: Foer pitched the novel before it was finished.
When an author has had past success, especially as much success as Jonathan Safran Foer, they can pitch their publishers book ideas without having the completed manuscript ready to hand over. They've established themselves as trustworthy, so their publishers may accept works on an anticipatory basis. Since Escape From Children's Hospital is based on a true story, and a traumatic one at that, writing such a piece would be challenging even for the most prolific writer. Foer did once write about the explosion once before in The Guardian, where the resistance he felt to writing the essay is palpable. I don't anyone who read that essay would have expected any more from him on the subject---the hesitation is thick. It's almost as if you can feel him asking if he's doing the right thing with every word he types.
It's possible that he intended to write the novel or wrote a good part of it, then found himself unwilling to continue. To top it off, he and his wife, author Nicole Krauss, separated in 2014---the year Escape From Children's Hospital was set to release---so I can only imagine the emotional trauma of that, coupled with remembering the traumas of remembering the explosion is a heavy weight to bear.
Theory 3: The book is coming, just not yet.
Readers hungry for a new Foer novel actually won't have to wait too long. His novel Here I Am is set for release on September 6th of this year. It's not unheard of for writers to work on two books at once, so it's possible he began writing Here I Am and the story flowed more freely than Escape From Children's Hospital, or his interest just shifted more in the direction of Here I Am. As noted in the recent Guardian article announcing the forthcoming Here I Am, Escape From Children's Hospital has been moved "off schedule." So it's possible that we're just getting Here I Am first and Escape From Children's Hospital later.
It's too soon to tell, though I'll be following hot on the trail should further news be released.
What do you think? Are you excited about the prospect of a new Jonathan Safran Foer novel? Does Escape From Children's Hospital sound like something you'd like to read? Which of my theories do you think is most likely? Share your thoughts in the comments!