Monday, May 09, 2005

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Currently reading: "To the Lighthouse" by Virginia Woolf
"The Sandman Companion" by Hy Bender
Next up: "The History of Love" by Nicole Krauss

Better late than never - my thoughts on Jonathan Safran Foer's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (***may or may not contain spoilers as I'm not taking special care to leave them out, so read at your own risk***)

I promised myself that I wouldn't compare Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (EL&IC) with its predecessor, Everything is Illuminated, because they are two completely different books and should each stand on their own. However, as they are both works by an author I admire I will say this: EII was great. EL&IC was good.

EL&IC tells the story of Oskar Schell, a 9-year-old boy in Manhattan whose father died in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He finds a key in an envelope marked "Black" amid his father's things and starts out on a quest around NYC to find out what the key means and gain some insight into how his father died. The other story intertwined with this one is the story of Oscar's grandparents: his grandfather, who lost his ability to speak along with the woman he loved; and his grandmother, from whom we hear in letters she writes to him.

Much has been made of Oskar's being too precocious and "cute" in other reviews. I think the creation of Oskar Schell is the best thing in the book. I think that all of his eccentricities (many unexplained) make him a vivid, interesting character. He was the kind of character I wanted to reach in and hug - especially when he "gave himself bruises" or wore "heavy boots."

I also appreciate the way that JSF writes his older characters. Thomas and Oskar's grandmother are riveting in the way the express themselves and tell their stories - JSF treats them with such dignity and care, and I was completely invested in both of them.

**the moment when Oskar tells his mother that he wishes she had died in 9/11 instead of his father is heartwrenching. I cried and had to put the book down and stop reading for the day after that.

**the moment when Thomas says goodbye to his wife before going to the airport - again, I cried.

JSF has a gift for getting to the emotional heart of things in a way that few writers do. In this novel, as in his first and in his short fiction, he describes feelings in a way that I never could, but in a way that I recognize immediately.

Now, this is not to say that the book doesn't have its flaws...there are certain lines that are too much - something about zipping up the sleeping bag of myself comes to mind. And while I respect the impulse to try to make this novel more than just words on a page by adding images to be flipped through, there were some that were just pointless - even taken in the context of being in Oskar's book of Stuff That's Happened to Me. For example, the page that depicts the ink samples at the paint store works, because I found Thomas' name among the others and it piqued my interest. However, the photo of the elephant crying just seems to be an illustration and doesn't seem to serve a real purpose in being there...

However, my biggest problem with the book is the fact that I think JSF has chosen to deal directly with September 11th too soon. This is not to say that it is "too sacred" to write about, or that it shouldn't be dealt with, or that JSF shouldn't have been the first to write about it. I think if any author would be capable of dealing with that tragedy in a novel, he would. My problem is that I know that he had written a completely different novel before this....about lives converging in a museum, about a homosexual relationship that goes unacknowledged in history.... Also, I remember hearing the character, Oskar, for the first time at a reading JSF did at Russian Samovar in December of 2002 - he read the original first chapter of what now exists as EL&IC. 9/11 wasn't mentioned at all. I don't know what JSF's process was, or when what was to be "The Zelnick Museum" ended up turning into EL&IC, but it just feels like 9/11 was stuck in as an afterthought, and so it doesn't feel quite true. What holds this book together for me is Oskar's sense of loss. How he is dealing with the loss of a parent. But in this book, the fact that his father died in 9/11 seems inconsequential. His father could have died any number of ways, and it wouldn't affect the book at all - Oskar would probably still deal with the same fears and insecurities had anything else killed his father. So why tell this story? Why try to write a 9/11 novel that isn't really a 9/11 novel? I feel like JSF should've waited until there was a story that had to be told, where 9/11 is a character as much as the characters are. Something like 9/11 - especially since it hasn't really been dealt with in fiction yet - shouldn't just be a backdrop. Not yet. Not enough time has passed. I don't think enough time has passed for us to even start writing about it - we're still too close to it to assess its damage. I miss what would've been "The Zelnick Museum" or "The Project Museum" or whatever the title would've been - that's a story I would love to have read.


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