Saturday, November 12, 2011

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

I recently finished this beautiful, captivating book.  My review will not do it justice.  I read it because we have a literary book club at work and I wanted to participate, for a variety of reasons.  I didn't get quite done before the discussion, but I made sure I did the next day, getting up at 5:15 to finish it.  It's the kind of book that makes me despair of writing fiction myself, it's so good.

On one level, the story is about a boy (my only criticism of the book is that the child, Oskar, should be ten, not eight) whose father was killed in the World Trade Center.  It is about a year later and he is trying to deal with his grief and what he perceives, as a child, to be his mother's lack of grief.  We discussed in the group whether the book is about 9/11 or grief or about a child's experience of tragedy.  We didn't come to a conclusion; I'm not sure there is a conclusion to come to on that on.  Oskar is extremely (the two adverb intensifiers show up a lot in the book) intelligent, quirky, irreverent, determined, annoying, bratty at times, childishly sweet at other times.  He had a loving and close relationship with his father, who shared his quirky view of the universe.  His father owned the family jewelry business and only happened to be in the towers that day.  He left phone messages for Oskar and his wife, which Oskar has kept a secret by hiding the phone. 

Oskar finds a key in his father's room when he is snooping, and decides the key is the "key" to understanding everything about his father and his death and why he didn't say I love you at the end.  He sets off on a journey through New York to find the lock for the key, which has the name Black on it.  He assumes he is looking for a person named Black, so he uses the phone book to find all the Blacks and goes to meet them and ask if the key is theirs.

This is not really the whole book, and it isn't until the end that this part makes sense.  The other story is about Oskar's grandparents, an odd couple if there ever was one, who have survived the bombing of Dresden, Germany, to come to New York as immigrants.  The stories intertwined and resolve at the end.

The novel is experimental in that it is not straight narrative, because he does odd e.e. cummings things with text on page, he puts in photographs, and the photographs are necessary to interpret the book.  The voice of the young boy is almost pitch perfect, and funny, especially the first paragraph where he thinks about letting gas in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles (nothing is funnier to a eight-to-ten-year-old boy as a fart.)  There are moments when you cry and others when you scratch your head.  It is a very Jewish book, too, and Foer is the author of the book about the remnants of the Holocaust, Everything is Illuminated.

The book is very humane and human.  It also looks at 9/11 from a different perspective, a New Yorker perspective, that us non-New Yorkers probably need to understand.  We discussed in the group how it was not talked about in the U.S. that people jumped from the towers; that was almost taboo, and in the book Oskar says he has to go to non-English, non-American sites to see pictures of people jumping.  Interesting.

The writing is beautiful.  In one part, Oskar's grandmother (whom I don't think is named, nor is his mother, which is telling--either a male writer's failure to name a woman and thus see her roundly, or a child's failure to think of his mother or grandmother as having a name) speaks about her strange, seemingly doomed marriage to Oskar's grandfather, a man who chooses not to speak and only writes in little daybooks.  She says, "We trusted the future too much."  I think that is very profound, and indicative of many other profound sentences in the novel.

The book is about subjectivity, grief, victimization, our parents, 9/11, and how it is about those things. 

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