Monday 29 August 2011

Devouring Books: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. What to say, what to say? I wanted to love this book so so so much, have it make me cry and laugh and be angry and just generally want the world to be better (I basically wanted it to be The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I guess), but it wasn't quite like that. This is not to say that reading it was a bad experience (far from it) but it wasn't everything that I wanted it to be. It's difficult to say where I got my high expectations for the book from, but let's just say they weren't exactly met.

I probably shouldn't have started this review on such a negative note, because now whatever I say about this book, you're going to think 'well, she didn't like it that much, so I won't bother reading it.' I think that would be a mistake. The problem is, what I wanted from this book was an instant classic, something that I would cherish forever and want to read every week. What I got instead though, wasn't half bad. There are so many quoteworthy lines, that at points during reading, I wondered if it wouldn't have been better to just copy out the entire book. Things like: "Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I'm not living", and "The world is so big and small, in the same moment we are close and far",  and "You can not protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness", and so many more magnificent tiny snippets that reflect the things that we feel that we might never have been able to put into words. I think this is something Foer does as well as any author I've read, and I love him for it dearly.

And yet. A book cannot exist on wonderful quotes alone, and, in my eyes, where this book falls down is in one particular part of it, which I felt should have been the most important, but instead became the most annoying. There are basically three voices in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, those of Oskar, a nine year old boy whose father died in 9/11, and his grandmother and grandfather. Of these, I felt that Oskar's story was the most important (it seems to me that there hasn't been a lot of fiction written about 9/11, so the first of these need to be done well, in my opinion) and yet his was the one that annoyed me the most- I'm not sure if it was just his precocious, and yet socially challenged character (he fails to see why referring to his cat as his pussy is so hilarious, which I don't really buy, but then he's not allowed to watch TV either...) or just the general scenarios that Foer put him in, but I really didn't feel as sympathetic towards him as I thought I should have. I mean, the kid's just lost his father, and I just sort of wanted him to shut up a little bit, which made me feel like a monster, but I don't think I'm entirely to blame for this- surely Foer could have made him more sympathetic?

The parts of the story told by Oskar's grandmother and grandfather I found a lot better, especially since they have so much more to tell than Oskar actually does- everything has yet to happen to him, whereas most of the things that are going to happen to them have already happened. I liked the linking of 9/11 to Dresden, (which is not exactly explicit, but I made it myself!) as a sort of reminder that deaths are caused by all sorts of people, to all sorts of people, without any kind of reason connecting them. There were, however, even implausibilities in these sections, most notably in his grandmother's narration, addressed directly to Oskar, where she tells him about having sex with his grandfather! Is this really something that grandparents share with their grandchildren? I think not.

The main plot, where Oskar attempts to solve the mystery of a key he finds in his father's wardrobe, I found pretty uninspiring, although I felt that all the Blacks he finds (Black is the name on the envelope the key was in) were sort of more interesting than Oskar was himself. They have genuinely interesting lives and eccentricities, whereas Oskar's own eccentricities remind me more of this, from Sex and the City: "It's like she's consciously trying to cultivate eccentricities, so that nobody notices she's completely devoid of personality." Again, I feel like a monster, but Foer, seriously? Write a kid that I can have any interest in, rather than a hipster's wet dream of what a child should be like. One thing that I did feel, however, was that Oskar was a lot more likeable when his father was alive (and maybe a bit more genuine childlike?) so perhaps his father's death has acted as a catalyst for his new weirdness. But still. I just didn't like him, OK?

I guess, in spite of my review, I would still recommend Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, if only for those little breathtaking moments in words, and the parts not narrated by Oskar. Like I said, it's not that I hated the book at all, it's just that I was disappointed not to be blown away by it like I thought I would be. I'm choosing not to feel bad about my monstrousness, though, because Michiko Kakutani (who I consider to be pretty important in the literary world considering that she has a Pulitzer and reviewed Carrie's book in Sex and the City...) according to Wikipedia, "identified the unsympathetic main character as a major issue". I can think of worse people to be in agreement with. But still, please do read it and find some kind of redeeming light in Oskar, then come back here and call me a monster. I'd be perfectly willing to be proven wrong about this book.


  1. "Write a kid that I can have any interest in, rather than a hipster's wet dream of what a child should be like." This is a fantastic line. I liked the book more than you seem to but I did have a problem with Oskar anytime I stopped and thought about him for too long. I liked the writing so much that I was able to overlook Oskar's precociousness.

  2. Why thank you Alley, I was rather proud of that bit myself ;) hehe. I really did like the writing (I have honestly written about 20 quotes down out of the book) but I have such issues with Oskar that it's crazy... I kind of didn't even mean to be as negative as I have been, but I just couldn't help it, I think because I wanted more out of it than I got. But then I still want other people to read it! I don't know what I want, basically... hehe