Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Jonathan Safran Foer, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (2005).

There really wasn't much about Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close that would compel me to read it. I was vaguely aware of the criticism surrounding his writing style. His first book Everything is Illuminated (2002) generated a flood of effusive praise, and the literary establishment embraced him as an immensely talented newcomer. His debut novel was adapted to film, and that sparked a marked increase in attention for the young writer (Foer was born in 1977). With his follow-up work, the naysayers got louder. Foer uses a variety of postmodern literary devices that many among the old guard look upon with disdain. There is a non-linear narrative, enigmatic photos, multiple voices, and even a 12-page picture-flip book at the end of ELaIC. With this type of invention, Foer has aligned himself with other contemporary authors that have likewise garnered a mixed bag of accolades and condescension (see Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, Mark Danielewski, et al.).

While all of the pop culture analysis wouldn't have necessarily turned me off completely from exploring Foer's writings, the subject of ELaIC might have, had I not found a copy of it for $1 at a local library book sale. The novel concerns a son's struggles to come to grips with the death of his father at the World Trade Center on 9-11. At the risk of sounding flippant, I just never have been all that interested in engaging the type of melodramatic material that has flooded the market in the wake of the tragedy. It is such a loaded historical event that I am immediately wary of the prospect of a creator's political agenda. There is also the sense that the event has become "America's Tragedy", and politicians and the media seem to have prescribed a certain set of feelings and ideas that are somehow "appropriate" for divining its meaning. Without taking anything away from its importance in shaping our times, I simply feel like putting it aside for the time being.

But ELaIC employs 9-11 only as a background theme for one boy's evolving understanding of personal loss. The author's choice to use the building collapse as a launching pad for empathy is effective only because he doesn't force the reader to engage all of the typical conclusions and ramifications force-fed to the American public over the last half of a decade. The scope of the novel is limited to the suffering of one family, and this specific pain lends the book a particularly human scale. We understand the grief the child is experiencing, and his inability to come to terms with his transformed emotional life. At the same time, we encounter his grandparents' memories of the Dresden bombings during World War II. Still, the horrible devastation of those years is likewise a platform for understanding how the individual deals with great loss.

It doesn't hurt that the precociously insightful kid at the center of ELaIC is endearing. His wanderings through the boroughs of NYC are illuminated by his idiosyncratic approach to his surroundings and his extraordinarily open attitude toward the people he meets. He has found a strange key among his father's things, and has embarked on the task of searching for the lock that it opens. Along the way he unravels a series of mysteries about the inner lives of both strangers and those closest to him (his mother and grandmother). There is particular pleasure to be found in reading the dialog between the boy and the odd mix of personalities he encounters. When writing from the perspective of a nine-year-old, there's always the risk of straining credibility by investing too much mature insight into the voice. But Foer manages to keep that tendency in check. Little Oskar certainly has a uniquely charming worldview, but it's never so distracting that we lose the sense of his fundamental innocence and wonder.

I found a lot to like about Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The radical shifts in tone between Oskar's evolving perspective, and the somewhat disjointed ruminations of his forebears was initially disconcerting. Yet Foer managed to dole out a string of connections that kept the separate narratives from veering off into altogether different directions. The pacing was brisk, and I never felt burdened by extraneous details and descriptions that might take me out of the story. At one point a character tries to convey a message via telephone touch pad, but I didn't feel any overwhelming need to sit and decode the lengthy string of numbers. I suppose if one wanted to delve deeper, he/she could have gotten even more out of it. But I finished the book satisfied and open to reading more of Foer in the future.

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