Tuesday, April 15, 2008
Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close
I picked this book up two days ago to read the first page (I personally think you can tell a lot about a book from the first page) and was hooked. I'm in the middle of another book, which is a good book, but the jarring nature of the prose reeled me in. The first chapter is called, "What the?" which is exactly what I was thinking. I was instantly reminded of another great book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, where you actually experience the book as well as read it. While I wouldn't want every book to be written like that, because it's a bit like riding a roller coaster in the dark with strobe lights, it sure is fun every once in a while.
Jonathan Safran Foer, the author, writes the tale of a nine year old boy named Oskar Schell, whose father was in the World Trade Center when the planes flew into them on September 11th. I think its fair to say that the boy becomes extremely troubled after his father's death, but with the unconventional childhood he had, it didn't take much to push him over the edge. His father was an atheist and Oskar never had the opportunity to experience the innocence most children are usually allowed. He was taught that he exists because his father and mother made love and his father's sperm fertilized his mother's egg and through meiosis and mitosis created a new human made up of cells. And when a person dies, they are gone and only their cells go on. After a period of time had passed and there was no recovery of his father's body, his mother buried an empty coffin.
This passage of the book is great: Oscar tells his mother, "It's just an empty box." "It's more than an empty box." "Why would I want to spend eternity next to an empty box?" Mom said, "His spirit is there," and that made me really angry. I told her, "Dad didn't have a spirit! He had cells!" "His memory is there." "His memory is there," I said, pointing at my head. "Dad had a spirit," she said, like she was rewinding a bit in our conversation. I told her, "He had cells, and now they're on rooftops, and in the river, and in the lungs of millions of people around New York, who breathe him every time they speak!"
That is how the parts that are narrated by Oskar are written. The dialogue is only differentiated by quotation marks, but there are very few, "he said"s or "she described"s. The author makes you pay attention to who is doing the speaking. But only when Oskar is narrating. It's part of experiencing Oskar.
The book also tells the story of Oskar's paternal grandparents. The narration changes when both tell their own story. When his grandmother writes, there are no paragraphs and no quotations marks. Lots of odd spacing and most sentences get their own line. She's kind of crazy herself which you know by how she reacts when watching Oskar in his school's play of Hamlet and her conversations with Oskar. Oskar's grandfather...well...that's when you really see crazy. The author uses the most license with him and parts of the book are downright bizarre. Like the eight pages with nothing on them. Or when he starts to write smaller and smaller so that two entire pages are just dark black scribbles because some many words are on top of themselves.
It's more than just tricks on the page, however. The story is really about grief and how Oskar chooses to grieve for his father and how Oskar's grandparents grieved after losing much of what they loved when their city of Dresden was bombed in World War II.
When Oskar finds a key in an envelope with the word "Black" written on it inside a vase in his parent's bedroom, he sets out to discover what it unlocks. He goes about this by finding every person with the last name of "Black" in the five boroughs of New York City and spends almost a year going out on the weekends to ask Aaron, Abel, Amber etc. if they know anything about the key. A few interesting characters and stories get told through this storyline, but the real beauty of this book is how it made me remember and react to the horror of 9/11 again. You kind of forget....with the War on Terror, and the Iraq War and all of the stories that have happened during the last six years how horrible it was to watch those burning buildings go down on live TV. The last 14 pages of the book are pictures Oskar got off of a Portuguese web site that had a picture of a man who had jumped from the building. He put them in reverse order and you see this body in the air going up. The wish of a nine year old boy.
This book is exactly what its title says it is. Extremely and incredibly written. It's different, but I sure liked it.