Saturday, April 17, 2010

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Foer

Reviewed by Connie

Published: 2005

It's about: In a word, or rather, a couple of numbers and a forward slash, this book is about 9/11.  9-year-old Oskar struggles to come to terms with his father's death in the twin towers during that fateful event in 2001.  Obsessed with artifacts of his father's life and the fact that they buried an empty coffin, Oskar continues to isolate himself in his grief from the people in his life -- his grandmother, whose husband left her long ago and who now lives solely for Oskar; his mother, who, to Oskar's dismay, has a new male friend with whom she laughs, and she seems to be not only moving on but also oblivious to the fact that Oskar can't.  Juxtaposed with the experiences of survivors of the Dresden and Hiroshima bombings in WWII, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close examines the effects that traumatic events have on people of every age and tries to find a solution to ending the pain.

I thought: I have struggled writing this review for the past week since I finished this book, mostly because I am not entirely sure what I thought about it.  From the very opening paragraph, I was literally laughing out loud and reading every paragraph twice -- once to myself then a second time out loud to my husband.  Oskar, as a narrator, though he is admittedly somewhat extreme in his characterization, is endearing, funny, and obviously a very lost and sad little boy.  Speaking of extreme, however -- the extremity of the book (though I guess its title should have tipped me off) was probably what made me so confused about my opinion of it.  Many of the plot-lines and characters in the novel seem far-fetched and exaggerated, but once I came to see those elements as more of a metaphor than a realistic depiction, I once again allowed myself to love the book.  It not only entertains, it asks a reader to ponder how he or she deals with shocking and life-changing events and teaches us that above all else, we are never alone in grief and our loved ones are an essential part of overcoming trauma.

Verdict: After a week of deliberation and also discussion with other readers and our own reviewer, Julie, my verdict is.... stick it on the shelf.

Reading Recommendations: If you read this book, just be warned ahead of time that it received very mixed reviews, and in a lot of cases, the negative reviews were given by New Yorkers and other people who think they are experts on how 9/11 affected people.  Don't read this book with an expectation of learning how 9/11 affected every victim and their families; this book is not meant to be a universal description that can or should be applied to everyone.  Read it as a fiction case study of how a traumatic incident -- the loss of his father -- affected one small boy and his mother.

Warnings: There's not much to beware of in this book.  There are a couple of instances where Oskar hears random facts about sex and recites them, but it's done in a silly and humorous manner.

Also by this author: Everything Is Illuminated

Favorite excerpts:

My first jiujitsu class was three and a half months ago.  There were fourteen kids in the class, and we all had on neat white robes.  We practiced bowing, and then we were all sitting down Native American style, and then Sensei Mark asked me to go over to him.  "Kick my privates," he told me.  That made me feel self-conscious.  "Excusez-moi?" I told him.  He spread his legs and told me, "I want you to kick my privates as hard as you can."  He put his hands at his sides, and took a breath in, and closed his eyes, and that's how I knew he actually meant business.  "Jose," I told him, and inside I was thinking, What the? He told me, "Go on, guy.  Destroy my privates."  "Destroy your privates?" With his eyes still closed he cracked up a lot and said, "You couldn't destroy my privates if you tried.  That's what's going on here.  This is a demonstration of the well-trained body's ability to absorb a direct blow.  Now destroy my privates."  I told him, "I'm a pacifist," and since most people my age don't know what that means, I turned around and told the others, "I don't think it's right to destroy people's privates.  Ever."

And in a fantastic scene in which Oskar and his shrink play word associations:
"Family." I said, "Family."  He said, "I'm sorry, I don't think I explained this well.  I'll say a word, and you tell me the first thing you think of."  I said, "You said 'family,' and I thought of family."  He said, "But, let's try not to use the same word, okay?"..."How about safety?" "How about it?" "OK." "Yeah." "Bellybutton." "Bellybutton?" "Bellybutton." "I can't think of anything but bellybutton." "Give it a try.  Bellybutton." "Stomach anus?" "Good." "Bad." "No, I meant, 'Good.  You did good.'" "I did well." "Well." "Water." "Celebrate." "Ruff ruff."  "Was that a bark?" "Anyway." "OK.  Great." "Yeah." "Dirty." "Bellybutton." "Uncomfortable." "Extremely." "Yellow." "The color of a yellow person's bellybutton."

I felt, that night, on that stage, under that skull, incredibly close to everything in the universe, but also extremely alone. I wondered, for the first time, if life was worth all the work it took to live.  What exactly made it worth it?  What’s so horrible about being dead forever, and not feeling anything, and not even dreaming?  What’s so great about feeling and dreaming?