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Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

March 24, 2012

“Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living”

Upon starting to read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I was horrified to find these two people populating my imagination:

extremely-loud_2118255b.jpg

Bitterly regretting my decision (not entirely mine) to watch the trailer of the (then upcoming, Oscar nominated, now flopped) film before reading the book, I slogged on, trying to forcibly evict Hanks’ extraordinarily un-dulcet tones from my mind. Bearing a book club deadline in mind, and already cutting it close, I did not have the luxury of leaving the reading until I could forget the aesthetically unpleasant taste the trailer left in my mouth. Now, (and I know this isn’t the point of this post, but bear with me) I love a bit of Sandra Bullock. I have seen a surprising number of films in which she features, and I really do rather like them. She is just one funny woman, so Sandra Bullock-y (the good kind). But kitted out as shown above, and sort of vaguely weepy, not so funny. Just Sandra Bullock-y (the bad kind). At least in my mind.  And Tom Hanks… he was just Tom Hanks-y (that is always the bad kind).

What most people know about Extremely Loud is this:

Oscar1) it is narrated by a nine year old boy, Oscar –>

2) he is an annoying know-it-all

3) he has some issues

4) his dad is dead

5) his dad died in nine eleven

6) he has a key, found in an envelope marked “Black” in his dead dad’s closet, and is trying to find out what (in all of New York) it unlocks.

So far, so good, I guess. Getting on with it, disliking the book more and more for the annoying narrator, the annoying images, all in all I was preparing myself for a very unpleasant few commutes. That is, until I reached the first bit of the book concerning the history of protagonist Oscars grandmother. As I was sucked into the love story of these two young people in Dresden, Germany, gradually the Hanks/Bullock image faded, and I managed to enjoy the Foer-esque oddity of the relationships being described.

“Why do beautiful songs make you sad?’ ‘Because they aren’t true.’ ‘Never?’ ‘Nothing is beautiful and true.”

One of the things I enjoyed the most about Extremely Loud was the subtlety of impressions and character building achieved through the first person narrative of Oscar. As I got further into the novel, I was able to see beyond Oscar’s inward-facing mind and come to understand the other characters, and the world around him. The mother and father still remained quite 2D characters (I guess Foer is excused for the Dad, seeing as he’s dead and all), but the grandmother, such a dotty old lady with a baby-phone as unconsciously condescendingly described by Oscar and his mother, really comes to life in the second strand of the narrative, and this life is brought into the present day of the novel. For me, she remains one of the most interesting characters.

Oscar also improves on closer acquaintance. The pivotal moment was when he was speaking to one of the many Blacks he visits, the 103-year old war reporter Mr. Black (a really well written scene). This old man knows so much, but it is the things most people would take for granted, such as what “technicolour” is, Oscar doesn’t know. And as Oscar is compiling a list of things to look up that someone who has lived for a fairly long time would know, his know-it-allness becomes more bearable, and more plausible. He has learnt a lot, remembers a lot, but doesn’t understand all that much.

After completing the novel I was more positive than at the outset, but still not convinced. Everything is Illuminated was such a wonderfully imaginative book, and I found Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close just not quite as good. It lacked a certain depth and power that I think it so easily could have had. It did have some really really (really) good word usage / sentence creation in there, but as I have previously said in my review of Knausgård, that is just not enough. There are always going to be varying reactions to adult novels related by children, but in this case I think the narrator style, though original and spawning a positive deluge of child-narrated adult books (list coming soon!), detracted from the complete impression. An OK read with some truly beautiful sentences dotted around, but not the gripping tale of a suffering child searching for the missing piece of the puzzle set in the politically challenging immediate aftermath of 9/11 it could have been.

“It’s a shame that we have to live, but it’s a tragedy that we get to live only one life”

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 30, 2012 2:24 pm

    I was crazy about this book when I read it in 2010. I felt like the narrative and the post-modern structure was like nothing else I had ever read. I still haven’t seen the movie because I’m thinking it will be a big let down, but I’m sure I’ll watch it at some point.

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