Friday, 10 April 2009

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - Jonathan Safran Foer

Read: February 2008

9/11 changed everything for nine-year-old Oskar Schell. He went to school in the morning only to return home soon after, alone, to discover his father's last messages from the World Trade Centre on the answerphone. And then nothing. He never saw his father again. Unsurprinsingly, he has ‘heavy boots’ all the time now. He is scared of tall buildings, the subway, men with beards, and boats. He doesn’t want to get over the event, and refuses to let his mother get over it either. He gives himself little bruises to punish himself for his fathers absence. Then Oskar finds a strange key hidden inside an envelope in a blue vase in his father’s wardrobe and begins a quest to discover which of New Yorks 162 million locks it opens. His only clue is the word ‘Black’ written on the envelope he found the key in. Oskar’s quest takes him across the whole of New York, into the lives of strangers who guide him along the way, and bit by bit he begins to uncover a family mystery that stretches back more than fifty years.

Interlocking with this story there are secondary narratives, alternate plots which slowly tie together to build an overall picture of Oskar’s family. These narratives follow the lives of Oskar’s paternal grandparents who, having survived the Dresdon bombings in 1944, try to rebuild their life in America. In a series of letters their story is told, full of unspoken love and unspoken need and unspoken events which never could have happened. Except they did. And like a movie composed of short films, these three stories converge around themes and places, by saying so little they convey so much.

But there is a problem. Jonathan Safran Foer’s second outing is frought with every problem that gives rise to the phrase ‘difficult second novel.’ Where his debut, Everything is Illuminated, seemed at times to invent a whole new method of writing the novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close tries to rehash it, to reproduce what has already been successful. You have the same disrupted, scrapbook narrative, similar characters in search of historical truth who discover something about themselves in the process of investigation of the past, disfigured language which conveys so much in such an unusual manner.

As with Everything is Illuminated, it is written with multiple viewpoints, crisscrossing and overlapping and eventually tying into each other in unpredictable ways. However, unlike Everything is Illuminated, I did not feel that the secondary stories here lived up to the main plot. Foer seems to be trying too hard to create something original, to make it all as quirky as possible. But for about half the book I was unsure which of their letters were written by who, and who they were written to. The periods were confusing, did not engross me in the novel. I was always waiting to return to Oskar's quest. And although the parallels that these passages were trying to make are integral to the novel as a whole – the cataclysmic impact of a destructive event, the way it changes you forever, the power of love to survive in some shape or form no matter what – their story itself did not hold my attention in the way that Oskar’s did.

And you know the biggest problem with this book? It is that it is still pretty damn good. A whole lot better than most books published. With a vast array of characters and different narratives, Foer has perhaps created the first multimedia novel. It is almost as though you step into the novel itself: through a series of photos you see the things Oskar sees, there are blank pages, pages with just a few words on, pages when the writing grows so small with so much to fit in and so little space that it begins to overlap itself. At the end Oskar even creates a flipbook mirage of time flowing backwards, an inversion of Lyle Owerko's shot of the Falling Man, falling up from the street, back into the safety of the building. In that way, he says, “we would have been safe.”

The spectrum of the catastrophe of 9/11 looms large throughout, but it is not necessarily a book about that cataclysmic morning. At no point does it deal with the politics or wider issues of the event but focuses rather on the effect it has had on delightful young Oskar. It is a book about family history and the Second World War, about one child’s refusal to let the memory of his dead father die within him.

The characterisation is absolutely first class. Oskar is a thoroughly likeable young man for whom the reader develops an almost familial bond with: you want to protect him, and make his world better again. His constant need to give himself little bruises, to invent things that will make the world better, his overwhelming sadness, the tenderness he shows to those he meets, it is all heartbreakingly sad. He is also very funny, charming and full of little titbits of interesting information. He takes pictures of things he sees to stick in a scrapbook called ‘Things That Happened To Me.’ He even carries a calling card with him:

“Oskar Schell
Inventor, jewelry designer, jewelry fabricator, amateur entomologist, francophile, vegan, origamist, pacifist, percussionist, amateur astronomer, computer consultant, amateur archeologist, collector of: rare coins, butterflies that died natural deaths, miniature cacti, Beatles memoirabilia, semiprecious stones, and other things.”

Similarly in his 103 year-old-neighbour Mr. Black, Foer creates a character who seems almost the personification of the twentieth century with his career as a war correspondent, rolodex of famous figures reduced to one word descriptions - ‘husband,’ ‘son,’ ‘money,’ or, most often, ‘war’ – and conflict between career and home life.

Then there are Oskar’s parents, the absent presences who haunt the book. His mother, who appears only briefly, sometimes neglectful, sometimes like a great masterminding schemer. And you never get a chance to know who she is. She exists in the words of other characters, has no voice of her own, no life away from what the other characters see. She is the unwitnessed victim of 9/11, the widowed spouse, unable to get on with her life. She is fascinating because we never know her, she is a blank canvas, could be almost anything in the world and the reader would have no idea.

And finally, last but not least, Thomas Schell – both the father and the son. It is nice to see a positive portrayal of a father in literature. Too much media seems to present fathers as always out at work, or uncommunicative, or boring. It is such a pleasure to read about the adventures of the father and his son, his creativity and inspiration, his caring and nurturing. And I loved the story of the Sixth Borough. It is when Safran Foer steps into this sort of fantastical fable that he is at his most intriguing, he has the story telling capabilities of Salman Rushdie and the inventiveness of a Russell Hoban.

Foer certainly has a way with words. He is a great communicator, consummately able to convey exactly what he is trying to say. There is one great moment of description, one moment I loved, so exact is the image it creates.

“It was silent and still and I couldn’t see my own hands in the darkness. One hundred planes flew overhead, massive heavy planes, pushing through the night like one hundred whales through water.”

The passage comes just as Dresden is about to be flattened during World War 2, and Oskar’s grandfather is trying to find his childhood sweetheart. That image of bombs as huge whales, the sky as thick as an oily, sluggish sea. Somehow that seems to sum up the entire novel: the huge truth of it all emerging from something almost invisible, until it is there in your face, extremely loud incredibly close, and there is nothing you can do to escape it.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close confirms Jonathan Safran Foer as a prodigious talent, as a writer who can make you laugh, cry and think in the same sentence and who is not afraid to push the boundaries of narrative to create something fascinatingly original. His multimedia approach to story-telling makes the book come alive in a way few novels do, and being able to see exactly what Oskar sees allows the reader to step into his mind in a very intimate way. Already Foer has a style which is all his own. I will excitedly look forward to the publication of his third book with an air of expectancy reserved for very few select authors. I just hope that he does not try to write the same book for the rest of his career.

8 out of 10

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