Saturday, August 26, 2006

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

Two people at work read this book recently and eagerly proclaimed their love for it. It's been on my very long "reading" list for over a year, so I decided to check it out when I saw it on the shelf at the library the other day.

Initially I was put off by the premise of the book. I'm not a big fan of stories about children. Particularly stories about extremely clever children who think like adults. But I got over that fairly quickly and began to like the book quite a bit. I found the character of Oskar, with all his rambling thoughts and fears and inventions to be endearing. But as much I adored the passages about Oskar, I abhorred the storyline about the grandfather. It was so absurd, and stupid. I realize it was supposed to be quirky or surreal or something like that -- he can't speak because he's too sad, he gradually lost his words and now he carries around daybooks and writes all the time, he remembers a house made of walls of books, to look outside you removed books to create windows, cute, right? Groan. I felt like it clashed horribly with the story of Oskar.

Oskar's dad died in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. After his death, Oskar found a key and then decided to try to find the lock that the key would open in hopes of learning more about his father. A significant part of the story is about Oskar's quest as he travels through New York and the five boroughs seeking the lock for this key.

Oskar's observations and contemplations provide some truly beautiful passages of loss and regret and fear. I think anyone, any age can relate to his loss of innocence and his desires.

And the passage that captivated me, the part I had to keep re-reading:

We need much bigger pockets, I thought as I lay in bed, counting off the seven minutes that it takes a normal person to fall asleep. We need enormous pockets, pockets big enough for our families, and our friends, and even the people who aren't on our lists, people we've never met but still want to protect. We need pockets for boroughs and for cities, a pocket that could hold the universe.

Eight minutes thirty-two seconds...

But I knew that there couldn't be pockets that enormous. In the end, everyone loses everyone. There was no invention to get around that...

It reminded me of how I feel every time I hear about some tragedy in the world and wish that I could have my friends all right next to me rather than wonder where they are at that moment. Suffice it to say, I loved parts of this book.

But then you have to go back to the daybook entries of his grandfather who abandoneded his grandmother before his father was even born. He's just so very sad and he left because he was scared to love anyone and didn't want to love the baby. But 40 years later, after learning the son he never wanted to know is dead, he returns, and he's so very sorry. Talk about too little way too late. I despised this character so much, I couldn't get past my distain for him. I suspect that's the sign of good writing if someone can conjure up such strong feelings. But I felt like that wasn't the intended response, instead I was supposed to feel sorry for him, because you know, he's just so sad and he'd lost so much. As I'm reading this though I'm thinking of all the people around him who have lost just as much, who are going on with their lives as best they can and I think he is a pathetic worthless man who doesn't deserve the forgiveness of the family he abandoned. He walked out on a pregnant wife because he never quite got over the death of a pregnant girlfriend and he felt completely justified in his actions, never bothering to consider what his actions would do to his wife -- his wife, who had lost her entire family in the same fire that took the life of his girlfriend. I have no sympathy for people so absorbed in their own pain that they treat those who depend on them so horribly. He returns wanting forgiveness, wanting to know all about the son he didn't want, wanting to become a part of his grandson's life.

Had that storyline been eliminated from this story, I would have liked this book much more than I did. To me it felt like two stories, and when the two storylines do interact, it doesn't seem to play a significant role in the story, point being, had it been left out, it would not have detracted from the main story.

Another thing that bothered me was the formatting of the book. I was annoyed by the blank pages or pages with one sentence. I was distracted by the pages covered with red ink and I didn't think the photos contributed much to the story.

Overall though, I'm glad I read the book.

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