This is the most recent addition to the pile of books Anita has recommended to me, and it is the reason why Anitober came to be. A couple months ago, I was watching the movie version of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I said something on Facebook about it, and Anita commented back that the book was really good. A few comments later, I was promising to read all the books Anita has ever recommended to me and to post about them on the blog. I bought this book at some point in the recent past at Barnes and Noble off a “Buy Two Get One Free” table. I think my motivation for buying it when I did was that the movie was coming out and I knew that it would be a really long time before all the movie tie-in covers disappeared from the bookstores. I had no real intention of reading it anytime soon, and I had avoided buying it for a while after it came out in 2005. I found the premise upsetting so close to the events that made the book possible and thought the author was capitalizing on a national tragedy. And I didn’t really like the cover. What was the deal with the big red hand?
But then I saw the movie, or rather I saw the last half of it. The husband was watching it one night when I got home from work. I got involved, and found it more enjoyable than I thought it would be. And sad. So freaking sad that I was worried about reading the book. I don’t enjoy crying when I read books. I mean, a couple tears is one thing, but sobbing? No way. The movie made me sob. The book didn’t actually make me cry or sob or anything. It made me sad, for sure, but not the way the movie did. I’m not sure why that is; maybe the book would have made me cry if I’d read it before seeing the movie. Or maybe the actors in the movie did a better job of bringing the story to life than I could do in my head. Bethany expressed concern that Foer’s work is emotionally manipulative, and it might be. And that’s okay with me for once. I despised The Art of Racing in the Rain, a book at least as emotionally manipulative as Foer’s but much less innovative and well-written. I suppose that’s the crux of it: I’m willing to overlook the fact that Foer is capitalizing on the emotions of the American people by writing a novel about a national tragedy because it is a story told in an innovative and imaginative way.
How is Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close innovative? The two story lines? That’s nothing new. It’s partially an epistolary novel? Bah. That’s been around for forever. There are pictures? Nope, but that was pretty cool. I’m sure a whole dissertation could be written discussing the hidden meaning of all the photographs interspersed in the text. There’s blank pages and pages with only a couple of words? Nope. That actually annoyed me a bit. There are four pages of illustrations of the papers that people use to try out pens at stationery stores? That was sort of cool, because I like it when there is color in books. But it didn’t add anything to the story. The pictures and the drawings and the blank pages make the book interesting to look at, but the stories of Oskar and Thomas Schell are what kept me reading.
To summarize the plot for those of you who haven’t gotten around to picking up the book with the giant red hand on the cover, Oskar Schell’s dad, Thomas, dies in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Oskar and his dad were “incredibly close” and Oskar takes it very hard. Several months later, he finds a vase hidden in his dad’s closet which contains an envelope with the name Black written on it which contains a key that doesn’t open any of the locks in their apartment. His dad used to always devise elaborate games for him, scavenger hunts, like. Oskar decides that as a final tribute to his dad, he needs to find the lock that this key opens. He determines that “Black” is a person’s last name and he begins travelling all over New York City, sometimes with companions and sometimes alone, using the phone book as his guide.
The other story that alternates with the chapters about Oskar and his quest is that of Oskar’s estranged grandfather, named Thomas Schell (Oskar’s father is named after this man). His story spans 1940’s Germany to present-day New York and was, to me, at least as interesting as Oskar’s story. Maybe more interesting because it lacked the whole capitalizing-on-a-national-tragedy aspect of the novel. I would have liked to have seen this story come to life on screen. It’s about Thomas and the two loves of his life—Anna and her younger sister, who grows up to become Oskar’s grandmother. They live in Dresden, in Germany, during the Third Reich. This story is told in a series of letters from Thomas the Older to Thomas the Younger (Oskar’s dad). The prose is a bit stream-of-consciousness here, and I don’t always like reading that style, but for some reason it worked for me this time. I do not believe that Thomas and Anna’s families are Jewish, but they certainly are not Nazis or Nazi sympathizers. They are just normal German people trying to go about their lives. They don’t like Hitler, but it seems that they are just trying to stay out of the way of history. In my brain, I have Germany in the 1930’s and ‘40s divided into Nazis and Jews, and no one in the neither of the above column. Obviously there were tons of people who were just regular folks living in that country. Foer describes the bombing of Dresden, which happened in February, 1945, in very gory detail. I vaguely remember reading about this bombing at some point in some history class, but honestly my interest in history ended after AP American history in 1993. I did not take any history classes in college, preferring to take English classes, because I would rather write about novels than things that really happened (oh, the irony). The point of this is I never got to the point in my history education where maybe the United States is viewed from a more objective, international perspective. So I never knew anything about how civilians died in the Dresden bombings, or how it was controversial because maybe it was not a solid military target (thank you, Wikipedia) and maybe was just revenge for The Blitz (my opinion). I knew all about the evil Germans bombing London and the evil Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor. When Americans are children we don’t learn a whole lot about the missteps our forefathers took; we just learn about how we have been wronged and all the good we’ve done. That’s one of the reasons I enjoyed high school history less than junior high history: a more realistic and less America-centric version of reality began to be presented and it made me upset to think that some of the things my country has done aren’t necessarily favorable. So I walked away from history classes.
Oh no, where was I? Oh yes. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Dresden gets bombed by British and American planes, which Foer describes eloquently. For example, “birds with their wings on fire sang from the telephone wires over which desperate calls traveled, I found another shelter, it was filled to the walls, brown smoke pressed down from the ceiling like a hand, it became more and more difficult to breathe, my lungs were trying to pull the room in through my mouth, there was a silver explosion, all of us tried to leave the cellar at once, dead and dying people were trampled, I walked over an old man, I walked over children, everyone was losing everyone, the bombs were like a waterfall, I ran through the streets, from cellar to cellar, and saw terrible things: legs and necks, I saw a woman whose blonde hair and green dress were on fire, running with a silent baby in her arms, I saw humans melted into thick pools of liquid, three or four feet deep in places…. (p. 211)” This is when Thomas is running through the streets of Dresden to get to Anna. By the time he gets to her house, it is a ruin, and no one is there. In his grief, poor Thomas Schell gradually loses the ability to talk and must rely on communicating via the written word. He runs into Anna’s sister in New York, where they have both immigrated to, and they get married. Their relationship is an enigma to me, and I get the feeling it was so to them as well. After a time, Thomas leaves and moves back to Dresden, and then begins writing the letters to his son that compromise his sections of the book. The only reason he gives for leaving is that he “doesn’t know how to live” or “how to try” to live (p. 181). I begin to see that Thomas and his wife were both in love with Anna and were each trying to fill the void her absence created in their lives with the other. Perhaps that is the meaning behind the “Nothing places” in their apartment? Where they can go to think about Anna? Someday I will come back to this book and figure it all out.
I don’t know that I have a whole lot else to say about Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close right now. The more I think about this book that on the surface is a relatively simple story of a child coming to terms with his father’s death, the more I discover that it’s more than that. I find myself wanting to reread it and think about it some more. Not in an angry way like I was with Life of Pi. This book is almost begging me to dig deeper. I read a quote from Jonathan Safran Foer about this book and how as a writer he wants to write about things he feels very deeply about, and as a New Yorker he felt very deeply about 9/11. The quote says it was “risky to avoid what was right in front of [him].” Almost like it was easier for him to just write about 9/11 than to avoid it. I can see that. Perhaps it wasn’t all about emotional manipulation of his fellow Americans. Perhaps writing this story was something he needed to do as an exercise in mourning for his city.
Out here in California I could probably go a long time without thinking about the World Trade Center. I certainly never thought about it much before September 11, 2001. But in New York, there is something missing from the skyline every day. And that absence is perhaps the biggest “Nothing place” of all.
And this concludes Anitober for the time being. There are several more books my wonderful friend Anita has recommended to me, which I have not quite gotten around to buying. When those are all in my possession, and after I’ve made a dent in all the books my boss has recently given me to read, Anitober will return. Thanks for reading, everyone.
Your review is much more articulate and thoughtful than what I immediately think of when this book comes up: “ooh — I love the phrase ‘succotash my balzac, dipshitake.'”
Haha – I haven’t read this book yet (although Jill is right – I did call it emotionally manipulative, but I don’t need to read books in order to do that). In my current mood that phrase strikes me as way too precious and makes me want to steer clear. In a different mood, I would probably like it.
Sophie, I forgot all about that! There’s actually some amusing bits in this book amidst all the sadness… Thanks for reading, btw! 🙂