I tend to be impatient with fiction. I can’t put a book down without finishing it, so I get impatient when a book is just okay and I wish I was reading something else. At this point in my life I read a lot of non-fiction. I think it’s likely because I’m at an age where I realize that I there isn’t as much time left to learn everything about everything. So I read to learn as much as I can about…everything.
But every once in a while I come across a piece of fiction that hooks me. It does what a good work of non-fiction does for me. It teaches me something. Maybe something about history, science, or whatever. But generally it teaches me something about the human experience.
Right now I am reading such a book. I first learned about Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer a few weeks ago when I saw the TV trailers for the movie starring Tom Hanks. It looked interesting, the kind of movie I’d like to see. And then I read somewhere that it was based on a book, read the description, and thought this might be the kind of book I’d want to read. I put my name on the wait list at the library.
My turn came up to read the book in just a couple of weeks rather than months. This was probably because everyone who knew anything about books had reserved it back when it was first released–in 2005.
I read the cover flap first:
"Meet Oskar Schell, an inventor, Francophile, tambourine player, Shakespearean actor, jeweler, and pacifist. He is nine years old. And he is on an urgent, secret search… His mission is to find the lock that fits a mysterious key belonging to his father, who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11."
Yes, this is definitely the kind of book—even though it’s fiction—that I like to read. Then I read the first page. Hooked? I was mesmerized.
The story takes place shortly after the fall of the Twin Towers in NYC. But if you didn’t know that, you’d be drawn in anyway, wondering and waiting to find out what makes the little boy in the story tick the way he does. Foer doesn’t tell his readers up front what happened to the boy’s dad, he leads and teases and draws out the timeline the way it likely would be perceived in a young boy’s head. The story is told first person from the boy’s point of view. And right away I loved him, and right away I loved his Dad. Of course, having seen the movie trailer, the dad’s dialogue always came through with Tom Hank’s voice. But that’s okay. It’s a perfect fit.
The book is stylized, but the emotions are raw. Interestingly, I learned that Foer’s book—his second—received a number of rather disparaging reviews when it came out. Michiko Kakutani, in a New York Times book review called the book “cloying,” “contrived,” and “haphazard.” I guess I was too busy enjoying the inner working’s of Oskar’s mind to notice. Kakutani found Oskar to be “unsympathetic.” I guess she’s never hung around kids who are “on the specrum,” as we teacher’s often refer to kids who likely have Asperger’s syndrome or some level of autism, but can’t quite be pegged as such. I found Oskar to be a totally sympathetic main character.
So, yeah, maybe parts of the book are a bit contrived. Froer uses text in a way that at first kind of amazes you with his audacity, and then perhaps annoys. And I couldn’t find any purpose to the illustrations in the book. But that hasn’t lessened my enjoyment of the story.
Okay, admittedly, I haven’t yet finished the book. Maybe I will feel differently by the end of it. Tune in a week or so from now. I’ll add an addendum to this post. But for now, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is the kind of book I savor. A book that gives me insight into the human condition. In this case, that human condition is grief—unimaginable grief—and how an individual and a family deals with it. I have high hopes for the ending.