Friday, 13 January 2017

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Jonathan Safran Foer's 2005 novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close  is one that I found compelling - I read it in a couple of days - but somehow, not particularly enjoyable. The premise is intriguing: the book tells the story of a nine year old boy, Oskar Schell, whose father was killed in the 9/11 attack. Oskar finds a key in a vase belonging to his father, and feels compelled to discover the key's origins and purpose. From a note left inside the vase Oskar concludes that the owner of the key is named Black, and sets out to visit everybody in New York with that surname. The book is thus a kind of journey story, and is filled with a range of eccentric characters, but there was some thing about it which I did not find engaging.

The novel is told in the first person, but Foer contrives, by introducing two separate series of letters,  to shift the narrator from Oskar to his grandfather (writing to Oskar's father) and his grandmother (writing to Oskar himself). The letters tell a parallel story of the bombing of Dresden and the effect of that other, older act of terror on the development of the Schell family. Foer also manages to work in a brief first person account of the bombing of Hiroshima. The book thus deals with the themes arising from the sudden intrusion of catastrophic events into peoples' lives: grief, mental illness, disorientation, the destruction of familiar anchors, death, mortality, optimism and depression.

The style of the book is a sort of fragmented, meandering, erudite stream of consciousness, and here was my first stumbling block with the book: I sometimes found it hard to keep track of what was going on, and with the switching of narrators, sometimes with who was speaking. And the sheer inventiveness and depth of some of the flow caused my second major problem: the narrator often seemed a lot older than nine. He is treated by others as a lot older than nine ( for example in the amount of autonomy granted him by his mother, and in the content of his grandmother's letters) so I couldn't get a firm grasp on Oskar at all; he seemed to be on some sort of spectrum, a social isolate and with a raft of  mental health issues, as I suppose any kid would have who had been through what he had. He was original and inventive  and intelligent but  I found it hard to engage with him, in the way that I did with, for example, another fictional autistic, Christopher Boone in Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time.

The story is resolved when it is revealed that Oskar's mother, who seemed oddly and unbelievably detached from her son for most of the novel, has been producing and directing much of his personal drama from a distance.Oskar is able to release information he has been keeping, I think inexplicably, secret

I didn't greatly enjoy it, but it stuck with me, as it raises some significant questions about the nature of the reality we live and the stories we tell ourselves to explain what is going on around us. Everybody in the novel is creating a fiction, either by withholding information or by invention, and doing this in order to cope with the effects of profound pain and loss. Which is a process most of us engage in most of the time to some extent or other; which is something that has been intriguing me greatly of late, and about which I will write more later.

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