"I bought myself a parrot that could talk, but it did not say 'I'm hungry', so it died."--Mitch Hedberg
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Monday, October 31, 2005

Heavy Boots

"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" is the second book from the supposedly hot new writer, Jonathan Safran Foer. But I've never heard of him. At least I hadn't before we started reading this book. Foer wrote his first book, "Everything Is Illuminated," in 2002 and it received a ton of critical acclaim. The film version of that book, starring Elijah Wood, was recently released in theaters.

But enough about that book which I known nothing about, I'm here to talk about the book that I actually read. "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" (or, as I am going to refer to it from now on, ELIC). ELIC tells the story of a nine year-old boy named Oskar Schell who lost his father during the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. As the story starts out, we don't know everything that has happened so far. The backstory is revealed in bits and pieces as the book goes on.

Oskar is an incredibly hyper kid with ADD. Or maybe he's just really inventive. Or eccentric. Or insane. It's never really made clear what's up with him. Whatever it is, he's this hilariously random character and it's really fun to read his narration. Some of it is just so bizarre, you have no idea where Foer could have come up with it. The book opens with Oskar suggesting that "I could train my anus to talk when I farted. If I wanted to be extremely hilarious, I'd train it to say, 'Wasn't me!' every time I made an incredibly bad fart." Other things, such as a story of a jujitsu trainer telling him that "a jujitsu student becomes a jujitsu master by destroying his master's privates," only add to the many bizarre aspects of this novel. Oskar has a penchant for saying that he has "heavy boots" whenever he gets really nervous about something, responding with "I'm okay" whenever his grandmother says his name, and inventing ridiculous things to help him feel safe. He suffers from insomnia and carries around a book of Stuff That Happened To Me that contains, among other things, pictures of keys, flying airplanes, humping turtles, and a picture of a body falling from the World Trade Center (that he convinces himself might be his dad).

Oskar is merely one of three narrators that tell their stories throughout the course of the book. The other two are his grandmother, with whom he is very close, and his grandfather, who he has never met. Their stories are told through letters; Oskar's grandmother's are addressed to him, and his grandfather's are addressed to his son (who he met only once). These letters mostly tell the story of their complicated and incredibly depressing relationship, often telling of their lives before they came to America when they lived in WWII-era Dresden. Grandma knew Grandpa when she was a little girl, because Grandpa dated her older sister. After her sister became pregnant with Grandpa's child, the World War II firebombing of Dresden took place, killing Grandma's sister in the process.

Eventually the two meet each other again in a coffee house in America. By this point, Grandpa has lost his ability to speak, and has tattooed the words "Yes" and "No" on his right and left hand, respectively. He communicates with people by writing things down in notebooks. Many times, ELIC will show the reader these pages by having single sentences on pages, such as a page saying, "Do you know what time it is?" or another saying "What are you doing here?" Grandpa and Grandma get married, certainly not out of love, but out of what, I'm not really sure.

Oskar's story truly begins when he discovers an envelope in his dead father's room that contains a key. Written on the envelope in red ink is the word Black. Oskar decides that it is actually the name Black and sets off to meet every single person in New York City with the last name Black. On his journey, he meets all kinds of bizarre and creative characters that often seem straight out of a Charlie Kauffman film, and Oskar is somehow able to touch each one of these people in different ways.

I found myself getting so depressed reading the sections narrated by Grandma and Grandpa that I eagerly awaited the next Oskar Section. As the Grandparents' story continues, they label different areas in their apartment as "Something" or "Nothing" areas. Their relationship is completely devoid of any passion whatsoever. In fact, they really only seem to stick together (when they do stick together) due to the closeness they feel to Grandma's sister whenever they are together. Grandpa is constantly perfecting his sculpture of Grandma, but is in reality reshaping it to resemble Grandma's sister. After Grandma becomes pregnant, Grandpa leaves. Grandma raises Thomas Schell, Oskar's father, on her own. Although he eventually discovers his father, Thomas was never a part of Grandpa's life at all, and he only returns to be a part of Grandma's life after getting word of Thomas's death.

That's enough summarization. Despite the fact that the Grandparents' story is depressing and not as much fun to read as Oskar's parts, it is still very well written and it adds to the story. I absolutely love Foer's writing style in ELIC. Foer manages to truly become each of the characters he is writing, and even distinguishes between them by visually obvious tricks with the typeface. Oskar is generally written in the usual style, except for dialogue. Instead of having a conversation that goes like this:

"Hey," I said.
"Yo," she said.
"What's up?" I asked.
"You're stupid," she replied.
"That's not very nice!" I cried.
"Shut up." She insisted.

...a conversation in an Oskar Section would look like this:

"Hey," "Yo," "What's up?" "You're stupid," "That's not very nice!" "Shut up."

I was surprised by how easy these were to understand. It really makes you think about how many other things that we take for granted in writing really aren't necessary for total comprehension.

Grandma's passages contain a lot of spaces in between the sentences. She also tends to always write on the left side of the page.
Like this.
And her sentences are usually short.
Like this. But this is nothing compared to how Grandpa's passages are written.

Grandpa rarely uses periods. And he apparently isn't a huge fan of the semi-colan, either. His sentences are basically big, long, run-on sentences, he uses commas as periods, and every now and then, after a large run-on sentence, he'll put a period. The thing is, it's often really difficult to tell if he's using a comma where a comma should be used, or if he's using it instead of a period, at one point, he starts running out of paper, and he's running out of room to write so he starts writingclosertogetherandprettysoon you can't even read what he's writing, he starts writing over the writing that's already there, eventually the page is almost entirely black.

A lot of the reviewers thought that these different ways of writing were just cheap gimmicks, but I disagree. I think that they add to not only the originality of the book but to the story itself. They're really befitting of the characters and they serve the story in their own unique ways.

ELIC also uses pictures more often than most novels tend to. When it talks of Oskar taking a picture of, say, the back of a woman's head, sure enough, there's the picture on the next page. The pictures are used in ways to convey things that aren't easy to get across in writing. One good example of this is when it talks about the people using the pens in the art supply store to write their names down or writing the name of a color using a different colored ink, and then there are two to three pages of all different colored ink writings of all different words and names.

All of the uniqueness of ELIC makes it seem more like an experience to me and less like just a book that I read. The characters are so layered and real that I get really absorbed in their stories. A few reviewers argued that Oskar didn't seem like a real person. Personally, I don't know how well people can judge how a nine-year old would act after losing his father in a terrorist attack, but either way, Oskar was a really believable person who I not only thought that I could know, but I really wanted to know as well.

The revelations at the end dissappointed a lot of people, but for me it helped ground the book in reality as well as offer up some really surprising twists--which I love. I love getting to the end of a story and discovering something that changes your view about something or takes you completely by surprise. ELIC is one of the best books I've ever read. It's refreshingly original not only in the story, but in its narration and presentation as well. It is one of the only books that I've ever laughed out loud at, and it is very emotional and touching at other parts.

I'm gonna give this one a rating of Extremely Good and Incredibly Well-Written.


Blogger The Ravenous Pedestrian said...

Buckminster is my pussy.

7:27 AM

Blogger Crystal said...

I know you wrote this about 5 years ago, but I found this today! :) I am finishing the book right now and agree with you completely. Great book. They are making a movie of it due to come out in 2012...hopefully they don't mess it up!

9:04 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you did a great job with this review. The book is indeed wonderful. I just discovered it last week and I've already got half way through it. Extremely Entertaining and Incredibly Deep.

5:50 PM

Blogger mewmewmew said...

I know you wrote this about 5 years ago, but I found this today! :) I am finishing the book right now and agree with you completely. Great book. They are making a movie of it due to come out in 2012...hopefully they don't mess it up!

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