Thursday, January 3, 2008

Extremely Great and Incredibly Worth the Wait

During my summer of good books two and a half years ago, one of my friend Sophie's favorite authors was Jonathan Safran Foer, although at the time he'd only written one book, Everything is Illuminated. But she loved him, and used to occasionally refer to him as "her boyfriend". She encouraged me to read Everything is Illuminated, and I got it once, but didn't read it. I even got the movie once and didn't watch it. After reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, though, I'll make a point of getting back to it.

This is one of the best books I've read in a while. A lot of the stuff, and certainly most of the fiction, I've been blogging about lately is more fun than anything else. This book has a great sense of fun, but is also fairly ambitious. To peg it as a September 11th novel or as a World War II novel is unfair, although both events play significant roles in the book. So I'll say it's the story of Oskar Schell.

Oskar is a really, really terrific kid. He's nine years old, smart and funny and very passionate about the world. He can be summed up pretty well by the business card he gives out, which reads:

"Oskar Schell: Inventor, Jewelry Designer, Jewelry Fabricator, Amateur Entomologist, Francophile, Vegan, Origamist, Pacifist, Percussionist, Amateur Astronomer, COmputer Consultant, Amateur Archaeologist, Collector of: rare coins, butterflies that died natural deaths, miniature cacti, Beatles memorabilia, semiprecious stones and other things E-mail:, Home phone: private / Cell phone: private, Fax Machine: I don't have a fax yet."

I bet you wish you could spent 300-odd pages with someone like that, too. In this book, Oskar is on a quest, a difficult and important one. His father, with whom he was very close, died on September 11th. He was in the World Trade Center for a meeting and didn't make it out. Oskar's dad was the best dad Oskar could ever have, and Foer is a clever enough writer to show us this rather than tell us, through Oskar's remembrances of the complicated games the two of them shared and the imaginative stories his dad would tell him. Oskar is hanging out in his dad's closet one day, and finds a blue vase containing an envelope, marked "Black", with a key inside. He sets out to discover what this key opens, what he didn't know about his dad. On the advice of a woman at the art store (who notes both the capitalization of the word and the fact that it was written in red ink), he sets out to meet everyone in New York with the surname of Black and to figure out which one his father knew, and what the key opens.

This is one of the most delectable parts of the book. He meets a lot of fascinating people. Elderly Georgia Black has a museum of her husband in her living room, and is delighted to have Oskar visit it. She tells him no one has been to see her in more than a year, and spends a lot of time showing him her husband's baby shoes, his golf clubs, their wedding album, etc. Her husband surprises us (and Oskar) by emerging from the next room and inviting them in to see his museum of her. He meets the recently divorced, shut-ins and widows. He meets a man with a newborn baby and asks if he could pet it. He writes to a convicted murderer. He makes close friends with a former war correspondant. Everyone has a story to tell. Some of them even come to his school play, Hamlet (he plays Yorick).

The other half of the story is told by Oskar's grandparents, who survived World War II and the Dresden bombing and have their own story of loss and redemption to tell. I found myself more captivated by Oskar, although their story was very moving and interesting. Safran Foer plays some games with the text too: sometimes it's strung out, a whole portion of it is covered in red editorial marks, there are photos and drawings to the extent where I imagine his conversations with the editors: "On pages 50-75, I want all those marks to be printed, I didn't send you an early draft by mistake."

It's a beautiful book. It's ambitious, but doesn't try too hard. Nor do you get the sense that Safran Foer is exploiting September 11 in any way. By taking it back down to an individual level, he actually manages to get a fresh approach on a subject that has been dissected relentlessly since it happened. You'll enjoy Oskar, and all of the people that he meets, you'll come to miss his dad too. Ultimately, it's a hopeful and optimistic book, not so much about death as about life. You'll probably cry (and you should be smarter than me, and not bring it to a mechanic's waiting room, especially when you're almost done with it), but you'll come away from it feeling better about the world and all the interesting people it contains.

No comments: