Publisher: Mariner Books, 2006
Where I Got It: Read it on my Kindle
My Rating: 4 stars
A few preliminary words: Sometimes when I sit down to write a book review, I end up writing an unconventional review. This is one of those times. However, I do want to suggest that, if you decide to read this book, you get a paper copy so you can fully appreciate the photos that are used throughout the book. I read this on my Kindle and only saw stuff in black and white. Then Erin at Erin Reads (who hosted a Buddy Read for this book in June) posted a photo of one of the pages in the book and it made me wish I’d read the paper version (or perhaps on Nook Color). Just a bit of advice. Now on with the review (of sorts).
We meet again! I really thought it was over between us because of my disappointment—almost bordering on intense dislike—with your first book, Everything Is Illuminated. But I decided to give you a second chance based on the brief glimpses of brilliance that I saw in that book. I’m so glad I did because Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was a much better reading experience—funny, touching, heart-breaking, and experimental in a less annoying way. Best of all, you created some truly memorable characters (oh … I how loved Oskar!) and dealt with a difficult topic (September 11th) in a way that was respectful but true to your artistic vision.
First of all, let me say how impressed I am that you felt comfortable taking on a topic like 9/11. I haven’t read too many novels that dealt with a fictionalized version of 9/11, and I think that is because it is imperative that an author deals with it respectfully but in a way that is true to the characters. How daring of you to take it on! We all bring our own images, memories, thoughts and experiences of 9/11 with us, and I think it such a loaded topic that it would be tricky for a novelist to tackle it head-on. (I’ve only seen it touched on tangentially.) But you chose to do so—going so far as to use (what I believe were) actual photos from 9/11 in the book. (By the way, kudos for the “multimedia” aspect of the book. Your use of photos throughout the book was interesting—particularly the multi-colored signatures on the notepad that Oskar finds and the photos used at the very end of the book. And the way you used the photos at the end of the book just did me in and left me in tears. Well done.)
I think the fact that you used Oskar’s loss of his dad in the collapse of the Twin Towers and tied that to the losses that his grandparents experienced during the Dresden firebombing helped to make this book more about the nature of loss and grief than simply a “9/11 novel.” People have been dying senselessly from acts of violence throughout the ages. It is catastrophic to the people left behind regardless of the scale of the violence or whether the violence was during a “sanctioned” war. Loss of all types eviscerates you and causes you to lose your way. By telling Oskar’s story and his grandparents stories concurrently, we come to feel and learn so much about the nature of loss, grief, regret and guilt of survivors. From Oskar’s search for the lock to his grandfather’s loss of words, I thought you made the desperation of grief tangible and vivid.
This could have been a very depressing book, but your choice to make Oskar such an interesting and quirky character was a stroke of genius. Although he seems wildly precocious for his age (he’d get along just fine with Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce!), I fell in love with Oskar from the moment I met him. From his endearing way of cursing (Shittake!) to his creation of unique jewelry (a Morse code bracelet with his father’s last words) to his wild inventions that were simultaneously amusing and heart-breaking, I fell for Oskar hard and fast. Choosing to make him a young boy who isn’t fully cognizant of all that is going on around him helped to add an element of mystery to the story as well. Why is his mother seemingly so unconcerned with his whereabouts? Why does she seem oblivious to his needs and feelings of loss about his father? When her motives and actions were fully explained, I felt such a rush of love for his mother and was so relieved that my beloved Oskar was surrounded by such love, empathy and wisdom. You handled this dynamic perfectly and revealed the reality of the situation in a way that felt like the pieces of the puzzle finally coming together.
Often in books that feature a young protagonist like Oskar, the adults are not well-drawn, but that wasn’t the case in this book. The letters from his grandfather to his unborn son and the memories of his grandmother helped create a rich back story for Oskar’s family. And, although we never get to meet him, I felt like I knew Oskar’s dad. What a loving father figure you created! I fully understood why Oskar’s world fell apart with his dad’s death, and why he would believe that his father had left him an elaborate mystery to be solved.
But don’t go getting a swelled head! I did have some quibbles with the book that I’d like to bring up. First of all, having incredibly long sentences with few or no paragraph breaks and little punctuation is wearying for a reader! Sometimes when I was reading the letters from Oskar’s grandfather, I got a bit annoyed at you. Would a few periods or paragraphs kill you? I think not!
Second of all, extended dialogue without line breaks is difficult to read. By running it all together in one big paragraph and using only quotation marks, it became difficult for this reader to know who was saying what. It isn’t a sin to follow the basics of grammar and line spacing! It helps the reader fall more completely into your lovingly created world. Instead, I found myself having to backtrack and reread these sections so I could figure out who was saying what. Whenever a reader gets frustrated or removed from the flow of the story because of an author’s refusal to adhere to basic syntax and sentence structure, I think it is a big disservice to both the reader and the story.
Finally, I spent the first third of the book confused about whose stories were being told in the letters and the memories. Once I finally Googled a synopsis of the book and realized who was writing what, things clicked into place a bit more. But I don’t think I should have had to do that. I think you could have made it a bit clearer. To be brutally honest, the best and most fluid writing in the whole book was always in Oskar’s sections. Just write like that!!!
But, in the end, I forgive you because you created a touching work of art with this book that I’ll remember for quite some time. And whenever I fall hard for a character like I fell for Oskar, the creator will always get my devotion. So, Jonathan, we’re back on. I’ll be checking out your Eating Animals next. I hope that goes well, and you’ve worked out your need to sabotage your own stories with sentence structures that grate on your reader’s nerves. Of course, that is just one reader’s opinion. I’m sure there are plenty out there that just revel in all that you do.
With thanks and admiration,