Sunday, December 18, 2011

An innocent abroad

It's Sunday, my library got some bad financial news (right before the holidays!) and I'm feeling reflective. Grief is a unique experience. No one grieves like anyone else. I tried to remember this while listening to Jonathan Safron Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close this past week. (The librarian in me struggles with featuring a Wikipedia entry, but the author himself links to it from another site, so here you go.) Until the very end of this book, I was close to utterly fed up with young Oskar Schell and his incredible journey. But then, Oskar got closure (or something like that [it depends on how you grieve]), and I was in tears.

Oskar was seven years old when his father died at Windows on the World on September 11, 2001. He is bereft. He was sent home from school early -- without being told why -- and enters his family's apartment hearing his father leaving a message on the answering machine. His father called a total of six times. Before his mother got home, Oskar removed the answering machine and its recording and hid it from her. Two years later, Oskar sees his mother, and the world, moving on from that awful, awful day, but he's not ready. He finds a key inside an envelope labeled "Black" tucked inside a glass vase in his father's closet. Oskar decides that if he can find the lock for that key, he will receive a message that his father left for him.

Oskar is an unusual child, and this was where I had the most problems with the novel (not all the problems ... there's more to come!). He's basically an adult with an occasional nine-year-old's trait. To all intents and purposes, his mother seems to have left him alone for two years as he pursues his various interests -- French, astrophysics, inventions, tambourine playing ... an insatiable curiosity that -- among other things -- exposes him to internet porn. He also has a load of fears -- all relating to the way everyday things led to his father's death. He applies his investigative abilities to tracking down every Black in the five boroughs to see who has the lock to his key.

I think it helps to view this as a fantasy novel -- there are no barriers in the way of a smart pre-tween making his way all over New York City to meet every Black he could locate (no mention of unlisted numbers, by the way). Mom doesn't seem to worry about his absences day and night and money wasn't a problem. Even when I told myself that I was reading fantasy, Oskar's situation and actions continually bugged me. For example, why would a class of 4th graders be performing Hamlet? Is it really that easy to dig up a grave in the middle of the night?

Then, being Foer (pronounced like the number if you are interested), the author ladles on another layer to his novel. Two other narrators interrupt Oskar's story: A man who does not speak is addressing a series of letters to his son, and a woman who has "crummy eyes" and is writing a memoir for her grandson. All in wordy, stream-of-consciousness, and self-conscious, prose. We eventually figure out that these people are Oskar's grandparents who also live in a fantasy world that doesn't require money, physical logistics, or any basis in reality. And we learn that they experienced something akin to the attack on the Towers during the firebombing of Dresden, Germany during World War II.

As you know, I finish things, and I finished this. It rewards a reader who dislikes ambiguity , as Foer provides absolute closure (there are no loose ends at all). Oskar has an apotheosis at the top of another iconic skyscraper, the Empire State Building. It was incredibly moving, much the way that Conor O'Malley's was a few books ago. But unlike Patrick Ness' spare, focused novella, this one sprawls all over the place, feeling very indulgent and consciously literary. The book I had the most flashbacks to was that of Foer's contemporary and fellow author/gadfly, Dave Eggers.

I am grateful for three narrators, though -- who, as narrators do in so many instances -- make the nonsense go down a little more easily. Yes, following young Oskar on his quest for Blacks is so much easier when you are commuting, exercising, wrapping presents, etc. Jeff Woodman handles Oskar's narration, Barbara Caruso is grandma, and Richard Ferrone is grandpa. Woodman is the standout here, but he's got more to work with. He uses his youthful voice to great effect as the precocious Oskar matter-of-factly describing his inventions, his observations of the adult world, and his Asperger's-like focus on his mission. When Oskar finally weeps, though, it's shocking and deeply personal. Listening to Woodman's performance makes Oskar a real boy (which I don't think he is in Foer's novel), so that his breakdown is all the more poignant.

Caruso, who I listened to several times when I was first snapping up audiobooks (she was quite memorable as Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which in Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time), reads Oskar's grandmother with warmth and a rich emotion that invests her story with truth as well.

Ferrone, the only one of the three I have never heard read before, has a deep, gravelly delivery that nicely represents the voice of a man who doesn't speak. He reads with detachment, another good choice for a character who carefully keeps people at a distance and strong emotion under wraps.

Yes, the reason why I listened to this was because there is a movie coming out (I had mostly Sandra Bullock flashes while listening; fortunately Oskar's mother doesn't appear very often in the novel), and I was frustrated by the novel a lot of the time, but I'm glad I got to it. Foer's first novel, Everything is Illuminated, also satisfied me in the end, while annoying me during. I lived in New York well before 9/11, but in trips there since 2001 I've yet to visit Ground Zero. I've avoided the annual outpourings of mass mourning (or disaster porn as others more eloquent than I have described it) because I never felt it was my loss. Oskar's loss and grief rang true to me, though -- he was working through it the only way he knew how. As we all must do.

[The photo of the World Trade Center Tribute in Lights was taken by Derek Jensen and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
Narrated by Barbara Caruso, Richard Ferrone, and Jeff Woodman
Recorded Books, 2005. 11:00

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