My housemate Mel (who also edits fab flash fiction blog The Pygmy Giant) was telling me about the book she’d just finished, and was so enthusiastic about it that I told her to put her money where her mouth was. Well, I expect I said something more sensible and less slangy. Either way, she speedily wrote this brilliant review… enjoy and, if you’re like me, be severely tempted…
Yesterday I finished what I think might possibly be the best book I’ve ever read. It’s probably not, but the fact that I am sitting here trying to get over it makes me think it’s a real contender.
I was introduced to Jonathan Safran Foer perhaps a year ago when my old housemate Liz leant me his first novel, Everything is Illuminated. I’d heard about that book a lot, but always thought it sounded like some pretentious intellectual tome that I’d never want to wade through. It was not. The strange-sounding title comes from the narrator’s technique of trying to write well in English by using a thesaurus far too liberally. It was funny, weird, tragic, original and totally brilliant. I recommend that one too…
So I bought Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close on the back of that good experience. The title is again inspired by the narrator’s distinctive way of describing things. It again features the stories of multiple generations of a family, and again much of the narration is done through letters.
If I had to tell you what it’s about, I’d say it’s about missing people. It’s about loss, and how loss can disrupt your entire life. It’s about the personal consequences of war. It’s about regret, and the things you just can’t talk about. It’s about things being simple, yes and no, and things being complicated.
In summary, Oskar is a smart, nine year-old nerd. He loved his dad above all else. His dad was killed in the twin towers on September 11. A year later, going through his dad’s things, he discovers a mysterious key in an envelope, and makes it his mission (his ‘raison d’etre’ – he’s learning French) to find out what it unlocks. He travels all across New York meeting everybody in the phone book with the surname Black. They can’t help but love him – he’s unintentionally funny, curious, and straightforward. The humour comes from Oskar’s telling of the story, but it’s also crushingly sad.
At the same time, we gradually learn the story of Oskar’s grandfather, who left his grandmother before his dad was born, through a series of letters written to the son he never met. What is completely brilliant about this is that Grandpa can’t talk, so communicates by writing in notebooks. His letters are interspersed with photos of doorknobs (you’ll find out why) and pages that he has written messages on to other people. This is so cleverly done, it means that everything is gradually (as the author would say) illuminated. The fact that he has YES and NO tattooed on his hands becomes symbolically significant too. I love the way all his words, all his days are recorded in books, on the backs of envelopes, on napkins or on his own arms – what these pieces of paper are used for, where his words get stuffed, what washes off, is fabulous. e.g.:
Later that year, when snow started to cover the front steps, when morning became evening as I sat on the sofa, buried under everything I’d lost, I made a fire and used my laughter for kindling: “Ha ha ha!” “Ha ha ha!” “Ha ha ha!” “Ha ha ha!”
In fact, all the parts written by Oskar’s grandfather are a wonderful stream of poetry.
Thirdly, we find Oskar’s beloved grandma writing him a letter/typing out her life story, explaining things that were never said, and perhaps giving us a more reliable version of events than her husband’s. Oskar’s grandparents witnessed the bombing of Dresden, and basically lost their lives there. They meet again in New York, Grandpa tells us, like this:
… the place was half empty but she slid right up to me, “You’ve lost everything,” she said, as if we were sharing a secret, “I can see.”
The three narrators are excellently drawn, each with their own writing style and their own way of expressing their story. And the writing is just beautiful. I cried at a letter from Stephen Hawking; I did not predict that. If you’ve never lost somebody vital, I don’t know how you will react to this story, but I think it will probably still break your heart.
I don’t want to put in too many spoilers, but to tell you what I love about this book, I think I just need to quote some astonishing lines that express so well some of the experiences of grief.
“You never write to me.” “But I’m with you.” “So?” … It’s the tragedy of loving, you can’t love anything more than something you miss.
When I no longer had to be strong in front of you, I became very weak. I brought myself to the ground, which was where I belonged. I hit the floor with my fists. I wanted to break my hands, but when it hurt too much, I stopped. I was too selfish to break my hands for my only child.
“I lost a son.” “You did? How did he die?” “I lost him before he died.” “How?” “I went away.” “Why?” He wrote, “I was afraid.” “Afraid of what?” “Afraid of losing him.” “Were you afraid of him dying?” “I was afraid of him living.” “Why?” He wrote, “Life is scarier than death.”
Warning – this is from near the end:
“I wish I hadn’t found it.” “It wasn’t what you were looking for?” “That’s not it.” “Then what?” “I found it and now I can’t look for it.” I could tell he didn’t understand me. “Looking for it let me stay close to him for a little while longer.” “But won’t you always be close to him?” I knew the truth. “No.”
So this all sounds depressing, but there is so much humour and humanity in here that it’s a million miles from being a dirge. There are also nice little mysteries and clues and unexplained things that all come together later on in the book.
In summary: Oh My Goodness. In my boundless enthusiasm about this book, I feel like I’ve turned into Oskar. It’s extremely original and incredibly sad. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be astonished.