Friday, January 01, 2010

Book Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

This book so could have garnered my highest praises had it stuck to the intentions of its core story. The plot at the center of this book is a moving story that illuminates the grief and sorrow of the American experience following the 9/11 attacks by telling the story of young Oskar Schell, an eccentric young boy whose attempts to remain close to his father (who died in one of the towers) take him on a mission to uncover his fathers secrets.

Oskar is incredibly endearing, if not always entirely believable as a character. It's not so much that Foer does not succeed in making Oskar seem true to age so much as the fact that very few kids, no matter how weird, would possess so great a multitude of eccentricities as Oskar does. I loved his eccentricities, and accepted them without regard for realism, but it's been my experience that most kids are not so overwrought by weirdness that they can barely function, and even the ones who are that weird stick to one or two types of weirdness and not all of them at once.

But as I said, this was of little issue to me because Oskar was so delighful, and the process of his story and journey to discover what he was searching for to fill the void left by the loss of his father is moving and revealing. Had the book focused almost entirely on this story, I likely would have given it my highest rating and recommended it to everyone I know.

But the book did not focus on just this story. Instead, Foer engages in the highest form of artistic self-service and pretentiousness in the form of meandering stream of consciousness style diary entries and letters focusing on Oskar's grandparents. The grandmother spends years typing nothing onto a typewriter, the grandfather never speaks but instead tattoos "yes" and "no" on his fingers. It's all a little ridiculous, and I even have a high tolerance for artistic pretentiousness.

Trust me, these are not spoilers, just the most basic explanations of a multitude of pompous characteristics Foer imbues these side characters with in an attempt to be artistic and abstract. And for many books, it might work, I might have liked it even. But I just didn't with this one. I found that when those chapters stepped in to interrupt Oskar's story, that I didn't want to read them, or that I wanted to get through them as quickly as possible so I could get back to Oskar. I don't think any author wants to write something where people feel the urge to skip half of your chapters.

These side stories aren't 100% faulty. I do enjoy the parallels made between the experience of the bombing of Dresden with the 9/11 attacks, and the few places where this side story overlaps with Oskar's own are interesting. I suppose, in summation, that I wanted to like this book more because it had so much potential to be great. I just wish that all of the pretentious additions had been toned down, edited only for the most vital information, and that Oskar Schell's story would have had the book it deserves.

This review was reposted and expanded from my review at Good Reads. Oh, you love reading and reviewing books, too? Join! We can be friends!

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