Tuesday, March 10, 2009

BOOKS: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

I hadn't read Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel, but we loved the film version of Everything Is Illuminated, so I was intrigued to check out Foer's second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I found it extremely moving and incredibly beautiful. I savored every word of it, often smiling or crying or both. Foer's story centers on Oskar, a 9-year old boy coming to grips with the loss of his father in the World Trade Center on 9/11, and what makes the story so transcendant is Foer's marvelously authentic first-person narrative, making the reader see and understand the world as such a boy would see it. I certainly saw flashes of my godson in him. Just as children sometimes in their innocence, undefiled by hackneyed turns of speech, will come up with superbly fresh metaphors and honest turns of phrase, the prose of Oskar's narrative is brimming with that kind of beauty and integrity. He's a precocious boy who's constantly coming up with inventions, and writing letters to all manner of people from Jane Goodall to Stephen Hawking. As a boy will, his narration occasionally veers into fantasy without warning, only to be regrounded by "well, that's what I wished I had done, what I really did was…" Oskar deals with his grief by embarking on a unique quest to systematically visit every person in New York named Black, searching for the lock that goes to an unusual key he found in his father's closet. His story is interleaved with the story of his grandparents, who both survived the Dresden bombing and re-met years later in New York. Most of their story comes out in letters they write to their son and to their godson, and it is often poignant to hear how two people can recall the same experience so differently. Their lives unfold in a timeline that jumps from their meeting in New York, to the present day, back to their childhood in Dresden, and back again, a chronological jumble that makes perfect emotional sense. In the fullness of the story we come to see how the events in their lives all relate, and how character traits may be a legacy between a grandfather, the son he never met, and his grandson. (It's only been in recent years I've come to appreciate how much of my parents are in me. I just wonder how Foer, who is much younger than me, came to be so wise about these things.)

I gather that the print version of this book made integral use of photos and graphics that I missed by listening to the audiobook. But I have to say that the readers of this audiobook did a splendid job. There were multiple actors voicing the main characters, and I think they really brought the characters to life. That's no mean trick, as Foer's characters are vivid and somehow authentic and slightly surreal at the same time. He has managed to create a world very like New York, but where the laws of time and reality are sometimes fluid, and which is somehow all the more real for that. His work reminds of the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende. And reading this book was certainly a magical experience.

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