My first completed read of the month is Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
I had multiple people recommend this book to me. They told me it was beautiful and heart-wrenching. I was warned to keep tear-catching tissues close by. And yes, I don’t read a ton of fiction for adults, but I thought an adult novel with a child protagonist might be a nice transition for me. Also, I enjoy postmodernism and metafiction and I haven’t read any in awhile so I was ready to give this book a shot.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close tells the story of Oskar Schell, a 9 year old boy who embarks on a quest to try to solve a mystery that he believes will help him grieve for his father, who died on 9/11. It’s also the story of Oskar’s grandfather, Thomas, who left Oskar’s grandmother before his father was even born. The novel intersperses chapters from Oskar’s point of view, his grandfather’s point of view, and toward the end, his grandmother’s point of view as well.
Maybe my expectations were too high, but I found myself utterly disappointed by this novel.
One reviewer on Goodreads used the word “gimmickry” to descibe this book, and I think that perfectly sums it up.
I wanted so badly to be moved by Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, but I was never able to fully immerse myself in it. Oskar, the child narrator, was so unrealistic to me. The hyper-literate child/teen is a device found a lot in adult fiction with young narrators and one that usually turns me off. I couldn’t get my brain to imagine this character as a real child…I could only see him as a construction, this fake person constructed by Foer designed to manipulate my emotions. And yes, I understand that every character in fiction is an author’s construction…but a good author’s job is to make the reader forget that. In other words, Oskar felt like a gimmick. Sometimes adults use children in literature and film in order to manipulate viewer/reader emotions. Nothing is sadder than a child who’s suffering, right? While I felt bad for Oskar, he also frustrated, and even angered me, because I felt like Foer was using him to manipulate me. Every time Foer had something profound to say, it came from Oskar’s mouth couched between pseudo-childlike-naivite and a myriad of intellectual babble. I immediately put a wall up between myself and the text–instead of trusting in it, it made me defensive. My mindset was something along the line of “Oh no you didn’t, book! I see your trickery! I will not fall for it that easily!”
Postmodern fiction functions to constantly remind readers that they are reading a book, a constructed text that was designed/arranged/written in a specific way for a specific purpose. I could never get emotionally invested in the novel because I kept asking myself, “What is Foer getting at? What does he want from me?” It’s hard to be postmodern and moving at the same time but it’s possible. Think about Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Postmodern? Totally. Did it elicit an emotional response from me? Yes. The difference with Slaughterhouse is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Yes, the subject matter is serious, but there are touches of humor to keep it grounded in real life. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close takes itself way too seriously, to the point of being self-indulgent. The characters feel contrived. Foer sacrifices story at the expense of theme.
This is all a kind way of saying that it read, as most pretentious fiction does, like the author giving himself a literary blowjob, and tricking me into watching. Gross.