Ten Thousand Saints

book by Eleanor Henderson

annotation by Kate Maruyama

My study of multiple character POV stories and pure impulsive curiosity led me to Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints and I’m very glad it did. It’s the story of a handful of teenagers wandering through a shaky time in their lives, careening off their various tracks and into each other. This makes it sound like a story that would meander in its telling, one of those coming of age tomes that becomes too enamored of its self-reflection to stay on track. But it’s not.

Henderson brings order to the structure and gives us life, up close, and characters we can grab a hold of. She manages to maintain tension throughout the book with action, ticking clocks and the subtle pattern she creates in the movement through the various voices telling their stories. When each new voice comes in, it is so close, nailed down with internal thoughts and observations, that the larger story becomes seamless. Henderson also has the deft ability to make her characters’ voices change as they grow and become more aware of life around them.

We open with Jude, lost in his small town moderately drug-abusing Vermont lifestyle with his best friend Teddy. When Eliza, Jude’s father’s girlfriend’s daughter (the obscurity of the relationship only emphasizes the delicate web of chance and relationships that drives these characters’ lives) comes to town, it results in Teddy’s accidental death which drives all of the players into a downward spiral and something else which ends up throwing Eliza and Jude together with Teddy’s brother, Johnny in a fully realized New York City of the 1980s.

Nothing is an accident and Henderson navigates a very human landscape of the ever changing definition of family, chance meetings, and that slippery world of growing up which can lead a boy from drug abuse to the hare krishnas to near marriage and out the other end into the beginning of life. She touches on history without proselytizing, bringing us the Tompkins Square riot of 1988 and the spectre of AIDS casting its shadow on New York.

Henderson slides smoothly in and out of POVs and miraculously avoids the pitfalls of multi-POV stories, keeping us engaged with each new page.  Even a brief departure into Jude’s mother’s POV is so carefully drawn and close that there is no worry in leaving the other characters: Henderson makes each page the place where you, as a reader, want to dwell.

It’s a challenge, while telling several different stories at once (as I am doing in my current novel) to maintain tension without using artificial means. I can only think that Henderson worked incredibly hard in the editing process, reshuffling and ordering the story until it felt right. She has the help of the ticking clock of a pregnancy and various smaller situations exploding in various characters’ lives, but we do jump around in time here or there, taking steps back into a prior day, or week,  or jumps forward.  It’s as if she approached the book musically. While it makes narrative sense, those little jumps in time and consciousness would be disorienting without a larger attention to rhythm and pace.  There is not a moment wasted in this tight, close novel.

As I go into a thorough rewrite of a rough draft of my novel, I hope to take out everything that is inessential, and perhaps to shuffle the deck a little, see if different parts of the story might go together for reasons greater than timing or chronology.  And most of all, I need to make sure that each characters’ voice is close and fully present in his or her section—to remember to pay attention to the world of the page.

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Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

book by Jonathan Safran Foer

annotation by Diane Sherlock

Foer deals with loss through a number of characters in the aftermath of 9/11, primarily through the eyes of the nine year old protagonist, Oskar, whose father died in the attack on the World Trade Center. There was something that rang a faint bell beginning with the spelling of Oskar and about 100 pages in, the book reminded me strongly of Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, another polarizing book. Count me in the ‘admire the writing, didn’t care for the book’ group on both counts. I had a far more negative reaction to The Tin Drum, but it didn’t help my reaction to this book – precocious child wandering through a landscape of loss, tambourine instead of the drum, aftermath of devastating act of man’s inhumanity to man. After this realization, my opinion of the book was colored because it seemed not so much homage (except in the tip of the hat to Vonnegut’s Dresden) as derivative. Most of the writing is very good, the organization of material less so, with the bedtime story about the Sixth Borough seeming more like a stand alone short story than part of this narrative. Foer’s use of repetition was for the most part irritating – “I gave myself a bruise,” “heavy boots,” and “Jose” were not unbelievable for a bright nine year old, just wearisome for me as reader.

Foer has many missed opportunities with the book and it reads like what it is, a book by a young writer with more reading experience than life experience. One missed opportunity was portraying the height of the Twin Towers. He writes about burning jet fuel and the choice to burn or jump (something I spent probably an unhealthy amount of time contemplating as I watched it unfold on TV and since). Years ago, I went to the top of the Towers and it seems like Oskar would have at some point either with his parents or school. It was stunning to step off that elevator and see that view. Some people couldn’t get off the elevator – it was too much like stepping out into space –  and I missed the sense of that in the novel. Other missed opportunities included the grandmother, who could have been the emotional heart of the book, but ended up feeling disconnected. With regard to the grandparents, it would have been nice if Foer had mimicked the areas of Something and Nothing in his narrative in those sections involving the grandparents’ story. Also, there was no satisfactory pay off for hiding the answering machine. It felt like it fizzled away when his mother said she talked to Oskar’s father on her cell. The other glaring missed opportunity was the lack of response by others to Oskar’s relaying of his father’s death. It’s as if 9/11 only happened to Oskar. Even though he’s an unreliable narrator and taking into account the limited perspective of a child, it seems likely that at least one of the people he told his story to would have replied with their own 9/11 story.

I liked most of the pictures, especially in reference to the picture book Oskar collected along the way. He’s on a scavenger hunt he thinks was set up by his father. The rest of the pictures didn’t bother me, but I found them unnecessary, thanks to Foer’s vivid descriptions. By the time I reached the flip book at the end, I was not engaged with the story and it had no real impact on me. This might also be because I had just read Amis’ Time’s Arrow and reread Slaughterhouse Five so rewinding was familiar.

As with All Families Are Psychotic, Foer did not convince me with the character of the mother. She was two dimensional and her reactions seemed off, especially after losing her husband and a child with obvious marks all over him wandering around New York City day and night. The cursory reference to hospitalization and therapy was just that, cursory. The scene when he hides the answering machine from her was poignant, but later when he truly hurts her, while painful, did not have that same kind of emotional resonance and by that point, I was hoping for it, for more to pull me in. Even if the mother didn’t keep track of him (and the explanation that she kept a closer eye than he was aware of seemed like window dressing toward the end), one of the other adults along the way should have behaved, well, more like an adult.

All in all, the book had its moments, but overall was a cautionary tale warning against gimmicks under the sheen of good writing. The ‘look at me’ quality of the writing could have reinforced the character of Oskar. Instead, much of the writing felt forced. It will be interesting to see how Foer develops as a writer after the white hot attention he’s received as a literary wunderkind and the fact he’s already used the two seminal events in living history for his first two books.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud and Incredibly CloseNote: We at Annotation Nation are frequently asked if we will take an additional submission on a book that has already been annotated. The truth is we love how different authors have completely different points of view on the same book. Books inspire writers in so many different ways. So thanks to Telaina Eriksen’s fresh contribution below, and two annotations from 2009, we offer you three ways of looking at one novel: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. For other twice-annotated books, check out Jesus’ Son and The Road

book by Jonathan Safran Foer

annotation by Telaina Eriksen

Michigan State University and East Lansing choose a book each year to read as a community. The 7,000-8,000 freshmen are given this book at their summer orientation and community members are encouraged to read the selection as well. In early fall, a month of activities surround the chosen book in the hope that students, faculty and community members intermingle at these events, giving students and East Lansing citizens something proactive to talk about… rather than fighting over parking places and witnessing public intoxication which often leads to public urination. The chosen author speaks at least twice (once to the community and once to the students and faculty of the university), there are writing workshops, related films are shown, and other sanctioned events dot the community calendar.

And while literary critic/Yale professor Harold Bloom doesn’t “like these mass reading bees…it is rather like the idea that we are all going to pop out and eat Chicken McNuggets or something else horrid at once” (http://www.nytimes.com/2002/02/19/nyregion/want-a-fight-pick-one-book-for-all-new-yorkers.html), I believe literary-centered activities help communities talk about important things… discrimination, stereotypes, wars, and other personal and societal tragedies. Just as all politics are local, so are all good books (with my insincere apologies to Harold Bloom).  The book chosen this year, in part because the committee wanted to promote discussion and commemoration of the 10th anniversary of 9-11, was Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the story of Oskar Schell, whose father died in the collapse of the Twin Towers.

Having lived in this community for 25 years, my friends and acquaintances know of my book worm habits and often discuss books with me. Never have I received such a spate of negative and/or confused opinions about a book as this 2011 selection of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I’ve received this response to the book while I am at the gym. Standing in parking lots. Workshopping in classrooms. Men and women alike approach me with utter bafflement and apprehension. Many book lovers had trouble with this book. As I began reading Foer’s lyrical, mythical tale, I understood their reactions.

This is not a linear narrative, though it is full of story. You don’t always know exactly what is happening and no, it is not always believable that a nine-year-old savant is being allowed to wander all over New York City with no supervision. It is not always believable that Oskar’s grandfather cannot speak, so he has had “yes” and “no” tattooed on opposite palms. It is not always believable that a nine-year-old can know about women’s “VJs” and their periods, but not know what the word intimidating means (p. 293). And perhaps it is unbelievable that a caring mother might not notice or comment on over 40 bruises on her son’s torso.

Foer does not break lines between different characters speaking and dialogue attributions are at a bare minimum. Visuals are scattered throughout the book, many a selection from Oskar’s scrapbook “Things That Have Happened to Me.”  Michigan State University Professor Stephen Arch commented in a video he did for the One Book community on Facebook, that readers should take the visuals in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as one would take the pictures in a graphic novel, as an integral, not supplemental, part of this story.

So why have my fellow readers struggled with this book and what does this tell me as a reader and a writer? It tells me that we are at a strange time in the creation of and enjoyment of novels. I think we are always at a strange time, but I think we can all agree that the Internet is changing at light speed how books are distributed, marketed, sold, and read. I don’t think writers or readers have been able to keep up with this frenetic evolution and evidence is piling up that our time on Google and Facebook, etc., actually rewires our brains.  While Foer’s work is probably accessible to the incoming freshmen at Michigan State who grew up with a cell phone in one hand and an iPod in the other, other readers, who remember the days of whole sets of encyclopedias at the library, might struggle with what Foer’s creation IS and may not like this integration of visual elements, this stream of consciousness experience of loss and mourning, this fantastical fable of a bright American boy losing his whole world on a single dark day.

Foer does many things well in this unique narrative and one of the things I truly admired was his juxtaposition of the WWII bombing of Dresden versus the events of 9-11. Not only does this show the unrelenting onslaught of war, of human experience, how we are trapped in the same place over and over again only with different heroes and enemies, that the innocent are so often mere threads in the tapestries of insanity, egos, human greed, and self-righteousness, but the contrast of these two events also shows how our losses both tie people (and characters) together and tear them apart.  I know from my son’s love of WWII history, that the necessity of the Dresden bombing remains historically questioned. Was it really necessary to drop bombs that destroyed EVERYTHING for 15 square miles? The parallels between the innocent deaths in Dresden and the innocent deaths of 9-11 were not lost on this reader.

In the final pages of the book, Oskar receives a letter from Stephen Hawking, after repeatedly writing to Hawking in the days following 9-11.  Hawking finally responds personally and tells Oskar “I wish I were a poet…I’ve been able to explore the origins of time and space with some of the great living thinkers.  But I wish I were a poet.” We writers sometimes bemoan our vocations. We wring our hands and complain about our rejections, the disrespect of our art and the written word. Most writers are dreadfully underpaid and we have to have an elastic sense of self that encompasses both occasional success and more frequent abject failure—sometimes these ups and downs occurring in less than a 24-hour period. But indeed what a joy it is to be a poet…even in this high-energy uncertain death-of-print world.  Who else gets to create mythical hybrids like Foer’s? Myths that try to guide people (baffled by form or no) to the heart of death and acceptance of loss? Astrophysics must adhere to its laws. Astrophysics pauses in stuttering awe at the mystery of dark matter.  Writers reach right into the dark, laws be damned, and take their readers with them.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Closebook by Jonathan Safran Foer

annotation by Stephanie Quinn Westphal originally posted 7/10/09

When I first began to read Jonathan Safran Foer’s second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I didn’t care for his writing. I found some of his stylistic tics annoying, especially the way he repeats phrases, ideas and images, overstates the nine-year-old protagonist’s brilliance, and gives too many examples of a particular idea. But once I became captivated by Oskar Schell as a character, I became engaged in his story. As the novel progresses, Foer seems to settle down into the world he creates and uses his ambition and talent to great and moving effect.

One startling and ultimately profound thing Foer does in this novel is break the edges of the frame. He uses photos and other visual devices embedded in the text in inventive ways, including to visually recreate the stepped process of coming to an epiphany, and as a cinematic device that mimics movement (via a backwards flip book). On the simple, rather straightforward level, Foer inserts a photo of the façade of an urban apartment, which makes the reader feel as if she’s standing next to Oskar when he looks out his window to see his grandmother’s apartment across the street. The author also employs other visual methods for directing the reader to previous portions of the novel, not just in a mental reassessment of what’s been read, but also in actual thumbing through of the pages. He uses blank pages, pages with only one sentence in the middle of the sheet, and pages with names written in different handwriting and colors to make us stop and step away from the text for a moment, and then to reenter it with new awareness. He halts the fictive dream, makes us think about it, and then calls us back into that dream, albeit with a slightly altered perspective. By incorporating such visual elements in his text, Foer expands on some of the ways in which fiction traditionally works, giving us a richer reading experience.

Through his inventive and deliberate juxtaposition of photographic images with the written text, Foer also makes them work in tandem on a more symbolic level. The author inserts a close up shot of an old person’s turned up hands, with “No” written in the palm of the left hand and “Yes” on the right hand (but inverting them so that the photo of the right hand is on the left page and vice versa). The person’s thumbs are gnarled and his fingers show the wear and tear of a long life. By including the photograph of a real elderly man’s hands deformed by arthritis and speckled in age spots, Foer makes that detail more powerful to the readers. I found it interesting that Foer didn’t place that photo early on in the book when the narrator first describes the grandfather’s hands. Seeing the image later added retroactively to the description’s impact.

Directing the reader’s attention, and specifically, her conscious awareness of the path her eye follows, seems to be a central objective of Foer’s style and structure. The author’s deliberate orchestration of our eye movement and thought processes creates a meta-text, a text that occurs above and between the physical pages of the book and that is more than simply an adjunct to the printed text appearing on the pages.

One of the central threads in the novel is the series of phone messages that Oskar’s father leaves from the Twin Towers on the morning of 9/11. He listens to his father’s messages in a state of near paralysis, fueled alternately by hope and dread. When the buildings collapse and it seems likely that his father didn’t make it out alive, Oskar conceals the evidence of the phone messages from his mother. He buys a matching phone, redoes the outgoing message, and then hides the original phone, with the messages on it still intact, up in his closet.

Not only does Foer space out the revelation of the individual calls over the course of the novel, but he also echoes this slow unveiling of clues in his placement of photographs and images in the novel. The first photo in the book is of an extreme close up of an old-fashioned door with a glass doorknob and the lock below it (a visual pun, perhaps, of the title?). The perspective is so close that I didn’t really recognize what the image was or register it consciously until later in the text when Oskar finds an old key his father had tucked away in an envelope. Foer seems to be saying that some patterns only “make sense” with repeated viewings and over time. Surely the initially inconceivable and incomprehensible bombing of the Twin Towers qualifies as such an event.

Shortly after we learn of the mysterious key, we watch Oskar start on his quest to find out what the key opens, to uncover symbolically the secret of who his father was and the meaning of his death. Foer then intersperses several shots of the door and the lock in the text; it’s the same door, but it’s either from further away, the keyhole is empty, or the key is turned in the lock. Foer may be playing not only with long shots versus close ups, but also with images of the front of the door in contrast to the back of the door (a theme he plays with in the photos of the backs of people’s heads, something that Oskar talks about). Moving back and forth across the text adds intrigue and the satisfaction of discovery to the reading experience. It also illustrates how dependent meaning or learning is on context. Without knowing about the strange key, much of the import of the photos of the door and keyhole is lost. We can’t grasp it. Foer spaces out the photos the way he spaces out the phone calls from the father, delaying both our gratification and our epiphanies.

Foer also uses body orientation (facing forward, facing backward, looking down at your hands, etc.) to echo the dislocation and sense of fragmentation that Oskar battles against as he tries to reconstruct a coherent worldview after the violent death of his father and the rending of his sense of safety. The author thus recreates in the readers both the sense of being shattered and the compulsive need to reassemble a world of recognizable patterns, even if the patterns must shift a bit to include the new knowledge.

The very back of the novel is what amounts to a backwards flip book that shows a person who has leaped off a building (which we learn is indeed a picture of someone plummeting to his death off one of the Twin Towers because Oskar finds such images on a Portuguese news show and keeps a print out of that horror and others in a folder under his bed). As I flipped through the final photos, I watched the fuzzy body of a man as he miraculously moved up through the air, back towards the moment before that figure – emblematic of Oskar’s father– leaped to his death. Back up to the safety of the tower. Back to a world that was still held together in its old order. This is Oskar’s impossible, but understandable wish. This is the wish of all humans in the face of loss and the inevitable death of those we love and ourselves. In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Foer has created a brilliant, multi-faceted portrayal of this universal human dilemma.

As the novel neared its end, I had a better understanding of the meaning of the title, referring as it probably does to the closeness of Oskar’s apartment to the Twin Towers, the emotional and metaphorical “loudness” of his father’s death as well as the “incredibly close” nature of Oskar’s connection to his father both before and after his death. I found it a flawed, but deeply moving novel, almost triumphant in its tangible recreation of the fact that fiction and stories are at their very best still only approximations of reality, just as photographs are translations of light. It’s the best we can do as humans to empathetically step into and convey another person’s experience, and it is enough.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud and Incredibly CloseBook by Jonathan Safran Foer

Annotation by Kate Maruyama, originally posted 5/27/09

EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE kinda blew my mind about four years ago, when I read it for the first time. While I am very well read in certain areas of literature, I have huge gaps in others.

I hadn’t read much about 9/11; it still hurt too much. Growing up in Connecticut, New York was my city. In my heart, it held my ideal future life in my childhood and teenage dreams. I tried to get through Art Spiegelman’s IN THE SHADOW OF NO TOWERS, but it was too personal and too well drawn. He took me right down that tunnel of despair I’d been avoiding for two years thus far.

When I got to Oskar Schell’s story, I was ready. The kid had that approach to the subject that I needed to have: glimpses, trying to sort out the emotions involved, that lost feeling and inarticulateness that goes with it. It was still too awful to either dive into or put away. Oskar’s immature mind and the mature way he approached it proved very cathartic for me. I also enjoyed the two stories’ separation and how they wove together. I was willing to go wherever Foer took me. The big question came up often: how did he do this? How did he think of all of this?

But when I finally read SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE, the idea of the backwards thing at the end of Foer’s novel gave me a “huh.” I read AS I LAY DYING and the epiphany came, “Wow, people have been messing with time and character space for longer than I realized.” TRISTRAM SHANDY did in 1759, with its blackened page thing what I thought was revolutionary in 2005.

This second reading held echoes of everything I had read since the first: heavy echoes of Vonnegut, Faulkner, Sterne, and of Foer’s first novel Everything is Illuminated. It did not strike with the same original resonance it had given me on its first read. Sigh. This is the price of studying writing, losing that wonder and becoming jaded.

I still love Oskar’s voice, his “heavy boots” and his natural acceptance of every new personality that comes along. His travels and his approaches to people are fascinating, and, as my boy approaches nine, some of his observations really slayed me. The scene where Oskar is onstage as Yorick (a nod to Tristram Shandy? ) basically melting down inside while playing an inanimate skull is beautifully done.

This reading brought up an irritation with Oskar’s mother that I hadn’t felt before. Sure, it’s revealed that she was aware of his travels the whole time, but I don’t think I’d let my nine year old traverse Glendale on his own, let alone the five boroughs of New York City, unless I knew he had a companion; even with a call ahead to the person meeting him.

Mr. Black from upstairs is still a lively character, as is his life, delivery and filing system; but when he abandoned Oskar atop the Empire State building, it became once again apparent that while Foer’s characters are rich in this book, not all of their motivations are clearly defined.

The story of the grandparents was problematic for me this time. There was something lacking in their motivation and questions kept arising. Thomas Sr. never really tells us how he felt about losing Anna and her baby and why it makes him behave so awfully to his wife. It is a clever device to have him stop speaking, but scene after scene, his thoughts and feelings are stunted. While there is reason for this, it leaves us in the dark as to his thought processes. The “not space” he and Grandmother created in the apartment felt more like a writer enthralled with the rhythm he has found in his own language than an insight into his character’s lives. The vagueness of motivation in Thomas Sr. only brought into relief the problems of the grandmother character. I wanted so much more of her, from her point of view. Her voice is distant and folkloric and it feels like there was an opportunity here for so much more to happen.

I never could have written something so vast and in many ways beautiful and certainly not in my early twenties. It is a good reminder not to get too caught up in one’s poetry (which I could totally see doing at that age) and never to forget that writing should really be about the characters and what they are experiencing: that rendering their thoughts, feelings and conflict are really what make a novel work. That those lyric moments need to be earned and can’t just be everywhere.

Maybe Oskar is a lesson in following the characters who are really telling the story, or listening harder to those yelling in the background.