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.