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.

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