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.