Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Sad Enough to Make a Grown Man Cry

I freely admit it.

When it comes right down to it, I'm pretty jaded as a reader. It takes a lot of skill for a writer to get me laughing out loud at their book. And it takes even more for me to be impressed by some quirk of technique. It's even rarer still to really shock or surprise me, and almost unheard of that a book hits me so perfectly on an emotional level that I'm nearly brought to tears.

When a writer hits on even one of these points, it illicits a rave review out of me. On the almost unheard of occasions when a book hits all of these, I rant and rave about it to everyone I know and people I don't know for months. Books that did this for me in recent memory are Murakami's The Windup Bird Chronicle, Delaney's Dhalgren, Acker's Empire of the Senseless and Rice's Blood of Mugwump. Jonathan Safan Foer's new novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close hits on two of these points, and that's pretty damn good.

Extremely is a contemporary, post-9/11 story. Oskar, a young boy living in New York City, lost his father to the fall of the World Trade Center. Two years later Oskar still searches for answers, as well as a way to connect with his missing father. When rummaging through his father's closet Oskar finds an envelope with the word "Black" written on it in red ink. Inside rests a small key that doesn't fit any lock in their home. Using flawless kid logic, Oskar begins a quest to speak with every person in New York City who has the name Black, thinking it will lead to the answer of the secret key.

Foer's creation of Oskar is a marvelous one. He's a brilliant and creative little kid with dreams of becoming an inventor. He imagines creations like skyscrapers that retract into the ground so people won't have to use stairs or elevators and ankle bracelets that leave a trail so you never got lost. Filled with ambition, he writes letters to scientists like Stephen Hawking asking to work as their assistant. I've always found writing from a child's point of view really difficult, and a smart child even more challenging. But Foer generates the right mixture of intelligence and naivete that a bright child would have.

In his quest, Oskar meets an odd assortment of characters: a retired journalist who keeps a card catalogue record of everyone he's ever met, a woman who hasn't left the observation deck of the Empire State Building in several years, and a mysterious mute who communicates through handwritten notes. Although he rarely finds answers that are helpful, Oskar still manages to charm his way into these people's live and, in some instances, even help some of them out with their lives.

If all of this sounds funny, it is. While I didn't expect to laugh at a book tied to 9/11, Extremely is filled with odd events and verbal puns, all doubled when presented through the wide-eyed point of view of Oskar. But it's humor done in a smart way that connects nicely to the ideas of the book. I can't help but think of Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five---with its humor within the tragedy of the bombing of Dresden, its straightforward yet almost postmodern flashes---in reading a lot of this. But I don't mean in a derivative way. While Vonnegut's humor constantly shouts on the page, Foer ocassionally tones it down and makes you chuckle in more subtle ways.

But Extremely is primarly a book about loss and about recovery. The most moving moments are Oskar's remembrances of his father. I was riding home from work on the metro when I read the flashback of Oskar hearing the phone messages his father left on 9/11. My heart fell, and I leaned against the window and cover my face with the book so no one would see the tiny tears I thought might form in my eyes. A book that can do that to me is a rare gem indeed.

So good job, Mr. Foer. You made a grown man cry. And I couldn't be happier.


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