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Posts Tagged ‘Everything is Illuminated’

How to write a novel about 9/11?  It’s a tough ask.  Get it wrong and people attack you for riding the gravy train of grief.  Get it right, though, and you might just have a classic. 

Extremely Loud is the story of emotionally troubled Oskar Schell, a (very) precocious nine year old boy, whose father was killed in the attack on the Twin Towers.  ‘Heavy boots’ is Oskar’s term for sadness, one which he has occasion to repeat throughout the story.  He is very close to his grandma who lives across the street; they talk to each other at all hours by walkie-talkie.  After ‘the worst day’, Oskar finds a blue vase in his father’s closet and inside that an envelope with the name “Black” written on it.  Inside the envelope is a key and Oskar wants to find out what it opens, in part because it’s a puzzle, in part because it keeps him close to his father.  So begins a quest to find the right Black who might know.  In the midst of this search he finds one-hundred year old Mr Black who lives in the same apartment building who helps Oskar find and interview all the other Blacks in the five boroughs of New York City.  Oskar offers his card to everyone he meets, on which it explains that he is an “inventor, jewellery designer, jewellery fabricator, amatuer entomologist, francophile, vegan, origamist, pacifist, percussionist, amateur astronomer, amatuer archeologist, collector of: rare coins, butterflies that died natural deaths, miniature cacti, Beatles memorabilia, semiprecious stones, and other things.”  (Phew!)  Along the way he has another idea: to dig up the empty coffin of his father. 

This is Safran Foer’s second novel after his prominent debut, Everything is Illuminated, which I quite liked (see my review here).  You know what you’re getting when you open one of his books: enough pyrotechnics to put New Year’s Eve in Sydney to shame.  Extremely Loud has so many tricks that it would be impossible to list them, but it includes blank pages (curtesy of Oskar’s grandma’s attempt to write her autobiography using a typewriter with no ink ribbon); pages with one line of text; other pages in which Oskar’s grandfather, writing letters to his estranged son, runs out of paper and begins to write over the text he’s already written; photographs of things that Oskar pastes into his book of ‘Things that Happened to Me’ – including a haunting image of someone falling from one of the Twin Towers; and so on.  On paper these additions are compelling inventions, things that possibly extend what the novel can do.  They worked for me, though they won’t for everyone.

The story is littered with Oskar’s inventions, an almost obsessive compulsive trait, many of which are whimsical, but many of which stem from his sense of loss, such as this one, [p259]: “skyscrapers made with moving parts, so they could rearrange themselves when they had to, and even open holes in their middles for planes to fly through”. 

Alongside Oskar’s quest we have the dual narratives of his grandparents, in alternating chapters.  His grandma is writing letters to Oskar.  His estranged grandfather, Thomas, is writing letters to his lost son.  Even in these chapters there are tricks and magical-realist tendencies.  Both survived the Allied bombing of Dresden in WWII.  There are some odd things in these chapters.  Thomas was going to marry Anna, Grandma’s sister, who was expecting their child, only for Anna to die in the war.  Years later, Grandma sees Thomas in New York and asks him to marry her.  He has been much damaged by the Dresden bombing and is now unable to speak, writing all his conversations out in blank notebooks.  They do indeed marry, but have such strange rules and weird constructs that they live a very peculiar existence.  For example they divide their apartment into ‘Something’ and ‘Nothing’ zones.  If they want to disappear for a while they go into a Nothing Zone, but there become so many Nothing Zones that they fear going from one Something Zone to another, just in case they walk into a Nothing Zone!  Some of this I just didn’t get.  In the end, Thomas leaves, after she becomes pregnant with Oskar’s father.      

Oskar has a difficult relationship with his mother who is a lawyer.  He believes she doesn’t love him.  He is upset that she has a friend called Ron over all time and that they laugh a lot when he is crying.  In an outburst, he even tells her that she wished she had died and not his father, who told him all sorts of stories and loved him very much.  

There is also a moving vignette that focuses on an interview with a survivor of the attack on Hiroshima.  Says the interviewee: [p189]:

When I heard your organization was recording testimonies, I knew I had to come.  [My daughter] died in my arms, saying, “I don’t want to die.”  That is what death is like.  It doesn’t matter what uniforms the soldiers are wearing.  It doesn’t matter how good the weapons are.  I thought if everyone could see what I saw, we would never have war anymore.

And when he meets his elderly neighbour, Mr Black tells him the story of his (long) life.  His bed was made out of wood he sourced from cutting down a tree inCentral Park.  He had spent many years as a war reporter.  Oskar asks him which was his last war and he replies, [p161]:

Cutting down that tree was my last war!  I asked him who won, which I thought was a nice question, because it would let him say that he won, and feel proud.  He said, “The axe won!  It’s always that way!” 

Never was a truer word said about war. 

These unembellished accounts of war are the most compelling aspects of the novel.  Included in these are the voicemails Oskar’s father leaves on 9/11 after the plane struck the building he was in—and what Oskar does in order to cover them up.  The calls are so traumatising for him he replaces the message machine with a new one, keeping the old machine in his closet.  He doesn’t want his mother to hear them, although he has another motive for this obfuscation too.

Elsewhere, however, some of the tricks fall a little flat and rob the story of emotional depth.  The story’s set-up is so good that you root for Oskar and wonder how the relationship of his grandparents works itself out.  But part of the problem is that Oskar is so intelligent he comes across as being much, much older, an extension of the author in fact.  Safran Foer is at pains to have Oskar occasionally ask what a word means, but he knows so many other facts and is so literate that it seems a bit forced.  Why does he know one thing or erudite word and not another?  It’s symptomatic of the underlying problem: he’s just a little too ‘old’.  What we get is a character we should have enormous sympathy for, but can’t quite believe in.  It’s a real shame. 

Also, the stories of real emotional punch, like Thomas’s recounting of the Dresden bombing, get lost within the Something-Nothing world and the other tricks in these chapters.  I understand that war has broken these people in ways that seem bizarre to those of us lucky enough to live at arm’s length from such terrible things, but it seems Safran Foer can’t help himself.  Perhaps if there was less ‘narrative explosions’ we’d be able to see the dazzling fireworks of the story itself.  

This is an anti-war novel, and there’s a reason Oskar Schell is named Oskar.  Gunter Grass’s much acclaimed The Tin Drum, which I loved, has a rather unique protagonist also named Oskar.  Grass’s Oskar beats away at his tin drum in response to the horrors of Nazi Germany in WWII.  In Safran Foer’s novel, Oskar (occasionally) shakes his tambourine, though that’s perhaps where the similarities end.  The linkages between Oskar Schell and the WWII generation of his grandparents work well in underlining the fact that, sadly, humanity hasn’t learnt enough in the last 60 years.  

I love the fact that Safran Foer had the gumption to take on another weighty topic.  (His debut focussed on the Holocaust.  It, too, had a man on a quest and a dual-generation narrative structure.)  Extremely Loud is dazzling in many respects, and most of the questions raised are very well resolved, including why Oskar’s mother lets him go off to meet all these strangers, who the mysterious ‘renter’ in grandma’s apartment is, and what Oskar does when he digs up the empty coffin of his father—a particularly moving scene.  But I wonder just how great it could have been if there was a little more restraint and if Oskar had been just a little more sympathetic.  It could have been a classic.    

You’ll hear more about this book in the coming months.  It has been made into a movie starring Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, John Goodman and others.  (Hanks is an ironic choice considering he’s mentioned in the novel itself when Oskar goes to the Empire State Building!)  It’ll be interesting to see what Hollywood leaves in, takes out, (and puts in!), particularly with regard to the grandparents’ stories. 

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

Penguin

2005

ISBN: 9780141012698

326 pages

Source: the bookshelf rainbow

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Jonathan Safran Foer took an introductory writing course whilst a freshman at Princeton ran by Joyce Carol Oates who took an interest in his writing, saying he had: “that most important of writerly qualities, energy”.  This observation is spot on – and for those readers who enjoy narrative pyrotechnics and manic energy in the style of Dave Eggers, Everything is Illuminated is most definitely the book for you.  Published in 2002, and winner of that year’s Guardian First Book Award, the story traces the journey of a Jew named Jonathan Safran Foer to the Ukraine, in search of Augustine, the woman who saved his grandfather’s life during the Nazi destruction of his family’s shtetl – or township, named Trachimbrod – during WWII.  The search is facilitated by his local interpreter, Alexander, Alexander’s supposedly blind grandfather, and ‘Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior’ – the grandfather’s supposed guide dog – or “Seeing Eye bitch”.

The story is constructed in two arcs, with Jonathan Safran Foer’s high-energy magical-realist novel-in-progress – which tells the story of the people of the imaginary Trachimbrod in Ukraine where his forebears are from – and a straightforward, but equally humorous account of their travels, written by his interpreter Alexander, whose interpreting skills are not up-to-scratch.  He boasts that he is ‘fluid’ in English and each sentence is littered with wild attempts at writing good English, but they betray the use of a ‘fatigued’ thesaurus without any real, first-hand experience of English.  He is excited by the chance to work: “… I was so effervescent to go to Lutsk and translate for Jonathan Safran Foer.  It would be unordinary.”

There is much ‘reposing’ (sleeping), things are often ‘rigid’ (hard or difficult), ‘currency’ is used instead of money, and things are not so much wonderful as they are ‘majestic’.  Good things and people are ‘premium’.  And Alex signs his letters ‘guilelessly’ rather than faithfully.  And this is not even the ice atop the iceberg of translation transgressions.  This comical translation yields a great deal of fun, where absolutely nothing is ‘unordinary’, but some will find that Alex doesn’t quite ring true – a real person trying to learn English might make mistakes of tense and quickly ape any English they hear with their ear.  ‘Reality’ is sacrificed here for the sake of comedy, which I enjoyed, but others may not.

Meanwhile, Safran Foer’s story arc captures the hilarious and odd townsfolk of Trachimbrod, where there is a balance between the Jewish Quarter and the ‘Human Three Quarters’.  This arc commences with the death of Trachim B, in 1791, whose wagon has rolled on top of him in the river, pinning him to the bottom.  There is much debate amongst the people as to whether to proclaim anything – it seems proclamations are very important – the candy-maker saying they need a proclamation … “not if the shtetl proclaims otherwise” corrects another(!)  In amongst the wagon’s rising detritus a baby is found – none other than Safran Foer’s great-times-five-grandmother.

The two story arcs move in opposite directions: Safran Foer’s starts way back in 1791 and moves forward, whereas Alex’s begins in the present day and travels backward to find out the truth of what his grandfather did in WWII.  This structure and interplay works well and is one of the successes of the book.  Like Dave Egger’s A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius, Safran Foer’s narrative bristles with verve, energy and wit.  Reading Safran Foer is like having a marching band trump through your room with symbols clashing and trumpets blaring.  No-one can deny the brash, brute-force energy of it and its willingness to test the limits.

Laughter is never far away when Jonathan arrives in Lvov on the train to be met by Alexander, who describes the meeting:

“Your train ride appeased you?” I asked.  “Oh, God,” he said, “twenty-six hours, fucking unbelievable.”  This girl Unbelievable must be very majestic, I thought.

The knowing and wink-wink letters from the ‘guileless’ Alex to the ‘hero’ are rife with suggestions on how to make the story better, as well as questions over whether the story should be so funny given the sad events it depicts.  Alex writes:

“We are being very nomadic with the truth, yes?  The both of us?  Do you think that this is acceptable when we are writing about things that occurred?” … and after suggesting alternatives, he adds: “I do not think that there are any limits to how excellent we could make life seem.”

But the life of the story is not going to be easy or ‘excellent’.  When they arrive where Trachimbrod once stood, in the dark of night, Augustine says: “It is always like this, always dark”.  It is as if they are physically stepping into the dark past and the end of the shtetl.

Some sense greatness in Safran Foer’s style, whilst others point to a overuse of devices and pretension.  And yet others will sit somewhere in between, enjoy and go along with it to spot all the styles and cues of authors past – such as Garcia Marquez’s magical realism, Dave Egger’s narrative exuberance and pyrotechnics, and Günter Grass’s wonderful The Tin Drum whose protagonist Oskar hides beneath a relative’s skirt – just like a character in Safran Foer’s novel.  I find myself in the later camp, and whilst budding authors naturally tend to echo the styles of authors they in turn admire or borrow ideas or images to suit their own story, I’m less convinced of other reviewers’ claims of Safran Foer’s ‘startling originality’ and statements to the effect ‘that the novel will never be the same again’.  The Dilettante eschews such over-exuberance!  That said, there is much to admire, and given that Garcia Marquez and Günter Grass are two of my favourite authors, reading something excellently written, humorous and poignant that also reminds me of them was a very enjoyable experience.

It is a hard task to sustain such energy for the duration of a whole novel, but Safran Foer manages it.  His climactic remembrance of past evil is well executed, and the memory of it will live long, although others have pointed out that it reminds them of Sophie’s Choice but lacking its emotional knockout punch.  What does ring true is that whilst this is a story of Jewish history and the ‘Final Solution’ inflicted by the Germans upon European Jews in WWII, Alex’s grandfather rightly states at the beginning of this scene: “Just because I was not a Jew, it does not mean that it did not happen to me.”  For the truth is that when Evil occurs, it occurs to us all.

For a gushing review, see: The Times’ (UK): Luminous Talent in the Spotlight.

For a more balanced review, see one of the Guardian’s reviews.

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

Penguin

ISBN: 9780141008257

276 pages

Source: Personal Library, aka: ‘Bookshelf Rainbow’.

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A couple of spoiler-free sentences, (not-so-) randomly chosen from my current read: Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, p32:

“Your train ride appeased you?” I asked.  “Oh God,” he said, “twenty-six hours, fucking unbelievable.”  This girl Unbelievable must be very majestic, I thought. 

It’s a very funny read…

What are you reading?

The D!

PS: Teaser Tuesday is a bookish meme hosted by shouldbereading.

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