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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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The yellow portion of my bookshelf rainbow needed a little boost so I was very happy to receive Téa Obreht’s much hyped The Tiger’s Wife in the mail.  It is a wonderfully produced hardback.  The cover is really well done.  Full marks.  It’s very different to the US version which is quite dark and stolid (see right), although I do like the tiger creeping across the top.  The differences between the two couldn’t be more pronounced.  But I’m not here to judge a book by its cover so it’s on with my musings…

Regular readers will know that I’m a bit partial to magic realism and fable, Garcia-Marquez, Rushdie, Saramago, Grass, Murakami, early Peter Carey, and so-on.  Looking at this list makes it seem like I’m a little stuck in the ‘80s and perhaps need to modernise my exposure to more recent speculative fiction from the likes of Neil Gaiman et al, a list to which Obreht can be added.

I picked up The Tiger’s Wife not knowing much about the story, only that it had some magical realist elements.  The reason I came to it was that Obreht is coming out for the Sydney Writers’ Festival in a few weeks.  The only other thing I knew was that Obreht had made it onto the New Yorker’s list of “20 under 40 Fiction” issue, and therefore comes with a lot of hype.   Obreht was born in 1985 in the former Yugoslavia and was raised in Belgrade.  Her family moved to Cypress in 1992, then Egypt, and then finally to the US in 1997.  The Tiger’s Wife deals with the troubled history of her birthplace, and is thus an ambitious book.

I was immediately captivated by prose peppered with vivid details reaching out from the first line, [p1]:

In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he takes me to see the tigers.  He puts on his hat, his big-buttoned raincoat, and I wear my lacquered shoes and velvet dress.  It is autumn, and I am four years old.  The certainty of this process: my grandfather’s hand, the bright hiss of the trolley, the dampness of the morning, the crowded walk up the hill to the citadel park.  Always in my grandfather’s breast pocket: The Jungle Book, with its gold-leaf cover and old yellow pages. …

All our senses are engaged, including the one that matters: our sense of wonder at the ritual and the importance of The Jungle Book to her grandfather – something that he carries with him everywhere he goes.

In an interview with the New Yorker magazine, Obreht was asked: “What, in your opinion, makes a piece of fiction work?”  Her answer was: “When something inexplicable happens in the transfer from writer to reader, and the piece, despite its imperfections, rattles and moves the reader. The best fiction stays with you and changes you.”

Well, this sense of magic that lifts off the page is very much evident in her writing.  The animals in the zoo are a pointer to the vivid descriptions which are a hallmark of the rest of the book.  A panther, [p3], has “ghost spots paling his oil-slick coat”; and the tigers are “awake and livid, bright with rancour.  Stripe-lashed shoulders rolling, they flank one another up and down the narrow causeway of rock, and the smell of them is sour and warm and fills everything.”

Set in an unnamed Balkans country split by the ravages of war, the story itself is divided into two strands: the one in which the now adult Natalia, our grand-daughter narrator, pieces together the last days of her grandfather’s life, and the one in which she recounts the memories of the stories of her grandfather’s life in the mountain village of Galina where he grew up.  The two strands wind tighter until they intersect.

Both the grandfather and Natalia are doctors.  This is an important distinction – for in times of war these doctors stand outside the conflict and deal with casualties on both sides.  And the Balkans conflicts form a backdrop to these stories, stories rife with superstition and characters who are persecuted for being outsiders.

Natalia’s father tells her stories about ‘the deathless man’, a man who cannot die, who he meets gathering the souls of people about to die for his uncle, Death.  The grandfather’s life is bound up in the two stories of the deathless man and the tiger’s wife.  These are the more ‘magical realist’ stories and characters.  And then there are events which are realist but no less magical, such as the night, in the middle of the war, when the grandfather wakes Natalia, then a youth, and takes her out into the middle of the darkened city where they see an elephant walking up the main drag to the zoo that they can no longer go to because of the war.   Apart from the elephant’s handler, they are the only witnesses to the miracle of the elephant being delivered to the zoo.  Her grandfather tells her then that this was a story just for them, that it was not to be shared.  He says, [p54]:

We’re in a war … the story of war – dates, names, who started it, why – that belongs to everyone.  Not just the people involved in it, but the people who write newspapers, politicians thousands of miles away, people who’ve never even been here or heard of it before.  But something like this – this is yours.  It belongs only to you.  And Me.  Only to us.

There is a strong sense that war is a thing that devours us all, something that comes back to haunt the story later, when the city zoo’s tiger begins to eat itself, starting with its legs.  The city’s inhabitants gather at the zoo dressed up as the animals, protesting the bombing.  Despite the futility, and the tiger eating itself, there is some hope: for the cubs of the tigress are saved from their mother – who threatens, it seems, to want to eat them – and are raised elsewhere.  Whether intended or not, this renewal of life is a nice touch.

Fortunately, just as war devours us all, demeans us all, stories have the power of life.  Before the current war there was another and a tiger escaped from the zoo and made its way through the countryside until it found Galina.  It terrifies the townsfolk, but it enthrals the young grandfather.  It also captures the heart of an abused, deaf-mute woman, a Muslim and thus an outsider, who begins to leave meat for the tiger.  She becomes known as the tiger’s wife.  There are tales of a great bear hunter and we find out why this woman’s husband is the way he is and what happens when these characters intersect, for they are all after the tiger, all except the tiger’s wife and Natalia’s grandfather.  We find out too, how the grandfather got his copy of The Jungle Book, a gift from the apothecary, who has his own story that is told, a story with tragic consequences for the grandfather – the apothecary might have given him his beloved book, but he takes something away from the boy just as important.

The stories are rife with superstition.  There is the forty days of quiet mourning that a family undertakes after the death of a family member; the burying of hearts at crossroads; the power of apothecaries; the appearance of the Virgin Mary in water; and the necessity of ensuring that the dead are properly buried.  Natalia, for instance, is busy going across the new border and giving medicine to a local orphanage.  Staying with a local family who own a vineyard, she sees an extended family digging in the vineyard, almost all day and night, searching for one of their cousins who was killed in the war and buried there hastily.  Sickness now stalks their family and they believe it is the soul of the dead man crying out for a proper burial.  Again, the war is never too far from the surface.  (Landmines still riddle the fields and mountains.)  It is here, too, that Natalia tries to track down the man who captivated her grandfather so much: the deathless man.

There are a couple of things which don’t quite work.  There is a strange pulling between some of the old stories, a sense that the whole is less than the sum of the parts.  The characters have these wild back-stories which seem to want to stand for the story itself.  For me the emotional depth comes from some of the stories of the war – how Natalia and her fellow medical students source their cadavers.  Her grandfather’s stories are filled with creative imagery, but they don’t quite carry the same emotional punch.  We spend a lot of time with, for instance, the deaf-mute’s failed musician husband as a boy.  The title is a pointer to this sense too: it was originally the title of a short story, but this novel is no more about the tiger’s wife than it is about Natalia’s grandfather, the deathless man, or Natalia herself. (It is, however, a great title.)  But it is with the grandfather talking to Natalia that we feel the impact of all the war when he says [p282-3]: “In the end, all you want is someone to long for you when it comes time to put you in the ground.”

Does it live up to the hype?  Yes and no.  The Tiger’s Wife is not perfect.  It is though, a very fine debut.  The quality of the writing, the vivid details, the great story-telling, the way the past informs the present, the way, too, Obreht casts the devastation and mindlessness of war and persecution, mark her out, not so much as an author to watch, but as someone who we can already enjoy in her sparkling The Tiger’s Wife.  The judges of the Orange Prize agree: The Tiger’s Wife has been shortlisted for the 2011 Orange.

I’m looking forward to seeing Téa Obreht at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.  And I can’t wait for her next book.

The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Orbreht

Orion Books

2011

ISBN: 9780297859017

336 pages

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka: personal library)

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Like some of these other works, there are fantastical and absurd elements at play – such as the befuddled protagonist Billy Pilgrim’s abduction to the planet Trafalmadore where he is put on show in a zoo for its green inhabitants, as well as Billy’s time-shifting.  Billy has become ‘unstuck in time’ and travels to various, random scenes of his life, including his death; he has no control over which scene he will experience or re-live next.  (Billy’s time-shifting reminds me of Audrey Niffenegger’s best-seller (and very good) The Time Traveller’s Wife; I wonder whether she was inspired in her hero Henry’s own time-shifting by Vonnegut?).  There is an achingly poignant scene that evocatively relays the moral vacuum of war in which Billy watches a war movie backwards whilst waiting to be abducted by the Trafalmadorians – destruction is repaired by time flowing the wrong way, bullets are ripped out of fallen airmen, whilst fallen bombs are repatriated to their wings and later dismembered into their component metal parts which are shipped back to the mines from which they came and hidden “cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.”  Billy extrapolates the movie further in his own mind: all these war-men were once babies, even Hitler.  Alas, time soon pivots and now flows forward, and fatalism once more knocks on Billy’s door.

It is a highly auto-biographical novel as Vonnegut himself, like Billy Pilgrim, was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and was locked in an under-ground meat-packing cellar known as ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ in Dresden during the infamous Allied bombing.  The sense of horror is dealt with obliquely; not much time is spent on the bombing itself.  All-the-same, we get a work narrated by a man who must surely be in the grip of post-traumatic stress.  He apologises in the first ‘introductory’ chapter for the story to come:

It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.”

Part of this jumbled autobiographical self re-surfaces when Billy finds himself in a POW camp.  He finds a latrine crammed with Americans suffering from food poisoning after a bizarre ‘welcome’ dinner put on by British soldiers who have stockpiled tons of foodstuffs over several years as a result of Red Cross overestimate of prisoner numbers.  As Billy looks at one poor soul who feels like he has defecated out his entire innards, including his brains, the narrator identifies himself as the suffering man: “That was I.  That was me.  That was the author of this book.”  The narrator pops up again as the POWs enter Dresden and admire its beauty.  These ‘interruptions’ are odd and, for me, superfluous.

Violence and death are ever-present.  Even God is at it as the narrator notes in the opening chapter: “I looked through the Gideon Bible in my motel room for tales of great destruction.”  Billy himself thinks of the crucifix of his childhood: “Billy’s Christ died horribly.  He was pitiful.”  There is no salvation, only a desperate sense of the recurring inevitability and awfulness of war, highlighted by the accent of the ubiquitous “So it goes” which litters the narrative after each mention of death, (appearing 116 times).  Fatalism is Billy’s curse and, surprisingly, his crutch too.  He takes comfort in the Trafalmadorian viewpoint:

When a Trafalmadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments.  Now, when I myself hear that someone is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Trafalmadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes’.”

The Trafalmadorian concept of someone always existing somewhere in time, and thus never dying, is perhaps a natural response of someone who sees death everywhere – and, it seems, everywhen – and needs to believe that death is not the ultimate victor, that life continues on.

But amongst all the death are events so absurd and comical that chuckles and laughs are regular.   We have Billy in the POW camp badly needing new boots, and he tries on a pair of silver boots that were worn in a POW rendition of Cinderella and, magically, they fit him perfectly.  Billy becomes Cinderella.  We also have the embarrassed Trafalmadorians closing their hands over their eyes when they admit to Billy that they are responsible for destroying the Universe.  And we have Billy inveigling his way into a radio broadcast of a discussion of literary critics on whether the novel is dead, (‘So it goes’!), where he begins to talk of his experiences with the Trafalmadorians and the true nature of time.  Billy’s experience of time-shifting is a circular existence, shared in part with the Trafalmadorians who can “look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains … They can see how permanent all the moments are…”.

But many of the comic moments are also tragic.  We have Billy’s marital bed that is hooked up to a vibrator named ‘Magic Fingers’; poor Billy cries atop his bed unable to sleep, whereupon he turns on the Magic Fingers and is “jiggled as he wept”.  It is heartbreaking and comic, almost as if Vonnegut can compress time in parts of his narrative as a Trafalmadorian would – combining all emotions into one elongated moment, experienced as a whole.  As a POW, Billy recounts the story of the hobo who keeps saying: “You think this is bad?  This ain’t bad.”  Of course these are also, as it turns out, his final words as well.  Even some of the joyous moments in Billy’s life remind him of the war – there are orange and black stripes on the tent at his daughter’s wedding reception which are the same as the stripes painted on the POW trains.  Elsewhere, a four-man singing group give him palpitations at his anniversary party, reminding him of the guards that may have sung during the Dresden bombing.  Finally, there is the heart-breaking sight of Billy spooning the illicit honey-like malt syrup for himself in Dresden after which: “A moment went by, and then every cell in his body shook him with ravenous gratitude and applause.”  Billy then spoons some for his fellow prisoner Derby who promptly bursts into tears.

Billy is put on display in a zoo by the Trafalmadorians, with furniture stolen from a Sears Roebuck warehouse.  He is watched by thousands of aliens who celebrate his every move, but struggle to understand the human concept of time.  Here Billy learns how the Universe ends – the Trafalmadorians blow it up by accident whilst experimenting with fuels for their space craft.  After explaining that they can’t do anything to stop this event happening, Billy concludes that “I suppose that the idea of preventing war on Earth is stupid too.”  The best thing that humans can do, explains one of the aliens, is to “Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones.”

There has been criticism of Slaughterhouse-Five for its use of figures in David Irving’s 1963 historical book The Destruction of Dresden, which estimates the bombings caused 135,000 deaths.  This is juxtaposed with the deaths resulting from the Hiroshima atomic bomb of 71,379, serving to highlight the extent of the destruction in Dresden.  However, modern-day historians estimate a death toll between 24,000-40,000, and the city council of Dresden investigation in 2006 estimated a toll between 18,000-25,000.  It’s a shame that the figures available to Vonnegut when he wrote the book in 1969 were misleading, but whether the number is 20,000 or 130,000, the horror of this event lies in the fact that Dresden was arguably a civilian city, with no real military defences or presence.  I’m no military historian, and others can argue about the merits of the bombing and whether it helped to shorten the war in Europe.  Slaughterhouse-Five is not undermined in my view, for it uses the horror of Dresden as a proxy for the horror of war more generally, something that most of us can agree upon.

There is, however, a deep discomfort in the inherent fatalism of the story – that war is inevitable.  It is a discomfort borne of the belief that we can and should decide humanity’s fate in a better, more peaceful and productive manner, that we can affect our fate.  Our distress is made all the worse when we watch the nightly news, just as Billy does in Times Square – where ribbons of light describe “power and sports and anger and death” – for it seems, all too often, the madness of violence and death continue their arm-in-arm march unabated.

So it goes perhaps, but surely we can do better?

Slaughterhouse-Five is a great read, though it is a love-it-or-hate-it thing.  It is a tempting and natural tendency to compare a book with its peers, in this case other great anti-war novels.  For me, this means comparing it to the (incomparable!) The Tin Drum by Günter Grass – and its irrepressible midget protagonist Oscar.  But how do you compare greatness?  Is it right, or even fair?  A few months back I fell in love with little Oskarnello and now I’m in love with an altogether different, hapless, yet completely lovable character in Billy Pilgrim.  It is possible that the opening chapter and part of the final chapter – the two narrator-centric ‘bookends’ – are superfluous, (which sees The Tin Drum get my vote).  This is particularly true of the opening chapter, whereas the final scene rightly returns us to Dresden after the bombing, where Billy is charged with the futile task of digging up the countless corpses.  Thankfully we are left with a glimmer of hope in an ending the narrator promised us at the close of the opening chapter – the tweet of a bird as it speaks to Billy.  Let us hope that birdsong is a truth every bit as inevitable as war seems to be, for we need every counter-balance to despair we can muster.

You might also like to check-out the ABC’s excellent First Tuesday Book Club’s discussion of Slaughterhouse-Five here.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Dell

ISBN: 9780440180296

215 pages

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