Friday, December 25, 2009

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer

I really loved Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is structured very similarly, splicing together a contemporary narrative with another story set in the past, making the reader privy to both and to the richness of the connections between the two while the present-day characters in the book are deprived that knowledge.

In both cases, there's a search: in Everything is Illuminated, Safran Foer is looking for the place where his family is from.  In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a boy is looking for a lock to fit a mysterious key.  In both cases, the reader finds the journey (and even the eventual conclusion) to be satisfying while the seeker himself is frustrated.  In both cases, the style of writing is very similar - the narratives set in the past have the same frantic rhythm, the same delicate shades of magical realism, the same explosions of vivid prose.

Basically, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a very different book, but pressed in the same mould as its predecessor.  That's a little disappointing.  I had hoped Safran Foer had more potential to grow as an author.

I imagine I was seeing a very strong influence from two other writers.  Martin Amis, and in particular his book Time's Arrow, and W.G. Sebald.  Amis' book Time's Arrow is set during WWII and its trick is that time progresses backwards through the novel - it's not the telling of the narrative that's scrambled, it's the events themselves, reversing cause and effect.  One of Sebald's quirks as an author is his use of photographs.  Foer doesn't copy any phrase or image, but he uses their tricks without modification, and they still have the tone and function of their sources.  They fit, but feel borrowed, like they still belong to someone else.

Now, both Amis and Sebald have a very similar interest in urban, contemporary Jewish identity and WWII/Holocaust narratives.  Foer falls into the same category.  It makes sense that there's a connection, that Foer would find those other authors intruding on his own creation, but he is putting himself in danger of being overwhelmed by their inventions.

But I'm circling the book itself.  It's a really beautiful novel.  I didn't snap it up originally because I had heard that it was written from the perspective of a 10 year old boy, and I heard that it was about September 11, and I imagined a trainwreck.  I had heard true, on both counts, but it's no trainwreck.  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is full of details that are delightful, charming, funny; the boy is precocious and sweet, and his running commentary is never simple or dull.  His dad died in the World Trade Center, and 9-11 is not a political event in the book.  It returns 9/11 to what it was before it was co-opted by Bush et al, and I have to admit that it's been hard to remember the tragedy itself with all the baggage it's been carrying for so long now.  So Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a good reminder.

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