I’ve said in previous posts that reviews, and the critics who give them, are subjective. They are based on opinion and nothing more. Now, some opinions are given more weight than others: a great review in the New York Times weighs heavier than the one from Harriet in Hoboken on Amazon. Or does it?
While I write in a certain genre, I am a huge fan of the literary novel. So, when I read a novel that I feel is a literary marvel, I talk about it. One such novel is Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. The story centers on a nine-year old boy, Oskar Schell, whose father died in the 9/11 attacks. He is an odd boy, this Oskar. He wears only white, wears gloves on his hands, and has yet to meet an adverb he didn’t like, hence the title. In the first few pages of Foer’s book, Oskar runs through a litany of ideas—what he calls inventions—that are fascinating and very much beyond his nine years. I was immediately drawn in, wanting to see what he came up with next. What he comes up with next you must read for yourself. You will either love it, or you will hate it.
What I want to focus on here is Foer’s use of different mediums within the confines of a book to tell his story. Foer takes us back and forth between Oskar’s narrative, which consists of his wild inventions and his search for a father who left him too soon. In Oskar, we see a boy hanging on by a thread (he often ‘gives himself a bruise’). He finds a key inside an envelope while searching through his father’s closet post 9/11. It is a heartbreaking scene in which he goes into the closet to get closer to the man whose voice on a phone message tape after the attacks is all he has left to hold on to. On the outside of the envelope is written the word BLACK, and Oskar sets out through the five boroughs of New York to speak to every person named BLACK in an effort to find out how his father died. Foer takes us on a journey through Oskar that is funny and heartbreaking. Foer also tells another story, bringing forth the tragedies of Hiroshima and Dresden through letters written before Oskar’s time. The letters are placed on the page with gaps and misspells and odd formatting that, to me, is a daring and bold way to present literary work. Another page is from an art store Oksar goes to, wishing to speak to the manager about what BLACK could mean. The page is covered in words, all in different colors, like you would find near the pens—people test the pens to see how the color shows up on paper. Foer also has, dispersed throughout the book, photographs of a lone figure—seen so many times after 9/11—falling out of the burning twin towers. With this haunting photo, we are reminded of Oskar’s torture at not knowing how his father perished. Perhaps the answer lies with this key.
Foer takes chances with this book, and coming on the heels of his critically-acclaimed first book, Everything is Illuminated (which I have not read), I can only assume that his agent and his publisher had no qualms about offering a book that was so—out there. Here are some comments about Foer and Extremely Loud and Incredibly close:
“Foer isn’t just a bad author, he’s a vile one,” said the New York Press shortly after Foer’s debut was published. Adding him to the their list of “Most Loathsome New Yorkers”—which he’s been on three times in five years—the paper later fulminated, “Joyce Carol Oates invented this Jewish mother’s wet dream in a Princeton laboratory, and now we have to live in a world where eager-to-please frauds like Foer receive unearned comparisons to geniuses like Burgess and Joyce.”
And this one-star review from an Amazon reader, titled Extremely Tedious and Incredibly Lacking:
I read the book all the way to the end because I thought that surely there would be a point to page after page after page of precocious non-punctuated musings by this boy. Unfortunately, there was no point to the musings.
I suggest you save your money because there is no closure at the end of the book. It is a rambling, long-winded, and twisted tale.
Wow, right? I liked Foer’s comment in one interview in which he said the following in response to a comment by the interviewer that a book is more than just a piece of merchandise:
JSF: A book is an intimate object whether you are conscious of it when you are writing it or not. A book is something that is seen with the eyes on a shelf, pulled off the shelf with the hand, taken home. What percentage of people do you think read a book in bed? 80? 90? People read books in bathtubs. People read books in their easy chairs with their glass of wine or their coffee, their cat.
I also liked his comment about the role of reader and reviewer:
JSF: I did a reading last night at Boston College and I was thinking about it. There were more people in the audience than will review my book—in the country. It’s very tempting to attribute too much weight to one kind of person over another. Like, a publisher’s opinion is not more valid than a reader’s opinion. A reviewer’s opinion is not more valid than a reader’s opinion. A reviewer’s opinion is not more valid than a non-reviewing reader’s opinion. It’s just that some people work in areas—carry bigger microphones, basically.
So, does the great review in the New York Times weigh heavier than the one from Harriet in Hoboken on Amazon? Foer doesn’t seem to think so, which makes me feel a bit less queasy that the LA Times hasn’t yet grabbed onto Testarossa, but Hot Novelist, an Amazon reviewer, loved the book.
With all that said, Foer does something so incredible at the end of the book that it sat in my gut for days after. I will not give it away. I will simply say that for the writing, the gall and the emotional roller coaster that is Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, it is worth the read. I admire any writer who can go to the edge like Foer did with this book, and make me, a reader, feel the things that I felt.