Thursday, January 26, 2012

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: A Novel

I was really looking forward to reading this book...then reality set in as did disappointment. I totally agree with this review; so difficult to follow the voice of Oskar--and I really wanted to. It could have been a very powerful story; the quest for an almost unattainable answer, but what it ended up being was a mess of confusion. I want to know what others thought about this!

Extremely Loud is one of those novels that more than most will live or die on a particular reader's personal taste. Some will find it's twinned tales of a 9-year-old's grief over his father's death on 9/11 and his grandparents' tale of woe (centering on the Dresden firebombing) incredibly moving. Others will find it typographical and textual experiments wildly stimulating (blank pages, color plates, pages of nothing but numbers, photos, etc.). And some will have no trouble suspending disbelief with regard to Oskar's incredible precociousness or the fairy-tale quality of the New York City he moves in. Others, though, will find the book sentimental rather than emotional, cloying rather than powerful. The experimentation will be gimmicky distractions that mar rather than enhance the story. And the narrator's various quirks and gifts (his tambourine play, his vocabulary, his inventions and lists of aphorisms) not only unbelievable but almost unreadable. The lucky thing is it won't take you long to figure out which reader you're going to be. If the former, you'll settle in for an enjoyable ride. If the latter, it will be a long argument with yourself over just where you'll finally give in and quit reading.
Unfortunately, I fell into the latter category. It's rare that I come across a book that can have so much good writing in it that also makes me regularly want to hurl it across the room while I claw out my eyes. In the end, ELIC was a story ruined by talent, though I couldn't decide if it was insecure talent (propping up his story with gimmicks) or self-indulgent talent (throwing in everything and anything just cause he could).
As mentioned, the story centers on young Oskar, whose father left him several phone messages before being killed on 9/11. One day Oskar finds an envelope marked "Black" with a strange key in it up in his father's closet (in typical fashion, not a normal closet but a closet with a whole host of quirky associations). Deciding "Black" is a name, Oskar then goes off on a quest to find what the key opens, attempting to interview all the Black's of NYC. Interspersed between Oskar's movements are letter written by his grandparents concerning their history, which includes the firebombing of Dresden.
Oskar's story can be moving; there are some wonderful and truly brilliant passages. But for me it was marred by both his precociousness and his preciousness. One without the other would have perhaps been simply annoying, but both together made it almost unbearable. Toss in a consistent sense of arbitrary quirkiness and the book often left a bad taste in my mouth. Oskar for instance decides to interview the Black's alphabetically rather than by geographic proximity. Why? It serves the story's purpose. When seeking clues, a storeperson tells him it's interesting his father wrote "Black" in a red pen as that's so hard to do, write the name of a color in a different color ink. Really? Has anyone ever truly had to struggle to write the name of any color when using the trusty blue or black pen? Of course not. But this sounds quirky and mysterious. And so it goes.
The grandparents' sections also have their moments of true brilliance, but are also marred by problems of credibility with regard to voice and, again, quirkiness (such as designating parts of their apartment "nothing" areas), along with typographical stunts that from my view seldom enhanced the story.
ELIC therefore was extremely frustrating rather than loud, with the sense that one could have pulled out various lines/passages and put together a truly beautiful novella, but instead the reader got this. Is there talent here? Absolutely. Can you find places that will move you or make you laugh or make you marvel at the language? Absolutely. Is it worth it for those moments? From my perspective, absolutely not. But there is so much good here that I wouldn't recommend against trying it. I'd say give the book 30 pages (that's really all you'll need). If you can stomach Oskar's voice and mannerisms, you'll probably end up enjoying the book. If you find yourself cringing, save yourself. Put the book down and slowly back away. Don't strain to continue; you'll only pull something.
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