I’ve got a 9/11 book to talk about today. I like to keep an ebook going in the background so that I can read when I don’t have a physical book (which is rare but it happens) and because there are different things available to me in that format. But as a background book, Jonathan Safran Foer’s YA historical/contemporary fiction novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close took me months to finish and I only recently pushed myself to give it more focus as the anniversary of the 2001 attack approached.
About the book: Oskar, a nine year-old with big dreams and a lot of determination, is left grief-stricken and adrift when his father dies in the attack on the World Trade Towers in New York on the 11th of September. Among the few things he has left with which to remember his father is a mysterious key in an envelope labelled, “Black.” Oskar sets out to find the lock that fits his key, even if it will take him years of inquiries just to cover the most promising leads within the city. Meanwhile, Thomas grieves for a chance he lost, a chance he had never been able to take while weighed down with his own grief. As he recounts his history and tries to figure out what’s left for him, his connection to Oskar and to Oskar’s grief becomes apparent.
“Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all of the lives I’m not living.”
I want to start by acknowledging that I would probably have had a better experience and more to say about this book if I had read a physical copy (my preferred reading method) in a reasonable time frame; as it was, I liked the story a lot but it’s a difficult novel to be stopping and starting in small chunks and that using method absolutely shaped my experience of the book.
“…the distance that wedged itself between me and my happiness wasn’t the world, it wasn’t the bombs and burning buildings, it was me, my thinking, the cancer of never letting go, is ignorance bliss, I don’t know, but it’s so painful to think, and tell me, what did thinking ever do for me, to what great place did thinking ever bring me? I think and think and think, I’ve thought myself out of happiness one million times, but never once into it.”
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is narrated with stream-of-consciousness; though there are a few main perspectives it follows, all are presented with the same style and voice despite the differences in their stories. There are very few “chapters,” paragraphs and even sentences go on and on, and there are pictures dispersed throughout that correspond to the characters’ stories. I’d be curious to pick up a physical copy and see what it’s like on the page, because on screen it seemed a bit chaotic and it was consistently hard to find a good place to pause reading. I think this would be an excellent book to binge-read, and I regret that I didn’t take that route.
But back to the story. This is a book about 9/11, but also it’s not about 9/11. It’s about Oskar’s attempts to cope after the attack, but it’s also about other, older grief that Oskar doesn’t even know he is a part of. It’s about his journey for the lock that corresponds to his father’s mysterious key. Oskar’s and Thomas’s stories are the central focus of the novel, and they are both characters left behind after the attack. There is no perspective for Oskar’s father, who dies in the attack. Though he remains on the outskirts of the narration, Oskar’s father is the link that connects all of the rest of the characters, all of whom have stories that are part of a larger whole.
Oskar shows some signs of being on the Autism spectrum, though this is never discussed in the text of the book. Personally, I like the theory that he is. There are times when the events of this book and some of the characters’ interactions felt a little unbelievable, or at least implausible, and I think some of this is smoothed by the possibility of Oskar’s autism– though I don’t think as many people in real life would respond as kindly and patiently to Oskar as they do in this novel. Also, Oskar is unusually intelligent and philosophical for a nine year-old.
“You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness.”
And on the topic of grief, this is a book that leaves the reader grieving right along with the characters. It isn’t the sort of sad that hits you all at once and makes you cry (at least it wasn’t for me, but then again I didn’t read the book all at once either); there is some hope as well, but there are a lot of painful little details that pile up. It’s a lot of little cuts, not one fatal stab. For Oskar, and for Thomas, the world is abrasive. Thomas is so devastated that he has not spoken in decades. There is definitely some morbidity to the commentary throughout the book, but it comes from a place of deep loss and is so utterly human. I couldn’t resist.
“That secret was a hole in the middle of me that every happy thing fell into.”
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’m not always a fan of stream-of-consciousness narration and there were a few places in this book where it started to wear on me. It’s also not an ideal style to be reading in small pieces over a long period of time. And I really do think the physical copy would be the way to go with this title because the format is so interesting. But despite those downsides, I loved reading this book. I want to pick up another Jonathan Safran Foer book (possibly Here I Am) to see whether I’ll like his work as well in another story and format, or if this one was a perfect storm.
- If you like reading about characters who may or may not be on the spectrum, try Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Though this book features a grown woman rather than a young child, Eleanor is also dealing with a separation from a parent and is an incredibly endearing (sometimes sad and sometimes funny) character with a wonderful story to share.
Are there any novels about 9/11 or other specific events in US history that you love?
The Literary Elephant