When I first researched graduate school, what seems like all those years ago, one of the first things I did was order books from faculty members at every institution that caught my interest. Some great programs, like Johns Hopkins and Iowa, I had dismissed early because they hadn’t seemed to jibe with my direction, which left places like North Carolina and somewhere in Arizona. I don’t remember all the institutions, and only a few of the authors.
I didn’t have to do that this time around. This time around, NYU came to me with the same certainty as USC; all that’s left is getting in.
Which meant I felt I should familiarize myself with some of the work of some of the faculty members, the stand-outs of whom include E.L. Doctorow and Jonathan Safran Foer. Neither of whom I’ve ever read. Nothing against them, just never seemed like my thing; I’d rather read Neil Gaiman and Harry Potter and Joe Hill, most of the time. For me, the novels whose scope doesn’t stretch much beyond characters coping with ordinary lives have never really excited me so much. I’ve tried reading guys like Tom Wolfe and John Updike, and I generally feel decidedly meh about them. I hate to call it “serious” fiction, if only because it seems to imply that people like Gaiman and Rowling aren’t serious about writing and stories, and I think that’s foolhardy. I’d hate, too, though, to attempt to claim it’s all about marketing, because it’s really not.
Before this becomes a discussion of genre in fiction, though, let’s move on to the reading. Because the first book I picked up was Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
It’s his second novel, after Everything is Illuminated, which I started but never got far into because it felt both too gimmicky and like it was trying to be too clever by half but not at all succeeding; it’s about a writer named Jonathan Safran Foer who travels to the Ukraine to explore his family’s history, and it’s interspersed with letters from his translator/guide or something, whose name I can’t recall, who speaks in busted English and names his dog Sammy Davis Junior Junior. For this, Foer received a giant advance and a breathless blurb from Joyce Carol Oates.
All at the tender age of, like, 25, or something.
(Me, jealous? Well, okay. Maybe a little)
But really, I picked it up originally because I was curious. Having always wanted to be a literary wunderkind myself (I’m probably now too old, alas), I had to see what the guy was doing that I wasn’t (I couldn’t figure anything out, myself). So, eventually, like, 20 pages in, I set it aside (because life’s too short for books you don’t like), filing it away as Not My Thing.
Can’t judge an author by a single work, though, and so now, several years after that fact, I picked up Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which concerns a young boy named Oskar whose father was in a meeting at Windows on the World on September 11th, 2001. The book ostensibly focuses on Oskar’s quest; early on, he finds in his father’s closet a key within an envelope on which is written “black,” and he sets out across New York to meet every person surnamed Black he can find and, hopefully, the lock the key fits.
I say “ostensibly” because it’s obviously not about the quest, as evidenced by the resolution thereof (which I’ll not spoil, but then again, which can’t really be spoiled if only because that’s not what it’s about); really, it’s about a boy who’s lost his dad and is coping with grief and loss. It’s at least partly about how we mourn; just about every character in the novel has lost someone, and each has learned ways to cope with the loss. Of course, really, it’s about more than that, too, not to mention less than that, because Foer manages something really difficult; he trusts his story.
Still, sometimes too clever. For example, the three pages that are all numbers because they’re supposed to be a long text message, but without spaces or punctuation (and yes, I reached for my cell to see if I couldn’t figure out what it said). Also, some of the text tricks, like when, at one point, a particular character claims to be running out of room, and so he makes his writing smaller and closer, until finally the text starts to overrun itself and becomes just all ink, margin to margin. Which correlates to the character’s words, I guess, except for the fact that it’s set in whatever typeface as the rest of the book, and shrinking a font doesn’t really so much correlate to writing smaller; if anything, I’ve always found that typing allows me more room on the page. And it’s not like the character in question didn’t have access to a typewriter . . .
Also, Oskar’s voice: still a bit gimmicky as the translator character from Everything is Illuminated.
All that said, though, I dug the novel. It might not have come together as successfully as it could have, nor been told in as linear a fashion as I’m used to, but I do give Foer credit both for his ambition and his attempts to follow it. Sure, it’s flawed, and it’s nowhere near perfect, but then again, it seems to attempt a lot more than most books do, and I think that does count for something. Who was it who said that man’s reach should exceed his grasp, else what’s a heaven for? Because this was sort of like that.
On a scale of infinite jest to excellent fancy, I think I’m going to give it a What the?, which I would hope would give both Foer and Oskar light boots.