Yesterday on the drive up I listened to Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I have not read his work before, despite being urged by my brother to read his first book. When I met Joyce Carol Oates, she recommended his work, so between the recommendations from my intelligent brother and one of my favorite contemporary novelists I figured it was a safe investment of time and money.
Unfortunately, the disc set runs 11 hours and the drive is only 10, so I am missing the last 1.5 hrs or so of the book when writing this. But based on the strength of the first 9.5 hours I recommend this book. No; I don’t recommend it. I urge you to read it (or listen to it).
Simply put, the book is the story of a family in perpetual grief. The main character Oscar, a young boy, has lost his father in the World Trade Center catastrophe. The kid is a great character. His stream-of-consciousness jumps between childish wonder, imaginary inventions, memories of his father, rage, grief, curiosity, ignorance, precocious intelligence, and idealism. Now, one of Oscar’s pet peeves is when people compare him to other (dead) people, like when his mother says he reminds her of his father. I think this is a little joke on Foer’s part. Oscar, who dresses only in white and carries a tambourine which he plays all the time, is “obviously” a reference to Oscar of Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum. This obvious reference is just one of a long string of references to Foer’s literary forebears.
Foer’s literary references fall into a few different categories. First, there is the war novel, or specifically, the “this war is just like every other war” novel. Into this category I would put references to Dickens, Cervantes, Hemingway, Grass, and Duras. Features of this narrative tradition would include: the star-crossed lovers whose love is made impossible (or in Duras’s case, sometimes impossibly possible) because of war; the retelling of a history of prior warfare (in Grass, for instance, references to Mother Courage and her Children); the “nobody is actually going to win this war” moral; descriptions of PTSD (in this case not from warriors but from civilian survivors); and magical realism.
Secondly, there is the New York Map novel. Other authors in this tradition include Auster and Hustvedt. Oscar, who serves as Foer’s explorer, goes through the 5 (or 6) burroughs searching for a lock that fits a strange key he found in his dead father’s closet. As in The Tin Drum, the main character reaps the rewards of a certain cultural innocence regarding letting a 9-yr-old boy run around by himself. There are no Oates-ian encounters, if you know what I mean. In this way it is more Auster than Hustvedt. But ELIC tells of New Yorkers’ eclectic personal histories of their own city, which reminds me of the second chapter of Hustvedt’s The Blindfold.
Third, there is the family-in-pain novel, which is a tradition we might link from Dickens to Faulkner and Woolf, but which is particularly well accomplished in Joyce Carol Oates’s work. These stories are not only of one incident which traumatizes a family but also of how the trauma seeps down through generations, and how the family does or does not heal from it. In ELIC there are multiple family traumas. In the background of the World Trade Center attacks there is the story of Oscar’s grandmother and grandfather, who were brought together (in a Durasian “impossible” way) by a common trauma resulting from the bombing of Dresden. War and family trauma are both multigenerational.
Fourth, there are extended references to childrens’ book writers including Dahl, Carroll, and dePaola.
That’s enough reference-listing for now– you know I have to list some to remain in my PhD program. If I were to let references like Oscar’s name slip by unnoticed I would surely get thrown out (or perhaps applauded, since we don’t read “World Lit” here). I found the trail of literary references intellectually stimulating and very fun, like a parallel treasure hunt for the reader (or in my case listener).
But what draws me to this book is not merely intellectual. ELIC contains raw, gorgeous, unsentimental descriptions of love, loss, and PTSD that made me tear up about 20 times during the drive. The concomitance of love and loss (ripe for a chronolibidinal reading) and the resulting inability to ever really “erase” grief without erasing the love behind it sucks me right in, emotionally (and is what allows me to draw comparisons to Nabokov). Alongside this grief, and because ELIC is in one of its configurations an anti-war novel, are palpable descriptions of the anxiety, fear, timidity, rage, sadness, numbness, trepidity of PTSD. Not since Mrs. Dalloway have I read such precise, heart-wrenching descriptions of this disease. But unlike Mrs. Dalloway, where the descriptions of PTSD are mostly limited to descriptions of the war veteran Septimus Smith, ELIC describes the PTSD of civilian survivors of war.
I’m tired of typing… maybe I will say more later… or you can just go read the book. Or listen to it. The recording is done with multiple actors “playing” the different narrators (grandfather, grandmother and Oscar) so it is really entertaining.
Oh no! But I forgot to mention the most important thing. The book is full of references to fantastic inventions, textuality, and types of books. There is, for instance, a description of the way the text of newspapers was burnt out, leaving the white page only, in the bombing of Hiroshima. The grandfather loses his powers of speech and resorts to carrying around notebooks in which he writes what he wants to say and points at it, but these notebooks are often interrupted by pictures of his house, so that you get great puns like the one in the header of this post. These two examples are but two of dozens, and they are all good for the poet-bookmaker’s imagination… like reading Borges or Carroll.