“In bed that night I invented a special drain that would be underneath every pillow in New York, and would connect to the reservoir. Whenever people cried themselves to sleep, the tears would all go to the same place, and in the morning the weatherman could report if the water level of the Reservoir of Tears had gone up or down, and you could know if New York is in heavy boots.”
– Jonathan Safran Foer, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”
Rating: 3.5 stars
Days to read: 10
This might as well have been my freebie category, because just about every book I’ve read this year is from the library. I’ve wanted to read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as well as Everything is Illuminated (both by Foer) for a while so freebie category it was. I was aware of the high acclaim for the latter and assumed the former would be just as good, but I finished the book a bit disappointed and wondering if I was mistaken in that judgment.
Oskar is a 9 year old boy struggling with the death of his father, who was in a meeting in one of the World Trade Center buildings on 9/11. He is a precocious and challenging kid with a lot of emotion to work through, especially as he compares his grief to his mother’s, which he has trouble understanding. His grandmother lives across the street and they communicate through walkie talkies on a regular basis. After his father’s death he accidentally knocks over a vase one day, revealing a key in a little envelope labelled ‘Black’. He decides this must have been the beginning of a large scavenger hunt organized by his father (a game they used to play often) and he proceeds to go throughout the entire city trying to track down every Black in the phone book to find the lock that matches the key. Aside from the improbability of a 9 year old boy being allowed that much unsupervised free time, many of his interactions are sweet as he meets the flawed but charming individuals with the surname Black through the city, none of whom can help him figure out the right lock in all of New York City. The way Oskar sees the world is often strange and beautiful and endearing, although at times whiny and frustrating. Foer does an amazing job of making the reader feel Oskar’s panic attacks and restlessness, and over time I came to truly root for him even though I felt like my affection was often challenged (maybe this is the sign of a dynamic and realistic character).
In parallel the reader is introduced to a man, whose name we do not know, who was born in Dresden and fell in love with a girl named Anna during World War II. He loses her in the bombing of Dresden and later when he gets to New York he progressively loses his ability to speak, instead relying on a journal he keeps with him to talk (and even then, is incredibly limited in his communication). As with Oskar we hear his story in his own words, but I felt frustrated with just how slowly his character developed. Eventually we learn that this man is Oskar’s grandfather, who left his grandmother (who turns out to be Anna’s sister) many years ago but has been living with her again.
The intersection of the story plot with real history felt almost gimmicky. It was never really referenced directly but featured in repeated allusions. The only time I felt like it was a beautiful addition to the plot was Oskar’s descriptions of his dad’s last voicemails, which left me nearly in tears. The addition of the grandfather’s story felt like too much for a single narrative, they were both so out there that it felt overwhelming to try to believe in not just one but both of their stories. The joining of their stories seemed haphazard and underwhelming as well.
What felt missing from the plot was redeemed by some beautiful writing about angst and grief (especially the concept of “heavy boots”), and for this I can’t write off the book entirely. Everything is Illuminated remains on my TBR even if it has to wait until the end of the POPSUGAR Challenge (all the more reason to get it done before the end of the year!).