Feb 10, 2012

Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

Book cover of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Johathan Safron Foer
Title: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close [Amazon|GoodReads]
Author: Jonathan Safron Foer [Website|Facebook]
Standing: Stand alone novel.
Genre: Contemporary
Published: March 7th, 2005 by Houghton Mifflin
Format: Kindle edition; 368 pages.  
Source: Borrowed from my local library.

Sometimes I feel guilty about giving a book a bad rating on GoodReads, and this was one of those times.  I feel guilty because I do not think that this is a bad book whatsoever, and can see why many/most think it is a great book, but it was so glaringly not a good book for me.  I made it only about 60% of the way through, and honestly only got that far because I felt like there was something wrong with me for not appreciating something so many people have fawned over (see also: why I read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius which I found to be neither heartbreaking nor of staggering genius).  So I want to say up front that while I will discuss why I couldn’t make it through this book, I in no way mean to dissuade others from reading it.

Summary from GoodReads:
Nine-year-old Oskar Schell has embarked on an urgent, secret mission that will take him through the five boroughs of New York. His goal is to find the lock that matches a mysterious key that belonged to his father, who died in the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11. This seemingly impossible task will bring Oskar into contact with survivors of all sorts on an exhilarating, affecting, often hilarious, and ultimately healing journey.

Maybe it makes me a horrible person, but I cannot stand the bulk of books with autistic narrators (I did read and really like The London Eye Mystery, but that is it).  Now, at no point do they come out and say Oskar is autistic, but it’s fairly clear to me that he is on the high functioning end of the spectrum.  This makes the narration very fractured and tangential, forcing the reader to comb for the relevant and important pieces.  I cannot blame this entirely on Oskar, however, because the same must be said of the narration by his grandfather and grandmother, who often share the same stories but remember them very differently.  I do usually like unreliable or mentally fractured narrators, maybe I just couldn’t take having so many of them in one place.  Also, I stylistically get annoyed by run-on paragraphs.  We’re talking paragraphs that go on page, after page, after page, to the point that by the end you have no idea where you were when the paragraph started.

And then there’s the story.  This is entirely a personal issue on my part.  Oskar’s father was killed in 9/11, and he is so angry and depressed that he cannot abide the various coping mechanisms of those around him, in particular his mother.  He is cruel to her, to the point of saying that he wishes she had died instead of his father, and that if she ever loves anyone again he will stop loving her.  Now I know kids get angry and fly off the handle (who of us didn’t yell “I hate you!” to our parents at some point?), but this quite frankly made me dislike Oskar incredibly.  I also can't stand when people use tragedies in their lives to gain access to others, which I feel like Oskar does. Any time he needs to chip away at someone's exterior, he is more than happy to point out that his dad died. Ugh! On top of which, the story is punctuated by pictures that Oskar has taken with his grandfather’s camera, as well as pictures that his grandfather takes himself.  There is one picture that repeats, and that is a picture of a body jumping/falling from the World Trade Center.  This image made my stomach turn each time I saw it, as this footage is permanently stamped on my brain as the most horrible thing I have ever and probably will ever seen in my lifetime.  I couldn’t take it.

Oskar’s family is punctuated by such a deep sadness that it is impossible for the bulk of people to identify.  Oskar has lost his father in 9/11, his grandfather lost the love of his life in the bombing of Dresdan, and down they fall.  All of us experience intense losses in our lives, but even so it is hard to wrap my mind around so many atrocities.  However, I feel like the author tries to counter this by creating an unrealistic New York City.  Almost everyone Oskar encounters (with the exception of the children his age, who are cruel to the ‘weird’ kid) is incredibly patient and kind to such a quirky young man.  That’s great, really, but I don’t think it’s realistic.  Oskar is, by virtue of his being, very inquisitive, and also very knowledgeable about odd topics, and I just don’t see all of these people who meet him for the first time inviting him into their homes and sharing very personal stuff with him.  Some of them, sure, but not as many as do.  Also, his mother just seems like a bad mom.  What mother lets their 10 year old autistic kid wander around NYC on their own on a regular basis?  I’m also not sure that she’s acknowledging, let alone taking steps to assist his special needs.  Yes, she takes him to a therapist, but the kid’s basically self mutilating (yeah, it’s not cutting, but bruising yourself is not far off), and she just wants some kind of wonder fix rather than something that requires her to put more time and attention into their relationship.

Overall, this was just one of those books where I felt like I had no one to root for, and that made it pretty painful for me to read.  The writing really was beautiful, and the story is deeply powerful and probably touching to those who can immerse themselves, but I just couldn’t.  Now excuse me while I go read something with wizards or fairies or some crap like that.

Likelihood that I'll be back for more: I actually checked out both this book and Everything is Illuminated in 2007.  I tried to read the latter, but couldn’t as it was too close to the movie (which was wonderful), and never got around to this one.  Now that I finally have, I can respect him very much as a writer, but acknowledge that he’s probably not for me.  

Recommended for:  This is probably a good book club read, and I’d recommend it to people who enjoy adult contemporaries. Also people who enjoyed Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, as this is kind of the adult flip on that YA novel.

Real life repercussions of reading this book:  Other than experiencing book guilt, I’ve more or less determined I will not be seeing the movie.  Don’t let me stop you though, here’s the trailer:


  1. Okay I read maybe 50 pages of this book and I HATED it and vowed to never tell anyone lest they pummel me with tomatoes and heads of lettuce. Totally with you on the narration as well, I was extremely annoyed as I was reading and I NEVER mark a book as a "did not finish." I have no intention of picking this book up again, it just wasn't for me. It happens!

    1. THANK YOU! I was so determined to push through, and finally just hit that wall where I couldn't. The 2-3 hours it would have taken me to finish it weren't worth the amount of pain I was going through.

  2. I saw the movie in theaters before I knew anything about the book (other than that it existed), and I absolutely loved it. Even watching the trailer just now gave me goosebumps. I'm very curious to read the book, although I can see why you would take issue with the things you've mentioned. Glad to hear the writing was beautiful, but the run-on paragraphs are probably something that I won't enjoy either. Thanks for sharing.


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