Thursday, September 13, 2012

Reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close helped me get through the end of college

Posted by Paul Bowers on Thu, Sep 13, 2012 at 10:01 AM

The Charleston County Public Library has chosen Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close for its One Book program this year, and we at the City Paper have decided to get in on the action. We'll be responding to the book on this blog — stay tuned for more!

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When I read Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close last year, my future was extremely uncertain and incredibly close at hand. I was grinding through my final semester at the University of South Carolina, writing a senior thesis, and slinging resumés from here to Texas.

It was a time that tested my character and beat me into humility, especially as I fielded curt rejection letters. And it felt a bit like childhood: the same sense that the world was wide-open, the same numbing moments of disillusionment, the same dread that everything I had done in life up to that point was going to be fanned out on a table and judged unworthy — only it wasn’t college admissions officers doing the judging this time; it was employers.

Point is, I was ready to read a child narrator. And 9-year-old Oskar Schell, with his stream of unfiltered honesty that verged on Asperger’s Syndrome, was a perfect foil for the self-serious adult I had become. Oskar was an occasional source of comic relief in that uncertain season of my life, but I also knew what he meant when he said his boots got heavy and he gave himself little bruises. Everybody hurts, especially 9-year-olds.

The core of the book is Oskar’s search for the lock to fit a key that his deceased father left behind, and his only hint is an envelope with the word “Black” written on it. He decides to track down every person with the last name Black in New York City, and his expedition turns into a kaleidoscopic survey of human heartache and wonder. Many of the grown-ups are remarkably open with this little boy, confessing their insecurities and readily sharing their hobbies and eccentricities.

That’s what I liked best about Oskar: his chutzpah. Who else would have the audacity to knock on the doors of hundreds of Blacks, or to write a letter to Stephen Hawking asking to be his protegé? Outside of my college classes, I had spent the last four years cultivating a similar fearlessness, with mixed success. A willingness to talk to strangers serves me well as a reporter, and I had gone out of my way to introduce myself to people who were outside of my natural social circle.

These were some of the things I learned about people while I was in college: That the lanky, leather-skinned man living in a tent by the Congaree River has a bachelor’s degree in jazz performance and will teach you to play a Bob Seger song on his guitar if you ask politely. That the grandmotherly woman weeping at the bus stop has serious back problems and has been depending on her adult children for years, but that she’s ready to move out on her own and earn her GED. That the wizened hippie mystic in the Russian Orthodox bookstore will talk to you for hours about Solzhenitsyn if you let him, and that he always stocks frankincense and myrrh in his shop at Christmastime. When I read Oskar Schell’s impressions of the people he met, I was reminded that my life, too, is an odyssey.

I read Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close because I had loved Jonathan Safran Foer’s previous novel, Everything Is Illuminated, for its sublime use of broken English and its glimmers of magic realism — not to mention its tale of family heritage and unspeakable loss in a Ukrainian shtetl. In Extremely Loud, I found another compelling tale of a son coming to grips with his forebears, but I also found the foibles that had annoyed me in Foer’s first novel had been amplified in his second outing. Yes, Foer writes beautifully, but unfortunately, too many people have told him so. That’s how you end up writing bloated streams of consciousness, and that’s how you become more prone to literary pyrotechnics than to moments of clarity. There are flashy sentences in this book that wowed me at first, until I re-read them and realized they weren’t really saying anything.

But there are also plenty of charming quirks and wide-eyed moments in the writing, and most of them center around Oskar and the Blacks. May we all one day design business cards with job titles like Oskar’s: “Inventor, Jewelry Designer, Jewelry Fabricator, Amateur Entomologist, Francophile, Vegan, Origamist, Pacifist, Percussionist, Amateur Astronomer, Computer Consultant, Amateur Archeologist.” May we never stop exploring.

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