Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - Jonathan Safran Foer

It should be no surprise that I choose this book because of the recent Oscar-nominated film of the same title.  I am both a Sandra Bullock fan and a Tom Hanks fan and knew that any project they both chose to work on would be a good one.  As a book lover, though, I was strongly encouraged by a friend to read the story before watching it - always a good suggestion.

From the very start, this book is unique.  The child narrator, Oskar, is clearly highly intelligent, to the point of social awkwardness.  His story is that of a boy in post-9/11 NYC.  He lost his father in the attacks and is now struggling to deal with that reality.  Oskar spends the book traipsing all over the city in an effort to explain a key found among his father's belongings.  His story-telling responsibilities are shared with his absent grandfather and his grandmother.  Their plot line, though largely absent from the film, fills at least half of the written work.  Their history does not have much to do with Oskar's story until it all converges at the end.

The book was actually a little of a struggle for me to get through.  Don't get me wrong, it was good; but it wasn't as engaging as I was expecting. I think I have been ruined lately by all the fast-paced, young adult novels I have read.   This is a story about people, about a journey, about emotion.  It takes a deeper appreciation than the enjoyment of a surface plot.  It can be a little hard to follow at times.  My feeling about Foer's work is that you will get out only as much as you put in.  If you read this expecting only a light story, that is what you will find.  However, if you apply the attention and time of someone who is ready to dig out the emotion, you will be rewarded with an intricate story and the emotional journey of a hurting family.

As I mentioned, I waited to see the film until finishing the book.  I am so glad that I did; having the background knowledge from the book always enhances the movie-watching experience for me.  In this particular case, however, it caused me to appreciate the book more, rather than vice versa.  To me, the film smoothed out the distracting prose styles into one cohesive story.  The acting was brilliant on all counts and the story made more sense to me visually than it did in text form.

One big change is that one of the Mr. Blacks is replaced by Oskar's mute grandfather.  It makes sense, since they needed a way to integrate him into the story and Mr. Black adds another subplot.  However, I loved the story of Mr. Black I felt he pulled together the over-riding theme of individual stories.  His index card files of one word biographies brilliantly paralleled Oskar's one-day glimpse into the lives of so many others.  There is so much to each of our stories, yet one word, one day, one photo captures only a fraction.  Oskar's grandmother also plays a much larger role in the book.  She is Oskar's best friend and confidant in the novel, whereas in the film, she is almost a minor character.

The movie has a beautiful, brief moment when Oskar is making his way to all the different Blacks in New York.  You see that, just as Oskar has his story, each person he comes in contact with has a story of their own.  Yet, Oskar sees no one's story expect his own.  That is seen in glaring detail as Oskar interacts with his mother.  She is clearly struggling immensely to balance the loss of her husband and managing her uniquely gifted son.  Oskar magnifies the problem with his inability to connect emotionally with her.  I absolutely loved the end of the film where Oskar and his mother talk through the whole expedition together and finally connect.  It is at that point that you can believe they will heal and be ok after their loss.  That moment was missing in the book.

The more I process this work, the more I appreciate it.  In fact, I came into this post with a markedly more negative view of the book.  However, the more I process what I've read and seen, the more I'm seeing the value.  I think this would be a great book to read again in six months or a year.  This is a work meant for multiple exposures.  Perhaps that is why the film worked as such a nice supplement to the book.

Pages: 368
Date Finished: April 10, 2012

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