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Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Paperback – April 4, 2006
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Unfortunately, I fell into the latter category. It's rare that I come across a book that can have so much good writing in it that also makes me regularly want to hurl it across the room while I claw out my eyes. In the end, ELIC was a story ruined by talent, though I couldn't decide if it was insecure talent (propping up his story with gimmicks) or self-indulgent talent (throwing in everything and anything just cause he could).
As mentioned, the story centers on young Oskar, whose father left him several phone messages before being killed on 9/11. One day Oskar finds an envelope marked "Black" with a strange key in it up in his father's closet (in typical fashion, not a normal closet but a closet with a whole host of quirky associations). Deciding "Black" is a name, Oskar then goes off on a quest to find what the key opens, attempting to interview all the Black's of NYC. Interspersed between Oskar's movements are letter written by his grandparents concerning their history, which includes the firebombing of Dresden.
Oskar's story can be moving; there are some wonderful and truly brilliant passages. But for me it was marred by both his precociousness and his preciousness. One without the other would have perhaps been simply annoying, but both together made it almost unbearable. Toss in a consistent sense of arbitrary quirkiness and the book often left a bad taste in my mouth. Oskar for instance decides to interview the Black's alphabetically rather than by geographic proximity. Why? It serves the story's purpose. When seeking clues, a storeperson tells him it's interesting his father wrote "Black" in a red pen as that's so hard to do, write the name of a color in a different color ink. Really? Has anyone ever truly had to struggle to write the name of any color when using the trusty blue or black pen? Of course not. But this sounds quirky and mysterious. And so it goes.
The grandparents' sections also have their moments of true brilliance, but are also marred by problems of credibility with regard to voice and, again, quirkiness (such as designating parts of their apartment "nothing" areas), along with typographical stunts that from my view seldom enhanced the story.
ELIC therefore was extremely frustrating rather than loud, with the sense that one could have pulled out various lines/passages and put together a truly beautiful novella, but instead the reader got this. Is there talent here? Absolutely. Can you find places that will move you or make you laugh or make you marvel at the language? Absolutely. Is it worth it for those moments? From my perspective, absolutely not. But there is so much good here that I wouldn't recommend against trying it. I'd say give the book 30 pages (that's really all you'll need). If you can stomach Oskar's voice and mannerisms, you'll probably end up enjoying the book. If you find yourself cringing, save yourself. Put the book down and slowly back away. Don't strain to continue; you'll only pull something.
The first page of the book presages many of the books faults. Oscar wishes for a teakettle with a spout like a mouth, so that it could "whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare..." (a nine year old? Wanting to hear Shakespeare?); he wishes it could be in his father's voice, so he could fall asleep (...awwwww). On this first page, he actually says "because entomology is one of my raisons d'etre"...? This is a nine-year old? Just when you wonder if this kid's got a future in writing Hallmark cards, he comes up with "I could train my anus to talk when i farted...I'd train it to say, 'wasn't me' every time I made an incredibly bad fart."...but in France "my anus would say 'Ce n'etais pas moi'". Repulsively crass, yet he knows French and reads Shakespeare (at nine). He wishes everyone could swallow microphones, so you could hear everone's heartbeats (awwww). He then wonders would everyone synchronize, "like how women who live together have their menstrual periods at the same time". Lovely. "Except that the place in the hospital where babies are born would sound like a crystal chandalier in a houseboat." Let me repeat that..."like a crystal chandalier in a houseboat." Anyone else ready to projectile vomit? And this is all on page one. It was this type of obnoxious child that led W.C. Fields to say "Get away from me, kid, you bother me." The kicker is this is all set against the ultimate cheap-shot low-blow tear-jerker backdrop that is September 11th. If you can't evoke emotions with competent writing, just use a horrible real-life tragedy as your setting (explains the otherwise inexplicable success of many movies, such as "Pearl Harbor"). How low does it go to coax the tears? Would you believe a sequence of actual photographs of a man falling from the World Trade Center. A real man, caught on film in his last seconds of life as he falls, face up and looking at the sky, ends up as a tear-jerking device in a book. But, predictably, the sequence is reversed...you see? The man is really falling back up! Awwww[...]
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