REVIEW: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

This was the allocated book of my first-ever meeting with a newly formed local book club. By the time I started it, I thought I’d left it too late to finish before the meeting – then I read it compulsively in about three days. I finished it in tears as sunlight encroached across my living room floor on a long Sunday morning.

In short, the novel is about a young boy, Oskar Schell, who loses his father in the September 11 terrorist attacks. Oskar is a precocious nine-year-old, and his father encouraged his inquisitive mind by often setting him tasks and puzzles. So, when his father dies and Oskar finds a key in an envelope with the word ‘Black’ written on it hidden in a vase, he sets out to solve what he hopes is his father’s last journey of discovery for him – by travelling throughout New York meeting everybody with the surname Black.

It was at this point that the book became a little far-fetched – even when you find out that Oskar’s mother had become aware of her sons journey and, despite not knowing the full details, pre-contacted his ‘Blacks’ ahead of his arrival would she 1. really have allowed a nine-year-old in post-911 New York to travel across the city alone (or, as it turns out, accompanied by an elderly stranger)? or 2. as a grieving and apparently very busy lawyer, had the foresight and will to play a behind the scenes role in the entire elaborate scheme for his sake, without actually knowing what he was looking for or what the result would be?

However, other than that criticism – and with suspended disbelief – the plot was engaging and the characters that you met in the Blacks of New York were often symbolic and usually very moving. Oskar’s grief (his “heavy boots”) is believable and sad – particularly the secret he carries on his little shoulders of having heard his father’s final voice messages, found himself unable to answer the ringing phone in the crucial moment and having hidden the answering machine from his mother. He sometimes bears the guilt by “giving [himself] a little bruise” which is heart-breaking in both its gravity and innocence.

Oskar’s story runs parallel with that of his grandparents – narrated largely through letters, and often set in WWII Germany. The relationship between Oskar’s German grandparents is highly unusual, sometimes a little confronting but moving in its own right and Foer’s main outlet for experimental prose – not all of which was easy to follow.

Another technique used by Foer in this book was imagery and representative fonts/text – a la The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time and (I’m told, having never read it) Diary of a Wimpy Kid. So, for example, when we’re told Oskar’s mute grandfather writes one word in the centre of the page, the next page has just one word in the centre of the page (possibly another reason this was such a quick read). Or, when Oskar is looking through his secret collection of print outs and magazine cut-outs, we see the same pictures on the page that he describes. Some in the book club  said they found this distracting, and I can see their point to an extent. But I appreciated the effectiveness of the technique in some instances – particularly in the epistolary sections, and as a reminder of some of that shocking and infamous imagery that came out of 911, which I have to confess I found myself morbidly revisiting online whilst reading this book. However, I also thought the technique sometimes unnecessary and borderline pretentious – as if Foer was just doing it because he could, rather than to complement the text or add meaning.

There is a movie adaptation of this book starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock as Oskar’s parents. I haven’t seen it yet and am reluctant to, one reason being because it combines two central characters into one, and another because I can’t imagine how a book so reliant on the written word for effect could translate well onto screen.

Next Book Club book is The Other Hand by Chris Cleave.

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One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

I once heard watching bad TV described as being like sitting in a lukewarm bath: You feel too sleepy and lazy to remove yourself from the situation, but it’s far from enjoyable. Using the same metaphor, I’d describe reading One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez as like being in a steaming hot bath. With a glass of wine. On a cold winter’s night. Whilst reading Gabriel García Márquez.

You get the point.

This book is magical in every sense of the word, and reading it was constantly a pleasure. Even the morbid or tragic scenes were larger than life and somehow enchanted with beauty. And while it was easy to get tangled up in the complex web of Remedioses, Arcadios and Aurelianos through the generations of the central Buendía family, even this came to feel meaningful and intentional by the end of the book as representative of the non-linear, circular passage of time.

One thing you must do before embarking on this book (or any of Márquez’ works, for that matter) is to suspend your disbelief – don’t ask too many questions, just go along for the ride. His writing is almost purely visceral, it comes from the heart and should be read that way – like a dream.

Oh, and I’ll never look at a flock of yellow butterflies in the same way again.

Johnno by David Malouf

How did I get almost a quarter of a century into my life and only just become acquainted with such an important, talented Australian writer as David Malouf? I suppose I shouldn’t let it concern me too much, rather excite me with the promise of similar surprises in store.

Often described as semi-autobiographical, this was Malouf’s first novel – published in 1975 (during a six-month sabbatical in Florence, Italy). It begins with the narrator (who remains unnamed throughout the book, except for the nickname ‘Dante’) returning to Brisbane from London with the death of his father. Sorting through things in the family home, he happens across an old school photo and thus begins his reminiscence of his old friend, Johnno.

The book follows the complex relationship of the two and was, I felt – particularly towards the end – a story of unrequited love.

Johnno could be said to have three central characters – Johnno, Dante and the city of Brisbane. The shadowy damp of the Queenslander homes and the idiosyncracies of  wartime Brisbane of Malouf’s 1940s childhood are palpable throughout the novel. In fact, I finished the book feeling as though I’d got to know the otherwise unfamiliar city more than the mysterious human characters themselves.

Calling this book semi-autobiographical seems ironic to me. It is in fact a fictionalised biography of Johnno (based on Malouf’s real-life friend John Milliner who died in similar circumstances to the fictional Johnno in 1962, as revealed in the epilogue), but little is revealed about the first-person Malouf character, Dante – except as he relates to Johnno. The fact he is only known by the name given to him by Johnno is testament to that. If this book is autobiographical, it is only in the sense that it is the story of the part of his life that was touched by his friend.

This is a short book and therefore a relatively quick – but extremely rewarding – read. It’s the type of book you could easily pick up again and again, and take more from it with each reading. Johnno is poetic but unrestrained. Funny, but heartbreaking. I highly recommend it.