Monday, February 28, 2011

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

I have to preface this post by saying that I loved this book. Also that this is a really, really long post.

I'd like to break this book down into a few layers because my mind is all jumbled:

Writing style: Initially I thought I would find the endless ramblings of a 10 year old cliche and eventually boring, but I think that is just because nobody allows themselves to think that way as an adult. It wouldn't really be efficient. But everybody has that experience of idle thoughts creating a whole imaginary story about people around them, or of entertaining thoughts of "what if" the world was a different way because of some ridiculously small change in history (I think.) Also, some of his ideas are downright funny. I particularly liked the "hole in the mattress for your arm because your arm gets in the way." We need something like that immediately. Anyway, I liked that these silly thoughts are mixed in with his unswerving mission to solve this last mystery about his Dad; it makes the whole concept bearable instead of just depressing.

I also tend to be skeptical of gimmicky things like adding in pictures or wasting pages with a few words on them, but I think the author was going for making the audience feel like they were holding the actual book, either the grandfather's book/letters that he used to communicate with, or Oskar's "Stuff that Happened to Me" book. The last few pictures in the book are a flipbook of the body flying upwards to the sky, which Oskar does describe, but it helps the reader to directly interact with Oskar in changing the course of his Dad's history, even it's just a wish.

The only qualm I had with the book's style of writing was that it was hard to switch from Oskar to his grandmother to his grandfather's voice in my head. Oskar was such a compelling childlike voice that I felt like his grandparents' letters took on a similar tone and it was not as believable.


Oskar: As others have mentioned, he is an extremely precocious young man. I think the author made Oskar the way he is to juxtapose his extreme intelligence with his childlike methods of approaching his dad's death. He can understand meteors and epidemiology, but not that trying to approach every Black in New York City is an impossible and illogical task, and that giving copies of his apartment key to strangers is not a good idea. I thought it was also great symmetry that in the end, the key belonged to a son who had also lost his father and was going on an equally long (though less illogical) search for that last remnant of his father. Are people really that much more "adult" when it comes to the loss of their family members? The sentiment at that moment wasn't even disappointment, just awe that so many people were tied together in a seemingly random fashion and eventually found to be "incredibly close."

I wanted to talk about the relationship between the grandfather and grandmother, but I might save that for a different post. This post is already extremely long.

Grief: I think this theme was the heart of the book. Every person dealt with grief in a separate but equally believable way. Oskar's grief and mission was at the forefront, but there were so many others that had an impact.

Oskar's grandmother lost her sister, her father, her home, her son, and her husband, and she just faded into the background and lived her life without purpose, except for her son and grandson. Maybe she wanted to marry her husband because he brought back some reminder of her past, maybe she took him back because he filled a void that her son had just left, and maybe she moved to the airport because after all this time, she still needed a way to feel like those people were near her. The grandfather lost two sons and his beloved Anna, and he reverted to not speaking and running away(or back to Dresden, in his case.) Mr. Black in 6A never left his apartment after his wife died, instead counting the days with a nail and creating a "magnetic pull" to his bed. Ruth Black, the widowed tour guide, never left the building that her husband loved. Ex-Mrs. Abby Black, used the excuse of grief to retaliate against her husband and cause him pain by delaying his search for the key. Oskar's mom went back to work immediately and found a "friend" who was going through similar circumstances.

Like you guys have said, many of these descriptions were exaggerated (Who sleeps in a storage room in the Empire State Building? Who doesn't speak for 40 years?) I think that I didn't try to read this book at face value because much of it is absurd. I know people will be offended, but it is comparable in my mind to Life of Pi; it has one foot in reality and the other in surrealism. The characters' behaviors are exaggerations of true to life ways that people respond to grief. While a silence may not last for 40 years, people do get so depressed that they can't return to society. People do crazy things while they are grieving, like hold onto others so tightly whether or not those people want to be held onto.

"Incredibly Close": I think the point of this portion of the title was to show how interconnected people can be. It's repeated over and over: the grandfather being a part of the grandmother's life for a short period in Dresden, and then stumbling across each other 7 years later in New York, the man at the end having encountered Oskar's father, and then again Oskar 8 months later, so on. Also, it shows how people who are incredibly physically close may be very far from knowing each other, like the grandfather with Oskar, or the grandmother and the grandfather, and vice versa, people who are strangers may understand one another perfectly.

"Extremely Loud": I think this is another recurring theme in the novel. The obvious moment is Oskar "waking" Mr. Black from his loneliness by turning on his hearing aids, but I think there are other examples. The grandfather is silent, but his actions are extremely loud (and weak-minded.) The grandmother is loud in her love for her son and grandson, but silent in her own denial of happiness. Anyway, I could go on, but it's a long list!

Anyway, thanks for reading! I really enjoyed this book and would give it a 4.5/5. There are lot of different people that are dealing with both minor and major tragedies, and maybe I'm just a sucker for sorrow, but I think the author did a great (and generally difficult) job of making the book both humorous and touching, especially through the eyes of a child.

- Charitha


  1. You make some valid points I guess, but overall, I wasn't able to justify in my head the actions that people (mainly grandpa/grandma) took as a result of their grief. I feel like I began enjoying Oskar's tone and thoughts, (Ferah was over when I was reading and I had to share the amusement about the mattress with space for your arm... haha), but there were times where he was just acting completely irrationally and inappropriately. Now, it would be completely acceptable for an average 9 year old to respond like this to the death of a father, but with the smart and mature attitude they've given this character, I wasn't able to come to terms with his behavior at times. Anyway, I think there was something good that was attempted here, but it just didn't all come together for me.

  2. Lolll ... Charitha's post made starting this book club worth it ... here we were, all hating on the book, all in agreement with each other ... and ms. i-read-50-books-one-summer brought in such an in-depth analysis of the book that I couldn't have even dreamt of coming up with :-)

    I'm glad to have this interesting discussion going on -- but Charitha, do you really feel this book is akin to Life of Pi, in the sense of reality versus exaggeration? By the writing style and the subject matter, it felt like everything was supposed to be grounded in reality. In Life of Pi, there was so much haze surrounded by the situation, with the lack of food and water, and going delusional in the extreme circumstances that he was thrown in ... It was hard for me to believe that so many people in this book were dealing with grief (Oskar seems to only find miserable people to hang out with) and that they all (except maybe the Mom) dealt with it in such an eccentric way.
    Ok, and I totally didn't even catch on to half the things you mentioned in the book -- like the tour guide who never left the Empire State -- I think I had really lost my patience at that point.
    Anyway, it was definitely interesting reading your analysis & interpretation of the story - bc I think that's probably what the author intended, and I was just nowhere near catching on to it ... forget about appreciating it!

  3. Correction Antara -- 85 books in one summer.

  4. HAHAHAHA ... I stand corrected.

    Did the other readers of this book club finish the book and have anything to say -- Momma, Neha, Rachana?

    I've read the first 5 chapters of 'Alice I Have Been' and would love to start discussing if possible. It's a really quick read, I think I'll be done within a week, unless I purposely slow down.

    I have to say, I love having a Kindle, I'm reading so much more now.

  5. I'm on Chapter 4 right now and would also want to discuss it. Should we write posts or an email exchange?

    Momma said she didn't like the book so she didn't finish it. Last I heard, Neha hadn't finished it. Rachana had already told me she wasn't going to be a part of the book club, I think, or maybe just for this last book. Who knows.