Top 10 Books of 2010: #5

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

#5: EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE, Jonathan Safran Foer

For the next few weeks, I’ll be thinking back through the books I read in 2010 and ranking my favorites in a top 10 list. Today, I’ll be sharing some brief thoughts about Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

I am not very well-versed in contemporary literature and so, as a proper literary snob, I always approach modern novels with trepidation. This novel was no different. It’s not exactly fresh or new to be into Jonathan Safran Foer and rave about him on your Tumblr, but I’d never read anything he’d written, so I decided back in February to figure out what the hype was all about.

The hype is about a novelist who keeps one finger on the pulse of the 21st-century reader and the other on the voice of his swift and witty self.

The story of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is clearly designed to pluck your postmodern heartstrings. Oskar Schell is 9 years old. His beloved father, Thomas, was killed when the World Trade Towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001. Oskar goes on a personal quest to discover the details of his father’s last moments on Earth. He scours New York City, following a trail of obscure clues and joining with a team of randomly encountered strangers. Oskar is probably the most precocious child you’ve ever met in a novel (perhaps excepting Charles Wallace) and it’s often a bit difficult to swallow the fact that this kid is supposed to be only 9 years old. However, we enjoy his adventures and his emotional odyssey through New York and through this powerful, collective memory of the tragedy of 9/11. In the end, we are not exactly sure if Oskar has found what he has been looking for, but he is content. And so we are as well.

Much of what makes Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close interesting is the book layout itself. Foer is not shy with graphic gimmicks–the book contains a number of full-page photographs, typographical absurdities (in one section, the words begin to run into each other until they completely overlap, creating an almost entirely black page of unreadable text), even several sections with red-lined edits included. Essentially, the book is a publishing designer’s nightmare–or greatest challenge. At first, I wasn’t sure what I thought about this. It seemed on par with an amateur magician’s tricks to keep a waning audience interested. But the more I read, the more Foer convinced me that he knew what he was doing.

Even though I was quite affected by Anis Shivani’s scathing critique of Foer (“Rode the 9/11-novel gravy train with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, giving us a nine-year-old with the brain of a-twenty-eight-year-old Jonathan Safran Foer”), it’s been a long time since I read a book that made me cry. Somehow, it was good to find one that could accomplish that. Foer probably is guilty of “gimmick after gimmick,” as Shivani says he is. But, Shivani, I’m giving him #5 on my list because he made tears fall from my eyes and because it was pretty beautiful. Whether that makes him a circus-like panderer to the masses, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll let you decide.

Book club and overrated writers

Courtney convinced me. I think I want to re-read and lead a discussion on Beloved for the October book club. She makes a good point that people generally only read it when they have to (e.g., in AP English Lit. in 11th grade or whatever), and it deserves far more attention than classroom reading. I think it’s a gorgeous, chilling book and it brings up so many difficult (and confusing!) issues. I’ve always thought of Morrison as a grittier, bloodier Woolf–the American Woolf, if you will–and so you can imagine my self-assured smile when I found out that she wrote her master’s thesis on Woolf and Faulkner. It shows: in the best of ways.

This was the most interesting thing I read today: Huffington Post writer Anis Shivani’s list of the 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers. And wow, he knows how to write where it hurts! But as the Guardian book blog points out, he isn’t just blindly slinging insults; these are carefully planned–if occasionally just mean!–take-downs. I was thrilled to see Michael Cunningham–soulless hack-author of The Hours, which I couldn’t have hated any more (ripping Woolf’s working title of Mrs. Dalloway and then trying to mimic her style and failing grotesquely at it)–on his list. And I know Guion was only too thrilled to see poets Billy Collins and Louise Gluck included.

I do, however, enjoy Junot Diaz and Jonathan Safran Foer, both of whom made Shivani’s hit list. Even though I really enjoyed Drown, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I still couldn’t dismiss Shivani’s critiques of them. Of Foer, he writes, “Each of these writers has a gimmick, and gimmick after gimmick is what Foer excels at. Always quick to jump on to the bandwagon of the moment.” And of Diaz: “His manic voice describes everything with the same faux energy, the ear-shattering ghetto volume, as though there were no difference between murder and puking. Seems to work with a checklist as he designs his plots–the dictator Trujillo, the projects, drugs, family secrets, grandfather in prison, yep, everything checked off. Has no clue about the rhythm of language, just strings together discrete sentences until he has enough for a book.” Ouch. But, wow. If you’ve read Diaz and Foer, it’s all kind of true.

I reluctantly agree with his choice to include Jhumpa Lahiri; like Shivani, I think she is a good writer, but it’s almost as if she doesn’t want us to know that she is. And he’s also right about this: She doesn’t have to write anything except stories of privileged, disillusioned Indian/Bengali immigrants to America to get widely lauded. It gets old after a while.

My dilemma is that I still enjoy reading Foer, Diaz, and Lahiri’s novels. I think Shivani is making perfectly astute–if harsh–observations about them. And I guess someone has to call out the literati every so often. Shivani writes in his introduction:

If we don’t understand bad writing, we can’t understand good writing. Bad writing is characterized by obfuscation, showboating, narcissism, lack of a moral core, and style over substance. Good writing is exactly the opposite. Bad writing draws attention to the writer himself. These writers have betrayed the legacy of modernism, not to mention postmodernism. They are uneasy with mortality. On the great issues of the day they are silent (especially when they seem to address them, like William T. Vollmann). They desire to be politically irrelevant, and they have succeeded.

I’m particularly interested in what my fiction MFA friends–Angela and Rachel H.–think of this (as his intro piece somewhat denigrates creative writing program culture). As for everyone else, what do you think? Do you agree with his list? Anyone you would add to the list of overrated contemporary authors? Or defend?