Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Extremely Annoying and Incredibly Sad

Usually when I go to see a movie, it doesn’t occur to me that it may have been based on a book. I had heard of  The Help and Eat, Pray, Love before I saw the movies, The Help because it was recommended by a friend and Eat, Pray, Love because it was the basis for a sales campaign by World Market. I did not know that The American was based on A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth until after I had seen it.

I don’t like reading books after I have seen the resulting movie because then I can’t get the actors’ voices out of my head. If you’ve ever read The Julie/Julia Project, you know that Julie Powell is not Amy Adams. So when it did occur to me that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close might be based on a book, I decided to search my Kindle before searching movietickets.com, and that’s how I found Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel.

The main narrator in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is nine-year old Oskar Schell. I say “main narrator” because there are three different narrators in the book. In addition to Oskar, we get to read letters written by each of his grandparents, his grandfather’s letters having been written around forty years before the action in the book takes place, and his grandmother’s letters being written contemporaneously with the events in the book, although that is not clear until the end. What is also not clear is how the reader ever gets access to the letters.

Oskar is also an unreliable narrator. He is an unreliable narrator for reasons inherent in being nine years old: he has a limited understanding of other people’s behavior, limited access to facts that are relevant to his situation, and limited interest in understanding any point of view other than his own. 

Oskar is variously described in reviews as “precocious”, “unusually intelligent”, and “not a typical nine year old”. Of course he isn’t. He’s the author’s conception of a precocious nine year old as shaped by the author’s need to have a coherent first person narrator, and possibly as shaped by the author’s recollections of himself and his friends at the age of nine.

Nine year olds are funny. They are still children, but in many ways you can see the emerging adult they will be, not just in temperament (which  is apparent in infancy), but in the way they speak, the gestures they make, the sense of humor they show, the facial expressions they use. They can go back and forth between babyishness and a seeming adult sophistication so fast it gives you whiplash. So the author’s choice of a nine year old as not just the main character, but as the main narrator, makes a lot of sense. 

The problem is, nine year olds, even very smart nine year olds, just aren’t that coherent. Ask a nine year old to tell you about a favorite book, movie, or TV show and three sentences into the narrative you will find yourself asking questions to keep oriented. Children that age are still in the process of developing a sense of what the listener needs to know. They are much better at it than their three or six year old selves, but not good enough to sustain a book.

So the Oskar who narrates the book is not believable. The Oskar who is a character in the book, however, is. Oskar’s father died in one of the Twin Towers on September 11, and Oskar is trying to come to grips with his father’s death. Oskar’s mother also has a male friend, Rob, and Oskar not only resents and dislikes Rob, but also the fact (as he states it) that his mother is moving on with her life.

Oskar also has a therapist that he sees on a regular basis, with whom he has no rapport. The therapist is a stock character: child psychologist who has no rapport with children. This therapist is necessary because Oscar’s interactions with him give us another view of Oskar, but a therapist who could actually make Oscar feel safe to share his hurt about his mother moving on with her life would give us an entirely different story, one the author doesn’t want to tell. For a reader who isn’t, like me, standing outside the story thinking, “This just doesn’t work”, that would not be a problem, but I kept wondering why Oskar’s mother didn’t just find him another therapist, especially when it becomes clear she has her own disagreements with the man.

It’s not as though she is without financial resources. She and Oskar continue living in the family apartment in Manhattan, one that is large enough that Oskar’s father has his own closet. This is an important plot point. Oskar goes into the closet one day, notices that his father had his tuxedo laid out on a chair in the closet, and in the course of other explorations, finds a key. Oskar sees the key as a message from his father and embarks on a search to find the lock it goes to, and the message it holds.

And when I say “embarks on a search”, I mean literally wanders around Manhattan on his own for hours at a time. It turns out that Oskar’s mother is not nearly as clueless as she seems all along (remember, Oskar is an unreliable narrator), but even so, Oskar is allowed a lot more latitude than one would think is prudent for a nine year old in a big city.

This is true despite the fact that Oskar has an overprotective grandmother who lives across the street. Oskar has only been able to get her to allow him to bathe alone by holding a piece of her knitting yarn as she sits outside the door, occasionally giving it a tug. Grandma has reasons for her issues, as the reader finds out in the course of reading letters she writes to Oskar. The letters are another example of the author choosing a narrator for convenience, not realism. In the first letter she writes, Grandma goes into detail about her sex life with Grandpa, in a way that one would not expect her to do with a nineteen year old grandson, let alone a nine year old. It is not clear from the book that Oskar, as opposed to the reader, ever reads the letter, but still. It seemed like every three pages I found myself saying, “What are these people thinking!”

And yet, despite the book’s flaws, I found Oskar’s story compelling and true to the incredible sadness and confusion that comes with losing a parent at an early age. Even if Oskar’s mother, grandmother, and therapist had been far more adept in dealing with his pain, they still would have been helpless in the face of his grief. When a child loses a parent, there is no good thing the other adults in the child’s life can do. Oskar tells us this, in the way perhaps only an overly precocious, unrealistically articulate, badly supervised and unreliable nine year old narrator could.

1 comment:

  1. I find Jonathan Safran Foer’s books interestingly problematic. I very much enjoyed Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, but did find Oskar as a narrator rather unrealistic in terms of a child's voice. What's even more baffling is the author's first book, Everything is Illuminated (also made into a movie). That one has even less of an unreliable narrator and an even stranger structure that it seems like he's using just for the sake of being clever. And yet, in part because it's a Holocaust book and I was reading it while visiting Germany, the story is also moving. They are both good, creative books in their own ways, but highly problematic from a literary point of view in others.