Monday, May 23, 2016

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

I am not typically a person to reread books. There are just too many titles I want to read in the first place to spend time going back to stories I already know. However, teaching literature has also shown me the benefit of rereading. Besides the very cool fact of knowing a couple literary giants inside and out, there's the way a story changes and effects me the more I look at it.

All that to say that, much like my recent post on The Catcher in the Rye, Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close didn't sit well with me during my first read. Also, much like the reasoning behind Catcher, Foer's unreliable first person narration flows in a stream-of-consciousness thought process. In this case it is a nine-year-old boy named Oskar Schell. The story takes place a couple years post 9/11, but jumps back and forth as Oskar recalls his life and family previous to 9/11 and how his life has changed since. The hard part for me is Oskar's personality specficially. He doesn't speak straight forward, instead using language creatively, such as saying he has "heavy boots" instead of "depressed." His imagination is overactive, causing him to ask crazy questions and invent crazy things that seemingly make no sense. His social skills do not follow the norm, leading him to do things that ostracize him, although for those who really know him, it's just "Oskar." Honestly, upon first reading I thought, if I were his parent I'd want to lock him in a closet (only when he drives me crazy, for his own good, I promise).

Oskar shares narration with his grandmother and grandfather, the former currently in his life and the latter having left before Oskar's father was even born. Through each of them we see a historical (WWII) parallel experience to 9/11 - a mirror to Oskar's suffering, if not worse than his suffering. The chapters narrated by Oskar's grandparents are my favorite, the story pulls me in and I feel for the characters deeply.

Now before you decide I'm cold-hearted, not caring about a kid's loss in 9/11, let me say I'm seeing a pattern that I don't mesh well with in literature. My Honors 11 class chose Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close as the novel with which to finish off our school year. That means a reread for me. At the same time, I've been rereading The Catcher in the Rye (for at least the seventh time) with my AP Lit classes. And between the two I've realized it's the stream of consciousness narration that I don't handle well. The tumbling of thoughts from the first person narrator drives me crazy, I begin to dislike a character who is meant to garner sympathy. And on Oskar's part, I feel more bad for his mother who has to deal with him! (The crazy feelings of parenting middle aged children have not left me quite yet.) As a person who thinks through so much in her life and the process thought follows in general, this was kind of a surprise. I reassure myself that I'm not a hypocrite because stream of consciousness is unbridled thought and totally different than a third person, omniscient or limited.

But also, much like rereading Catcher, my second read of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close changed my view of Oskar. Already knowing what his thought process was like, I was able to see beyond it (even appreciate it a little) and feel more deeply for him. Everything he does has absolute purpose, from his clothing, to his ideas, to his routines. To be such a unique individual and have the one person who understood you disappear forever, tragically no's overwhelmingly sad. And to be the parent left, watching helplessly and maybe hopelessly, as your child struggles along with the blow to his innocence?

This much I know is true, I will have to reread all books with stream of consciousness narrators to truly see what the story is trying to say. Ugh, Holden Caulfield, what have you done to me?!


  1. Do you let your students choose many of their reads? And is it hard to assign books you don't like? I never thought about how frustrating it might be for my high school English teachers to teach classics they didn't like year after year until now :)

    1. Lol. We don't have many books, so mostly they don't get to choose. But I had two classroom sets and figured the end of the year would be more bearable for us all if they liked what they were reading! And I'm kinda lucky that we do have enough sets of books that I can skip some of the crazy stuff, like Moby Dick. Ugh. I usually put off what I don't care for til the end...but I've also found the more I read something, the more I can appreciate it even if I don't grow to really, really like it.