More Side Effects of the GWOT

by Kieran Healy on August 11, 2006

By the time I got to Chicago yesterday my flight to Montreal had been cancelled and I got re-routed through Toronto. (One Canadian city is as good as another, eh?) My bag went on a mysterious and still-unfinished journey of their own. As a consequence, I did something I’m slightly ashamed to admit I rarely do these days: I read a novel. I picked up Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close in Chicago and by the time I arrived in Montreal I had just finished it. The main protagonist is Oskar Schell, a nine-year-old boy whose father was killed in the World Trade Center, and the novel is told mostly from his point of view. When we’re not inside Oskar’s head, the voices of his grandmother and grandfather (who have complicated stories of their own) take over.

It’s a good novel. I was unconvinced by some aspects of each of the main characters, and I thought the central plot device could have been handled better. But at the same time, the book drew me in and I found parts of it quite moving. It is exceptionally difficult to write plausibly about the inner world of a child, if only because it’s so easy to forget what being a child is like. Foer’s strategy is to make Oskar irresistibly kinetic: high-energy, endlessly talkative, exceptionally smart, and independent to an almost absurd degree. It mostly works, except of course when the plot requires that Oscar not be as smart as all that. It would have been easy to have Oskar come off as a kind of miniature Woody Allen, neurotically roaming New York in search of something or other. But Foer manages to make you like him.

It strikes me that Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha would make for a good comparison with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Paddy is ten and Oskar is nine. They are both quite talkative. In different ways, bad things happen to both. Yet Paddy is ordinary and Oskar is one of a kind. Paddy lives a routine existence in late 1960s Dublin. Oskar is on the Upper West Side. Paddy’s parents fight. Oskar’s father was killed in a terrorist attack. I read Paddy Clarke when it came out (ten or more years ago I think), and remember being astonished by how well Doyle got the reader inside Paddy’s world, especially the way he showed how awful even ordinary domestic problems can seem when you are ten and don’t fully understand what is happening. I may be biased because it’s easier for me to identify with Paddy’s life and mode of speech, but I think Doyle meets the challenge of writing from a child’s point of view better than Foer. Perhaps Foer’s problem is that the weight of 9/11 is just too much for Oskar as a character to bear, just as within the novel it is too much for him as a person to manage.



Chris Bertram 08.11.06 at 6:39 am

A traumatized child called Oskar? Does Foer intend soem kind of homage to _The Tin Drum_ ?


Kieran Healy 08.11.06 at 6:55 am

Hmm. Foer’s Oskar has a tambourine he shakes obsessively. And his grandmother’s sister is named Anna. Oskar’s grandfather walks out on his grandmother.


Rasselas 08.11.06 at 9:29 am

Maybe ’60s Dublin was just less twee than contemporary Brooklyn.


Maynard Handley 08.11.06 at 10:02 am

But Foer manages to make you like him.

I guess it takes all types. I dropped the book at about 100 pages in because I couldn’t stand the little bastard. I can’t remember exactly what it was that got to me, but I think there was a certain know-it-all-ness about him, that he’s constantly thinking how everyone else should live their lives. This may (or may not) be accurate reportage, but it is not endearing.


Scott Lemieux 08.11.06 at 11:30 am

“One Canadian city is as good as another, eh?”

Especially if you end up in Toronto rather than Monteal, Good God, no.


P O'Neill 08.11.06 at 1:20 pm

More related to your title than the content, I wonder if sociologists or psychologists can find a way to take advantage of the experiment now offered by plane flights where there’s not much, in the traditional pass-the-time-in-flight sense, to do. In the extreme case of UK flights, passengers have nothing besides the inflight entertainment and whatever reading material the plane has. With the US restrictions, all the electronic toys are gone. What do people do? Sleep, tune out, go nuts? Perhaps there’s a proto-Gladwellian hypothesis that in fact we’re all over stimulated by the stuff around us and actually benefit from having to sit in one place and watch the clouds go by.

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