Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 29, 2008

Novels and Red Pens

In a recent class called Dean’s Book, we talked about a novel that not everyone loved totally, but everyone loved enough, and felt it made them think and sometimes laugh and sometimes cry. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is an acclaimed novel for adults by Joanathan Safran Foer, which alternates the points of view of a nine-year-old whose father died in 9/11 and that of a survivor of the bombing of Dresden in WWII. The nine-year-old is precocious, funny, one of a kind, as well as grief stricken. He obsesses about things to invent for safety, such as buildings that can descend into the earth or a birdseed shirt so that birds would flock to you and carry you safely away. Oscar is loveable, as are other more minor characters, like a woman who’s lived for years near the top of the Empire State Building, which she loves so much that she’s become an archive of its facts. Foer can write ten intriguing characters on one page and is amazing in the way her captures the boy’s voice. I think he gets it right when Oscar pulls the “my father died” on strangers to get attention and pity, but this doesn’t take away from his deep and true grief.

We discussed one student’s sense that the author was hiding behind the young main character, and the student’s statement that putting pictures of a man falling from a Tower was completely out of line. Other students said why they thought that was necessary to the hopeful ending. We debated which if any of the 45 pictures were necessary, and I agreed with those who thought not totally, but they added to the way the book made you go back, rather than reading straight through; sometimes this left me feeling a bit fragmented, which seemed part of the point. After one student made some statements about the book, I observed, “There seem to be some contradictions in what you said.”

He grinned and said, “Yeah. And wait till you read my paper. It’s full of them.”

And it was. Wonderfully. You can’t tidily sum up a great book. I’d urge anyone to read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, but there were a few places that made me think of my post last month about the hazards of going on too long with sentences, dialogue, and chapters. I found a few times that just a sentence or two or even a word too many took me out of this carefully crafted and engaging world, spun things briefly false or sentimental. The old man who won’t speak, who has tattooed yes and no on his hands and carries a notebook, grips me until we overhear him think about his motives, which jar with a hint of psycho-babble. He wouldn’t think that! I thought, or at least I was wishing he wouldn’t. It’s okay to avoid someone you love from fear of loss but could you please not point that out? Did we need a mini lecture on how good it is to tell someone you love them? No, when much of the novel is about longing and misses and we feel the pinch. We’ve had birdseed shirts! We don’t need the abstract nouns.

But I don’t know, maybe the sudden slants to the sentiment, and spelling themes out, are what helped make this novel a bestseller. Maybe it works for others, but I feel a bit shut out by the brief exposition. I say, Cut the thread! Tie a knot!



  1. Wow–clearly a book to read. I love the student who could grin about his paper. What confidence. 🙂

  2. I’m with you about Extremely Loud etc. There were moments that moved me deeply and others where I thought, “oh just get on with it.”

  3. Yes, I think you would like this book and I’m not surprised you like this student who is confident and bright without being arrogant. I look forward to hearing from him and others today — gotta go pack my bags!

  4. Wow. Talk about saying it all in a sentence: thank you for the perfect review, and I’m glad I have company!

  5. You can’t tidily sum up a great book.
    So true.

  6. I’ve avoided this book, since I have my own work on September 11th, but the fact that all these UMass people, including some of my students and several of my colleagues, are reading it has gotten me curious. From what I’ve heard, most of the people who have read it have said, not exactly my cup of tea, but you make an interesting point about contradictions. Wouldn’t we like our loved ones to be totally consistent and predictable, but they’re not. Neither are we. I’d like to edit out half of my useless thoughts and activities and say, “oh just get on with it!”

  7. “Oh just get on with it:” our new motto?
    Let me know if you want to borrow the book. Part of the Dean’s Book goal is to have a bunch of people reading a book, and it may be happening more, beyond the students, with this book, which is cool. I think you would like Oscar’s voice: that kid always brought me around.

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