Now, I’m a big Foer fan. I loved JSF’s previous book, Everything Is Illuminated; it’s one of my all-time favorites. I was leery of reading ELIC though. Its subject matter is based upon the aftermath of September 11th, which I just knew was going to be a barrel of laughs. I had also heard brief summaries of the novel’s plot, which sounded a little trite and a lot dumb (boy whose father died in the WTC finds key in his dad’s belongings and goes through the Five Boroughs in search of its lock). The book was collecting vitriol months before it came out, and people couldn’t wait to hate it. Seriously.
Why so many haters? I think that JSF suffers from some of the same grief that Dave Eggers gets. There seems to be this backlash against young writers (anybody under 30) who become insanely successful on the strength of one book (or less – some get ginormous advances on unwritten books), especially if that book breaks some of the “rules” and is in any way imperfect. In JSF’s case, his first book took some missteps, sure, but he so clearly has talent to spare that I, for one, didn’t mind at all. If anything, its flaws proved that it was written by a genuine human being. Still, some seem to demand that if you are going to get all this fame and attention “you had better damn well write how I expect you to write and you sure as hell better act in a way conforming with the entirely arbitrary expectations that I have set for you that are subject to change without prior notice dammit”. Anyway… The NYT also had a lukewarm review for the book – it went something like this (I’m paraphrasing)… “Meh.”
So, like I said, I had some misgivings about reading ELIC. I liked JSF’s first book so much that I really, really didn’t want him to fall flat on his face in this one. And if he did, I didn’t want to know about it. I bought the book any way. I watched it sit on my shelf for a few months, daring me to read it. Then Mrs. Cayenne read it. She loved it and then I was able to I decide that it was OK to read it after all.
So let’s talk about the book. I’ll try to describe the book in a way that addresses some of the criticism that has been dumped upon it, because the criticism almost kept me from reading this book – and it it all seems undeserved having read the book. As always, your mileage may vary. First off, the plot summary that gets circulated a lot goes something like this “annoying and unrealistically smart kid whose dad died in 9/11 finds key, combs New York to find matching lock, has adventures due largely to bad parenting, book ends with a flip movie – that’s right – muthafuckin’ flip movie”.
So let’s break it down. Many who are critical of the book point to Oskar Schell, the 9 year-old protagonist. The haters insist that there has never been a 9 year old as precocious as Oskar EVER – in the history of the planet. To me, Oskar was a believable goofball fourth grader. He often acts illogically but always in a way that makes sense to him. He knows a lot of stuff, is pretty worldly, but he often doesn’t know things that we might think that he should – like who Winston Churchill is, for instance. He makes lists of things to go home and Google, like a curious fourth grader might. I suspect that enough of the contributors to this site were sufficiently nerdy in fourth grade to relate to how big a dork the kid is.
Yes, Oskar finds a key in his dad’s belongings, and he does try to find out what it belongs to. No argument there. I would argue that the story provides some context for his search that don’t make it as ridiculous as it might sound otherwise. The search seems to be in keeping with Oskar’s character as well as with the relationship that he had with his dad. There also seems to be some disbelief that Oskar is allowed to wander the city on his own. I think there is also context there to put that his wandering into some perspective other than – “his mom is a workaholic who doesn’t really care” – I don’t think that’s what was going on at all.
ELIC also takes some crap because it does things like include pictures of things, it has pages that are supposed to represent things talked about in the book, it has a few pages with mistakes circled in red, and, yes, it has a flip movie at the end. No matter what I say, those types of things will always seem precious or pretentious to some people. There seems to be this feeling that a writer includes pictures and other “gimmicks” because (a) they can’t write adequately to convey what they are trying to say in words, or (b) they are bullshit artists. I say, if it adds to the story, go, man, go. I thought it was creative story telling. I remember reading a Kurt Vonnegut book long ago, I forget which one it was, but he was describing someone’s – uh – anus. So he said their – er- butthole looked “just like this” – and he had a hand drawing of an asterisk that took up half the page – *. Vonnegut is a national treasure. The point? It’s been done before by respected writers that don’t get dumped on. So there you go – get off JSF’s back.
This book covers a bit of historical ground, perhaps meant to provide some perspective on wholesale tragedy. Oskar’s grandparents are survivors of the WWII fire-bombing of Dresden (a nod to Vonnegut if ever there was one). For me, some of the grandparents’ stories, told through letters never delivered, were where this novel took some missteps. Oskar also gives a report on the bombing of Hiroshima to his fourth grade class that is a little unsettling.
Oskar meets lots of people in his travels through NYC. Thankfully these encounters are pretty realistic, I thought. There were no encounters with a one-eyed former pirate with a wooden leg, or a world record holder for most hot dogs eaten, or a man with the loneliest monkey in the world, or any of that kind of crap. They seemed like real people, real New Yorkers anyway. Oskar also writes lots of letters to famous people asking to become their protege – like Jane Goodall and Stephen Hawking. I always looked forward to getting back to Oskar’s story from the parts that contained the grandparents’ letters.
Some additional criticism that I’ve read couldn’t believe the hubris, the enormous stones, that JSF must have to think that he is the guy who should tackle the difficult subject matter of 9/11. How dare he! This line of reasoning asserts that the books that have best dealt with national tribulations (WWI, WWII, etc.) were all written well after the fact, once there was some perspective about what it all meant. It’s too soon for anyone to write about this event – the argument goes – much less that flipbook fucker. What do you say to that? No one should try to write about September 11th now? When would be a good time to start? 8 years? 10 years? Never? Whenever Philip Roth is ready?
I think it took a certain amount of courage to go anywhere near the subject. Is ELIC the perfect book that will sum up our national angst circa 2005 for posterity? Who knows. It is not a perfect book. It takes chances, and it feels a little raw around the edges. I think that ELIC’s a better book for it. I’ve rambled on at some length, defending (I hope) both the author and the book, because I think that both deserve your attention. ELIC is ambitious, it is clever, it is flawed. You might not like this book. You may even actively dislike it. To my way of thinking, that doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t read it.
Note: Mrs. Cayenne was just looking over my shoulder and commented that I didn’t really talk about the powerful emotions of this book. True. I was trying to keep it to 10,000 words or less. Maybe she’ll comment on that. And the criticism of this book really bothers me to no end.