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21st January
2009
written by Steph
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Faithful readers of this site might be crying out right now, “What’s this?!? ELIC is not listed as a contender in this year’s Tournament of Books!  It was published in 2005.  You said you were going to try to read through the ToB books next, so… what up?”  I know, I know, I was supposed to start on my ToB reading after giving up on Eve, but here’s the thing:  Last Friday, I bundled up and set off for the central library on campus, which claimed to have 5 of the titles on my list available.  When I got there, I found out that one of the books was now reserved for someone (never mind that I can’t figure out how to reserve books myself), two of the books that were listed as being in the stacks were decidedly not in their designated areas, and one of the books penned by a Spanish-language author was in fact the Spanish-language edition.  Which left me with 1 book… or a 20% success rate.  Not good.  It was so cold out and I had braved it for 1 lousy book?  Well, on my way out, I happened to pass by the “Leisure Reading” shelf and ELIC caught my eye.  I’ve been wanting to read it for several years now, and I figured that since I was there I might as well pick it up.  After all, the check-out period for books from the campus library is a lengthy 3 months… or so I thought.  Turns out, Leisure books only have a TWO WEEK check-out period, which is kind of ironic, since for some, that might require reading at a decidedly unleisurely pace.  Once I realized this, I decided that I had better read ELIC first, given that it was due back so much sooner. ELIC primarily tells the story of Oskar Schell, a nine-year old boy who lost his father two years previously in the 9/11 tragedy.  He finds a key in an envelope inscribed with the name "Black" on it in his father's bedroom, and is determined to find out what that key unlocks.  Thus, he sets out on a journey throughout the city of New York, tracking down every Black in the phone book.  His story alternates chapters with a narrative that is much more difficult to follow, that of his mute grandfather and his grandmother; their story traces (though not necessarily in chronological order) their time in Dresden, Germany as children, through to their reunion, marriage, and subsequent separation in New York City.  Through parallel and then intersecting storylines, the two tales essentially focus on the idea of loss and death, and the search for the closure that will allow us to move on with our lives and return to the land of the living. I think the first thing that will strike any reader about this book is that it’s pretty unconventional and avant-garde in its style.  Seemingly random photos are interspersed throughout its pages, and Foer is a fan of run-on sentences and non-traditional typesetting.  I didn’t find it all that unsettling, because I read The History of Love, written by his wife, Nicole Krauss, several years ago and it has a very similar style.  In fact, many people commented at the time that the two books are eerily similar, both in style and in content.  Having read both books, I can see where the comparisons come from, though for my money, History of Love is the better book.  Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed ELIC, but I personally felt it was more gimmicky and less authentic than The History of Love, which packs a strong emotional punch right out of the gate.  I think that it tends to be a quieter novel, whereas on the whole, ELIC is rather manic and frenetic.  I wasn’t immediately won over by ELIC, but feel it did get stronger the more I read it.  At first I felt that it was a little too quirky, that Foer might have been trying too hard, and Oskar was too cloying clever and precocious for a nine-year old.  Very quickly I was reminded The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon, whose narrator is also a young boy, but is autistic (which, apparently, Oskar is not).  Although I warmed up to Oskar over time (and several things he says are downright hilarious and had me giggling away), it took me a while to get a handle on his character, and since this is primarily his story, that delay in connecting with him did, I think, contribute to my sense that what I was reading was not fully honest.  It’s hard to express, but I got the sense that there were moments in the novel where Foer was going for understated elegance that contained these intractable kernels of truth, and yet, they hit me sort of like jokes on Family Guy do: I get that they’re jokes and what ostensibly makes them funny, they just don’t hit me in a visceral way, and I feel they’re overly contrived and scripted and disingenuous.  Still, either Foer tempers these more objectionable offenses as the novel progresses, or maybe I just became more inured to them, but whatever the case, I definitely felt the story begin to resonate with me on a deeper level. Overall, I’m glad I read ELIC several years after The History of Love, because I don’t think I would have liked it nearly as much as I did if the latter had been fresh in my mind and allowed me to make more direct comparison of the two works.  I’m happy that I could essentially read ELIC as its own work, and appreciate it for what it was.  I thought it was an interesting artistic foray into the 9/11 tragedy without being melodramatic or saccharine, but still was appropriately compassionate.  It certainly made me stop and think about that day and all that was lost, which is not really something I have done in a long time.  Finishing it on the night before Obama's inauguration felt appropriate and fortuitous; ultimately the novel speaks of grief and loss, but also of moving forward while never forgetting.  I look forward to eventually reading  Foer’s first novel, Everything is Illuminated, which first skyrocketed him to fame.  ELIC wasn’t perfect, but it was a really good read, and one that I would probably be happy to delve into again in the future.  Recommended to those who don't mind more experimental works of fiction, but be forewarned that I suspect this is the kind of book you either love or hate with a fiery passion. Rating: 4 out of 5

3 Comments

  1. 01/21/2009

    Leisure read sounds like an interesting category. At Cal, undergrads can check out books for three weeks, and staff one whole semester. Books that are on reserve for a book can only be checked for 3 hours.

    I gave up on Everything is Illuminated but am glad that I might be able to pull through Extremely Loud and Incredibly.

  2. 01/21/2009

    The Leisure Reading section is not very big (about three shelves worth), so I don’t think much effort or attention is directed towards it, despite its choice placement in the library on campus. I think it is mostly composed of popular new fiction reads that one is likely to find assigned in a course… but then again, I’m not sure what some of the choices on my ToB list were doing hanging out in the stacks, so I have no really idea whether there is method or merely madness to this section.

    Back at my undergrad university, there were books that could only be checked out for an hour… but I’m pretty sure those weren’t considered leisure reads! As I said, the standard policy here at Vandy seems to be that non-leisure books can be borrowed for three months by students, probably the whole semester if you’re faculty (but on that, I am not in the know).

    Never tried Everything is Illuminated, so I can’t say how it compares to ELIC. I can certainly see how Foer’s style would not be to some people’s tastes; even in my case it was not grand sweeping love. I felt it got better the more I read, but I was worried for the first 60 pages or so that I would find the book unsufferably pretentious and overworked. In the end, I didn’t, and I’m glad for that, but I get how some people can’t get past his style. For what it’s worth, I do think that I’ve heard that ELIC is less discombobulating and “pyrotechnic” than his first novel, so perhaps you would have better luck with it.

  3. 03/03/2009

    That is pretty ironic.. leisure read that you have to read in a hurry, lol. You know what’s funny? I had Foer’s books pegged in my mind as bearing the same qualities of Curious Dog! In fact, I mentioned Curious Dog in my comment re: History of Love. Thanks, Steph!

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