Look! I read an entire ADULT novel! And I didn’t hate it! But I did roll my eyes A LOT! And I’m sorry, but this whole post is going to be a bit tongue-in-cheek because this book really did make me roll my eyes and bemoan the fact that generational sagas are hot stuff this day in age. Just remember that I didn’t hate this book, it was very well-written and if I had read it when it was published in 2006 I probably would have thought that it was brilliant.
Ok, so maybe remind me in the future to not pick up a book based on the television commercial for the movie made from that book? I swear I read reviews of this book, but I was in no way expecting this book to be what it was.
So first, here is the Goodreads summary: Nine-year-old Oskar Schell has embarked on an urgent, secret mission that will take him through the five boroughs of New York. His goal is to find the lock that matches a mysterious key that belonged to his father, who died in the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11. This seemingly impossible task will bring Oskar into contact with survivors of all sorts on an exhilarating, affecting, often hilarious, and ultimately healing journey.
They kindly neglect to mention that this is actually more of a generational saga about how crazy Oskar’s grandparents are. And that there is the comparison between the fire-bombing of Dresden and 9/11, which I guess tells us something about the universality of loss and pain and the senselessness of mass destructive acts. And also, they don’t tell you that you are going to be reading something a bit on the experimental side when it comes to both narrative and style. Or that it is very stream of consciousness-y.
Most of my eye-rolling came from the “experimental” style of this book. There were chapters told from Oskar’s perspective and then there were chapters that were told from two other points of view– one which is Oskar’s grandmother’s letters to Oskar and the other is Oskar’s grandfather’s (who left his grandmother when she got pregnant with Oskar’s father) letters to Oskar’s father. I am ok with alternating viewpoints, but was not expecting it and maybe I missed something, but it took me half the book to figure out that one of the alternate viewpoints was Oskar’s grandfather.
There were also design-induced eye-rolls. There is a whole chapter that is covered in red pen marks like a graded paper or something. There is another chapter where the words are all typed on top of one another so you can’t even read it. There are lots of random pictures in chapters (some are more meaningful than others). This sort of thing felt very 2006 to me… like it was trying too hard to be cool in a way that is now passe.
And you know, the stream of consciousness thing that was going on worked well for Oskar because he’s just a little boy and if you were listening to him recant a story it would probably be in stream of consciousness style. For the letters from the grandparents, it was a little weird. Especially since they were constantly veering off to talk about sex in letters they were supposedly writing to their child/grandchild. Maybe I was supposed to interpret the letters as more like diary entries since I don’t think they ever made it to their destinations? Either way, it would have been nice to have a more traditional narrative voice somewhere in this tangle of thoughts.
My biggest ranty-rant about this book, though, was the generational aspect of it. Honestly, I am just a little tired of it, thinks it makes books longer than they need to be, and am not really sure it carries a message I particularly agree with. I feel like it is/was the hip thing to do in the 2000s to write a book with a multi-generational focus (Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb are two other examples I can think of). There is something of a “sins of the father are visited upon the son” vibe to these books. What really bothers me, though, is this idea that seems to be contained within these generational sagas that genetics or heredity play a defining, integral role in identify formation. Ok, I know they do all these studies saying personality is as much genetic as environmental and whatnot, but I really really really hate genetic determinism. I think genetic determinism makes non-blood relationships seem inferior, as in you can’t possibly have the same relationship with an adoptive parent as a biological one. In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, for example, Oskar doesn’t really start to recover from his dad’s death until he meets his grandfather (who, to be fair, he doesn’t realize is his grandfather). His biological grandfather actually steps in and takes the place of a surrogate grandfather neighbor who has been accompanying Oskar on his travels around New York.
Then there is a bit of negativity towards women in here, too (I’m not sure I’d call it full-out misogyny, but it was still disconcerting). Oskar has a decided preference for the male figures in his life and even tells his mom that he’d rather it have been her that died than his dad. She is a pretty absent figure in his life and Oskar harbors a lot of blame towards her. Oskar also has this annoying habit of calling every woman he meets extremely beautiful. He even knows he’s objectifying them and calls himself sexist, but seems to think that buttering them up will get them to talk to him. And the reader is expected to think this is cute because he’s a kid, I guess.
And then, the book might have been better if Oskar was charming, but I really just found him to be weird. That kid who is so weird it makes you squirm. He just didn’t read as precocious to me, which I think is what I was supposed to get from his big words and letter-writing and interactions with adults.
I mean, how can something be well-written and somewhat entertaining, yet so utterly eye-rolly and riddled with issues? I don’t know. I know this was a big deal book, so read it if you are compelled to or are more into contemporary fiction than I am. Just go into it knowing that it is not at all what that cute little description on the cover or the movie preview say it is.