The Ladies Who Drink Get Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
The Ladies Who Drink are pleased to share our thoughts on the books we read at our (mostly) monthly book-cum-social club. This month, we read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. Normally, we like to ease into the night’s discussion as we sip on cocktails. But on the Saturday in question, we had a birthday party to attend. Consequently, we had sixty short minutes to discuss one very big book. We met at Sketch, ordered aperitifs and a cheese plate, and launched right in.
The novel, in brief, is about a little boy named Oskar whose father died in the World Trade Center on September 11th. His dad would set up elaborate riddles for him, and Oskar believes he may have left him one last puzzle—a clue to his life, and his death. Inside his dad’s closet, Oskar finds a blue vase he’s never seen before. Within the vase is a key. More mysteriously, the word “black” is written on it in his dad’s handwriting. Oskar takes this as his first clue, and after trying to ascertain the meaning of it, he decides to visit everyone in the Five Boroughs with the last name “Black.”
We started out with ratings, and the novel got five out of five stars from each of us. Because of the limited time, we were only able to delve into the book’s characters and the author’s writing abilities. We all absolutely loved Oskar. I’ve heard that some critics found the seven year old “annoyingly pretentious,” but he didn’t strike us that way. We thought he was sweet, smart, and quirky, and because of what he had experienced, we really felt for him as a character. We also liked his mom, although at first some of us thought she seemed a little neglectful. His grandma and grandpa were also really intriguing, likable characters.
The novel switches from Oskar’s point of view to his grandpa’s and his grandma’s, and we thought the author’s efforts at creating unique points of view were very successful. Oskar sounds very much like a kid who doesn’t know how to process his father’s death. He doesn’t want to get over it, like his therapist encourages him to do and instead obsesses over the riddle, writing letters, and inventing life-saving devices. He also uses certain endearing phrases over and over again, like “what the” and “obviously.” His grandmother’s sections reek of fear and repressed pain. The sentences are short and to the point. Finally, the grandfather’s chapters were more poetic and more rambling, maybe because writing had become his only means of expression. Each section was written in a unique and believable way, and moreover each storyline was compelling.
I also found it interesting—and impressive—that even though very little actually happens, the novel is riveting. Most novels are composed of scenes that put together make up the plot. This novel is mainly made up of the characters’ thoughts and reflections. For instance, it starts with Oskar describing all his new inventions and then remembering the day of his dad’s funeral. Maybe because the characters were so well developed and they’d lived through such traumatic events being in their heads was really interesting.
I kept thinking about the book over the next few days. It struck me that there were some really interesting themes running through it. For instance, there were a lot of keys, locks, and puzzles. That, put together with the tragedy of September 11th and the bombing of Dresden (also mentioned), made me wonder if the book is exploring the issue of how an individual ever gets over, or even comprehends, some of the terrible things that happen in the world. There were also a lot of different means of expression used effectively and ineffectively, like letters, images, speech, and notebooks. That made wonder if, building on the previous idea, the book calls into question whether any of these means of self-expression are ever fully effective at expressing the human condition. Finally, Oskar asks all the people with the last name of Black if they know anything about his dad, and it turns out they have almost all been affected by September 11th in some way. I think maybe the book is also exploring how traumatic events affect not just the individual but also a whole city.
The Ladies Who Drink always try to pair a cocktail with the book of the month. After discussing this one, it was obvious what its perfect pairing is, cocktail-wise: a Manhattan, and not just for the obvious reason. A Manhattan staid but delicious drink, and as book club member Violet aptly said, the novel is “extremely sad and incredibly good.”