Profoundly moving, beautifully written with deep compassion and empathy for human grief, for the tragic moments that define our lives and characters. Nine-year-old Oskar Schell will stay with me, I think, for a very long time.
I finished late last night (early this morning) and immediately got out of bed to look up a feature written by Ian Brown, published in The Globe & Mail on September 15th, 2001. I've remembered it to this day, because Brown wrote so eloquently about the question: "Would you rather fly to your death, or burn to it?" (The things we can't get out of our minds
) There were two photographs that illustrated the story: one of a group of people leaning out of the broken windows of one of the Twin Towers; the other of a man falling (jumping) from one of them. Very similar to the ones in EL&IC.
Foer takes us convincingly into the mind of an extremely (but not unbelievably) sensitive boy whose father had to make the decision whether to fly or to burn. Oskar's journey to put some sense around the circumstances of his father's death, and the parallel stories told by his grandmother and grandfather, is a remarkable literary accomplishment of both characterization and plot. It is incredible story telling, period.
The textual 'gimmickry', as some have called it, is evocative of Vonnegut, in that it sheds an obliquely-angled light on these characters, and their struggles to communicate--after trauma--their deepest feelings, their shame and their guilt, their loss and their grief. These things that are so difficult to render in words. Foer creates a character whose trauma left him mute. He creates a deaf character who reduces every individual to one word. He creates a character who has not attained the level of cognitive or emotional development to express his grief. He creates a character who, at the moment of his death, is leaving an unanswered/unanswerable message on an answering machine.
These are characters who all, in different ways, cannot communicate their truth, cannot connect to those they love, at a moment in their lives of unimaginable trauma. Actually, at a moment of vicarious trauma such as that we all experienced close to 10 years ago. Vicarious trauma = survivor's guilt, and this is a novel that really explores that.
In the aftermath of trauma, when we lose the ability to communicate in words, this is what our minds do: they fixate on objects that appear disembodied; they blur the distinctions between what is real and what is not. They run thoughts and ideas together in ways that lack any kind of linear logic or coherence. While experiencing trauma and grief and survivor's guilt, we make choices that we would never make if we were in "our right minds" and we exhibit behaviour that appears irrational. Would you choose to fly or burn to your death?
We descend, in our grief, to isolation, to catatonia--temporary or lasting--and sometimes, to madness.
Foer's novel shows
us his characters' pain. So that when we see a photograph of a doorknob, or a key, or a blurred flock of birds -- these visual images connect to textual ones and then resonate with themes. It is more akin to how poetry works than how literature usually does.
Isn't this exactly
what we want a novel to do? It is to me.
I would rip into Foer if I believed his textual gimmickry was in any way manipulative, derivative or unnecessary. I think the opposite: it reveals character, it cuts through sentiment, and it brings the reader into the characters' minds to a depth that would be absolutely impossible with straightforward narrative style. Without it, I believe the story and Oskar would have lost a dimension that it needed to avoid the very accusations of manipulativeness and sentiment that have been made against it.
I hate that I am defending Foer against the nay-sayers in this review, when what I actually want to do is examine everything that he did so very right, so incredibly perfectly and extremely well, to bring this story to light.
Five stars, unequivocally. A must-read.