THINK OF THE CHILDREN
"Having allowed such affection for the ephemeral phase of childhood innocence to be captured through what could only be described as a thoroughly warped prism, the story unfolds at a satisfying pace as the eponymous narrator discovers his name was given to him as 'a joke' and with that level of parental rectitude, his mother's departure is only a matter of time."
3:AM Literary Editor Andrew Stevens casts his eye over two new books about nine year olds.
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Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer, Hamish Hamilton, London, £14.99
Tom Boler, Daren King, Jonathan Cape, London, £10.99
Every so often, a novel is published that is 'clever'. Not clever in that it trades in plot for astrophysics or requires an entrance exam before you're allowed to purchase it. Clever in that it defies you to take issue with it, so as to suggest that the elaborate wordplay at hand and inventive style is in some way groundbreaking and any failure to grasp its significance on your part, be you reader or reviewer (or both, even) infers some level of inability to 'get'.
Extremely Loud & Close is such a novel.
Please don't get me wrong, I 'get' Jonathan Safran Foer. What's not to get? So far, so good, it would seem: a striking debut, film in the offing. On this occasion, if you're already not aware, the novel is an account of post-9/11 and the attempt to assemble some sense of meaning through a personal journey (yes, I can read press releases too). Norman Mailer suggested that a full decade would need to elapse before anyone could even try and get half way towards accomplishing this task but that certainly hasn't stopped others from trying. Oskar Schell is the nine-year-old narrator at the heart of the book and we are entrusted with his quest to grasp (across the five boroughs, it seems) for some semblance of 'meaning' to it all, carried out over several hundred pages of latter-day existentialism.
When reviewing a book that has been reviewed to death already, there is little point in repeating the synopsis (or even a gist). Though I am indebted to one reviewer who in his rather caustic analysis of the book from cover to cover was able to tabulate the extent of the author's indulgence of the reader:
"26 pages with one line. 2 and a half pages of numbers. 49 pages of pictures. 4 pages of words written in magic marker in different colors. 21 blank pages. 15 pages of someone who jumped out of the world trade center. 3 words written on top of other words... it is unreadable."
It might be possible to calculate that Jonathan Safran Foer's second novel was always likely to be a hard sell, after all, no one likes easy delivery of hype for hype's sake. As Melanie Conroy-Goldman of Ithaca, New York (where else?) attests over at amazon.com:
"Such a marvelous first novel from such a young writer is bound to stir up jealousy and resentment. Indeed, I think some critics and readers hoped this so intensely, that they found failure where there was very little."
However, such a robust defence does ignore some of the book's visible failings, which I have hopefully sufficiently alluded to already. Having dispensed with the critique of both questionable style and inevitable reception, it remains to be said that Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close actually contains a story that is worth persisting for. The accumulating pace does credit to the narrator and the one thing you cannot deny Jonathan Safran Foer is that he manages to pull off the attachment of character depth on every occasion he attempts it. In this case, Oskar Schell is probably like no nine-year-old I have ever encountered but the author's gift for erecting a curious yet entirely believable backdrop remains as evident as ever. Even the parts that I personally found implausible, the gift for humour took over. Typically, historical parallels are thrown in for good measure and the idiosyncratic narration adds to the effect.
I wouldn't argue for one second that he has actually presented the world with 'an answer' but with Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Safran Foer has given his fans little reason to doubt his obvious prowess.
However, I will leave the last word to Karen Kirsch (of the venerable amazon.com reviews section), who will no doubt sum up the experience of many when she says:
" was a book that I didn't even want to lend to my best friend, but I did. When she returned it in pristine condition, I heaved a sign of relief and put it on my 'favorite books to keep' shelf. I will NEVER part with this book again and will re-read it many times over."
Despite deploying his considerable inventory of tools towards constructing a temporary field of vision for a nine-year-old boy, the book is as foible-driven as his debut and in that regard leaves little ground for disappointment should that have been what you came in for. Comparisons to Mark Haddon's Curious Incident of the Dog in Night Time, not least on the grounds of 'smugness', have and should be made.
In the case of Daren King's Tom Boler however, there could be no suggestion that the tools of imagination have not been deployed to full effect to construct a consistent, if not permanent, sense of almost hallucinogenic juvenility, albeit at a level of pre-adolescence. In doing so, King has managed over the course of his novels thus far to construct not only an entirely believable kidscape but one which suggests he possesses a little too much comprehension in that area. Furthermore, in what he constructs, perversion is never too far away and the innocent narration merely amplifies this.
Having allowed such affection for the ephemeral phase of childhood innocence to be captured through what could only be described as a thoroughly warped prism, the story unfolds at a satisfying pace as the eponymous narrator discovers his name was given to him as "a joke" and with that level of parental rectitude, his mother's departure is only a matter of time.
This novel will not only help eliminate the perception that King's first novel, Boxy an Star, was both a fluke in its success and faddish in its setting, but also mark him out as a keen writer for the post-Kureishi generation. King's ability to perform as a kooky stylist in his chosen genre brings him closer to the lyrics of a band like Ween than anything we're more accustomed to on the literary front. Again, as with his morbidly fascinating yet innocently concocted account of a sinister ghost giraffe only last year, on offer is a trip into that realm inhabited by the obscenely hilarious and outright preposterous. Yet the thoughtscape conceived by what appears to be the result of depleted serotonin levels still manages to remain persuasive without being outré for the sake of it. In its place alongside Boxy an Star, Tom Boler is both joyful and disturbing in its embrace of a return to innocence and identifies Daren King as the current flag-bearer for what passes for the English counterculture these days, especially when considered against the more laboured efforts of his peers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew Stevens is Co-Editor of 3AM and lives in London, England.