Tuesday, April 27, 2010

For Kids of All Ages, pt. 2: High Water Everywhere

"If a kid asks where rain comes from, I think a cute thing to tell him is 'God is crying.' And if he asks why God is crying, another cute thing to tell him is 'Probably because of something you did.'" -- Jack Handey, Deep Thoughts

Let's be honest: children are narcissists. They cry when they don't get their way. They throw temper tantrums. They pout. They shriek on the subway, they bawl on the bus, and god forbid you get seated next to one on an airplane. For a child, it's almost impossible to understand that his own emotional state (sorrow over a lost toy, excitement over a trip to the zoo, righteous indignation over a broken promise) is not permeating the atmosphere and affecting everyone he encounters. Conversely, when it rains on the day of a picnic, or refuses to snow come Christmastime, or when the weather outside takes another, darker turn, children turn inward; they use magical thinking to figure these indifferent external events into a personal narrative: God is angry with me, Santa knows what I did. The journey to maturity is, in part, a growing understanding that other people have their own inner lives, as intense and complex and consuming as one's own -- and that the things that happen in the world do not only happen to you.

In my last post, I talked about the genre of the Young Adult novel, and how for me that differs from a novel that's simply about young people (i.e., a bildungsroman or "coming-of-age"). I think that the central distinguishing factor between the YA and coming-of-age novels is that, in the coming-of-age novel, the child's narcissism at some point collides meaningfully with a world inhabited by others. And I don't mean a wise old baba who pops up in every few chapters to deliver homespun wisdom, or the bully at school who serves as an inexplicable thunderbolt of in-scene tension, or the Good Teacher who sees the narrator's potential. I mean other real characters, ones with motivations and drives and faults that have nothing to do with the journey our hero is on -- ones who could just as easily be the focus of a novel of their own. For just one example, in Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, three characters (sisters Ruth and Lucille and their aunt Sylvie) tug in opposing directions: what each one wants is understandable, but mutually exclusive to the desires of the others. In negotiating her relationships with her aunt and sister, Ruth, for all her dreamy self-absorption, is forced to enter a realm where other people's loneliness, grief, and obsessions share equal time with her own.

For all its strengths, and there are many, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close does not share this quality, not ever but especially not at the end. And I'm going to sound the SPOILER ALERT right now, because much of what I have to say about the book relates to that ending, a ridiculous, saccharine, cop-out of a twist, which I found to be an M. Night Shyamalan-level betrayal of everything genuinely poignant or intriguing about the book that preceded it.

The set-up of Foer's novel is ingeniously simple. Oskar Schell, a nine-year-old Manhattanite, loses his father in the WTC attacks on September 11. In his grief, he discovers a key in his father's closet inside a small envelope with the word "Black" written on it in red ink. Since his father always set challenges for him, Oskar decides in mournful desperation this is one last mystery for him to solve. He sets out to find the lock that matches the key by visiting everyone with the last name of "Black" in the NY metro area. With an unlimited supply of cab fare and a shell-shocked mother who barely seems to notice his comings and goings, he embarks on a quest that takes him to all five boroughs (though, with typical New Yorker chauvinism, never to Jersey).

To me, the brilliance of this concept is that it inherently suggests a gap between the child's point of view and the harshness of reality. Oskar behaves as though he's living in The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, but the New York he actually inhabits isn't cute or charming: it's dangerous, a place where terrorists fly airplanes out of a clear blue sky and fucking kill everyone. This reality, telegraphed from the first chapter on, inflects Oskar's imaginings with a kind of manic optimism, a naivete that feels more longed-for than actual: "Sometimes I think it would be weird if there were a skyscraper that moved up and down while its elevator stayed in place... that could be extremely useful, because if you're on the ninety-fifth floor and a plane hits below you, the building could take you to the ground," he observes on the third page. Oskar is not just a child, but a child clinging on to childhood, a precarious situation that sets us up with an immediate source of tension. As he rings the doorbells of total strangers, we're frightened not just for his personal safety (though certainly that too), but also for the last scraps of his innocence.

And yet, as we move through the chapters, it becomes, weirdly enough, clearer and clearer that Oskar has nothing to fear -- that his naivete is right on the money and that his fears and distrust are actually what he needs to shed. The Blacks he meets are charmingly gruff at worst, but mostly indie-flick quirky, with life lessons to share. One of them, his upstairs neighbor, a 103 year-old war reporter, even joins him on his quest; the old dude tromps gamely around the city until he dies, out of sight, from health problems that fortunately haven't hindered him from acting as Oskar's sherpa for the last hundred pages. It's his time to go, natch: Oskar bringing him back into the world is "the greatest thing anyone could have done," and now, thanks to the kid, he's finally ready to close up shop.

There's an eerie feeling about the encounters with these Blacks, who seem to spring into existence solely for Oskar's therapeutic benefit: only one of them, a woman he meets at the top of the Empire State Building, is a literal tour guide, but the others are like tour guides too, displaying museums of their lives, relating life philosophies and stories of grief that, curiously, seem to relate directly to Oskar's quest. Some of these interludes are undeniably entertaining -- Sherpa Black's card catalogue system, which sums up the lives of the important (and mostly dead) with one word each ("Who's Marilyn Monroe?" "Sex!") had me laughing out loud. But there's something about the book that reminded me of the profoundly creepy film The Truman Show, even before I reached the end.

I thought it was a question of authorial contrivance, but in fact, this contrivance is part of the plot. All along, you probably thought Mama Schell was dealing with her own grief, losing herself in a new romance, or maybe just getting an eensy bit drunk, but, wise to the little one's plans, she's actually been orchestrating this journey all along! She's phoned each Black in advance, to make sure they had cookies waiting and, presumably, didn't have a criminal record, and she even knows the ultimate solution of the mystery: the second Black he visited called with the big reveal just after he left her house, and good old mom picked up the phone. "My search was a play that Mom had written, and she knew the ending when I was at the beginning," Oskar relates. There was no danger all along.

There's so much that annoys me about this that it's tough to know where to start, but here's the gist: it's not just that this ending retroactively undercuts the dramatic tension of the entire novel. It's that it also simplifies the only other potentially complicated character, Oskar's mother, into just one more good-guy babysitter among many. Even if a lot of her story takes place off the page, a mother so bewildered in the wake of her husband's death that she literally loses track of her son makes for a truly poignant, disturbing, and believable character, and one peculiarly appropriate to a 9/11 novel. After all, in the confusion and despair following the national tragedy, a lot of authority figures in this country seemed to drop the ball on their responsibilities. Instead, Oskar's mother, like everyone else in the book, exists just to heal him, and to keep him "safe."

"Safe" is an important word when describing this novel, and not just because it's the last word in the book. Since the adults here have no driving motivations, take no significant actions, they're about as threatening as imaginary friends. The other part of the story, which I've so far omitted from this summary, has to do with Oskar's grandparents, survivors of the Dresden firebombing. His elective-mute grandpa and his grandma -- who pretends to be blind so she can type a "memoir" of entirely blank pages -- exist in an overlong parable of passivity. They serve entirely as a cautionary tale about how one mustn't be afraid to love, even when one has lost before. (And, like Oskar's mom, they prepare their story intentionally for the edification of their son and grandson, with second person "you" references throughout.) Yet in this part of the story, as in Oskar's, there's something missing: the problem of evil.

This is not what actually happened.

September 11 wasn't an accident; neither was the Dresden firebombing or Hiroshima (also featured here) or for that matter, the Holocaust or the Iraq War. They were awful, cruel, intentionally destructive acts that human beings committed against other human beings. And, although I don't think any novel needs to take a dark view of humankind, I do think that a novel that makes use of these tragedies needs to in some way account for them, to figure them into its picture of the world. In my last post, I wrote about how the adults in a true YA novel can't be fallible, because then the sense of order, necessary for the hero's safe return to the world of childhood, would be thrown out of whack. And in that sense, the primary thing that adults can't be in this novel is angry.

The catastrophes of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close have victims by the truckload: men, women, children, zoo animals. But what they don't have, and what they could never have in the world of this novel, are perpetrators. No one here is violent, or capable of violence. When attacked, these characters turn inward. They become isolated, sad, numb, nostalgic, and then ultimately, they become wise. They don't become militant, and they don't want revenge. Christlike, they endure, and thus, Christlike, they eventually rise from the ashes unscathed and blameless. Their biggest regret is falling out of love with the world and temporarily losing their sense of childlike wonder. Fundamentally selfless, their only hope is that the next generation will learn from their mistakes.

This is an appealing view of human nature, but it's also one that doesn't make any sense in light of the events of the novel -- that is, unless you take the child-narcissist's view. September 11 happened in reality, a mass violence by some people on others that led to misguided retaliation and two wars' worth of gruesome, still-continuing bloodshed. That is unfathomably horrifying, and the questions it raises are unanswerable. But, if like everything else in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, we saw September 11 as something that happened to Oskar Schell to teach him difficult but beautiful truths about life... well, that would make a lot more sense, wouldn't it? As much as it might upset a child to think that God is crying because of something he did, the truth of the matter is even more disturbing: that though the water is rising, the rain doesn't have anything to do with him at all.

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