Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

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Ask a Book Question: #68 (Building a 21st Century Contemporary Fiction Syllabus)

Gene writes in with this question:I currently teach a high school English course called 21st Century Literature, and I’ve hit a bit of a block these last few weeks in trying to put together this year’s syllabus. We currently read Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, and Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao along with essays from the likes of David Foster Wallace (“E Unibus Pluram”) to Chuck Klosterman (“The Real World”). We also look at some popular TV shows, music, and films in an attempt to get the students to examine the world in which they live with something of a more “critical” eye.So. I’m trying to replace Fortress for this year’s class, partly because I update the syllabus every year and partly because it was the one last year’s students voted out. My problem, though, is that I haven’t read anything this year that has really blown me away. And so I turn to you, Millions, for some guidance. I’m currently considering Bock’s Beautiful Children, Ferris’ Then We Came To The End, Clarke’s An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, or possibly the new collection of essays State by State. My students are really intelligent, and so just about anything is fair game. What, then, would you add to the class to be read right after Eggers’ Heartbreaking Work?Five of our contributors weighed in.Edan: What a terrific course! Can I take it? Your syllabus thus far sounds pretty damn spectacular as is, so I’ve tried my best to come up with texts that fulfill a role that the other books haven’t. Of the four you’re considering teaching, I think State by State is the best, since it showcases so many great writers. While I enjoyed Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, I think a workplace narrative would be lost on most teenagers. Here are my suggestions:Willful Creatures: Stories by Aimee Bender or Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link: It might be fun to add some short fiction to the syllabus, and to improve the male-to-female author ratio. Of the many writers I introduced to my Oberlin students, Bender and Link were the biggest hits, perhaps for the magic and fantasy they inject into their odd and beautiful stories. Both writers provide excellent discussion fodder about the construction of reality, and about notions of genre in contemporary fiction.The Known World by Edward P. Jones: Still one of my favorite novels of all time, this is a historical novel about black slave owners in antebellum Virginia. It’s told in a sprawling omniscient voice, not a common point of view in these fragmented, solipsistic times. It might be interesting to compare this perspective to the more intimate first person narratives on the syllabus. Also, since your other texts take place in the time they’re written, it might be interesting to see how a contemporary writer depicts and manipulates the past.Look at Me by Jennifer Egan Published a few days before September 11th, this novel feels strangely prophetic. It also articulates, well before its time, the strange and complicated nature of online social networks like Facebook, certainly a topic of interest among high school students. The book tells two parallel narratives: one about a model whose face is unrecognizable after a car accident, and another about a teenage girl living in a long-dead industrial town in the Midwest. It’s equal parts beautiful, entertaining, satirical, and sad. This novel could inspire many fruitful discussions about identity, media, beauty, and representations of self.Andrew: Rawi Hage’s DeNiro’s Game is a tightly-written haunting jagged rush through the streets of war-torn Beirut in the 1980s. Now calling Montreal his home, Rawi Hage lived through the endless Lebanese civil war and writes this tale as a survival story, not a political polemic. The protagonists are ordinary young Lebanese guys – where ordinary means bombed-out homes, militias, snipers and rubble. No longer children, but not quite adults, Bassam and George flex their muscles amid the smoke and dust of a city that has been prodded and beaten by any group with a big enough stick.Winner of the 2008 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and short-listed for countless major awards up here in Canada, Hage’s debut novel throws the reader into a part of the world in the not-so-distant past that he likely has only seen from news images, and he gives these images human dimensions. This is a harrowing story of brutal youth.Emily: Although I wouldn’t say it blew me away, I submit Keith Gessen’s All The Sad Young Literary Men as a possible addition to your 21st century lit syllabus – not least because I think I would have found such a book personally useful had something like it been recommended it to me in high school. Its depiction of the social and intellectual chaos and disappointments of college and the post-college decade for three bright, ambitious, politically serious young men manages – oh, as I feared it might (for so many sad young literary men do) – not to take itself or its characters too seriously. Not that Gessen trivializes or denies the pains of his three protagonists, but he is exquisitely aware of the absurdities idealism and ambition sometimes fall into – particularly among the young. The character Sam is my favorite example of this: he aspires to write to great Zionist epic and has managed to get an advance from a publisher toward this end, but he does not speak Hebrew, has never been to Israel, and is a little bit fuzzy on Israeli history and politics. His best claim to the project is his extensive collection of fiery Jewish girlfriends. Like his fellow protagonists, Keith and Mark, Sam seems more delighted by the idea of literary accomplishment for himself than able to sit down and produce the stunning epic of the Jewish people that he imagines and more hungry for fame than to write his book (“Fame – fame was the anti-death. But it seemed to slither from his grasp, seemed to giggle and retreat, seemed to hide behind a huge oak tree and make fake farting sounds with its hands.”).Gessen has a particularly deft touch with juxtaposition – almost zeugma perhaps? – in his plotting and narration. The personal and the political – the sublime and the ridiculous – are cheek by jowl and often confused: Keith’s desire to sleep with the vice president’s daughter (who is in his class at Harvard and dating his roommate) is bound up with his desire for the vice president himself (Gore) to win the presidential election; For Sam, his intellectual work and his personal life are strangely aligned such that “refreshed by his summation of the Holocaust, Sam decided to put the rest of his life in order” and instead of wrestling with his genuine artistic problem (his inability to write his epic), he becomes crazily obsessed, instead, with his shrinking Google. I suspect that we will see better work from Gessen in the years to come, but for its humor, its pathos, and its willness to depict (and deftness in depicting) the humiliations and vagueries of early adulthood, I think it’s an excellent choice (particularly since among your students there are, I imagine, some present and future sad young literary men).Garth: This is sounds like a great class. I wish I’d had you as a teacher! One of the implicit challenges of answering the question is the tension between the need to appeal to high schoolers and the search for formal innovation. These two are not mutually exclusive; I vividly remember falling in love with Infinite Jest as a high-schooler. Still, some of the aesthetic strategies that separate contemporary writers from the hoary old 1900s (which are so last century) come at the cost of emotional immediacy. some of my favorite works of 21st Century fiction – Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai; Kathryn Davis’ The Thin Place; Lydia Davis’ Varieties of Disturbance; Aleksandar Hemon’s The Question of Bruno – may be a little too cerebral for high schoolers.I thought of several adventurous novels which are less formally pluperfect (in my opinion), but which might make a stronger appeal to this age group. Chief among them are Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital, Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.Though I didn’t care for Beautiful Children, and suspect teenagers would see through its outdated assessment of youth culture, Then We Came to the End has an appealing warmth and good humor, as well as a fascinating first-person-plural voice. Ultimately, though, the two “21st Century” books I can most imagine teaching to high-schoolers are George Saunders’ Pastoralia (2000) and Paul Beatty’s The White-Boy Shuffle (1996).Max: Sounds like putting together the syllabus is a fun job. It’s interesting that the students didn’t like Fortress as much. I think I would agree with them on that. Though it was certainly an ambitious and at times entertaining book, I think it falls apart in the second half. I haven’t read Motherless Brooklyn, but I know it seems to have many more fans than Fortress.Thinking about short story collections, you could hardly go wrong with Edward P. Jones’s two collections – Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children – Jones’s stories are terrific and offer a perspective that is quite different from Chabon, Lethem, and the rest of the Brooklyn crowd. Also, Jones’s The Known World is to my mind maybe the best novel of the last 20 years. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and Atonement by Ian McEwan also strike me as solid candidates, with the latter offering a unique and satisfying “reveal” at the end that changes how the reader thinks about the books structure (assuming your students haven’t already seen the film which, anyway, does the book a disservice in trying to render a purely literary twist via the language of Hollywood.)Gene, thanks for the question and please let us know what you select. Millions readers, please offer your suggestions in the comments below.

What people are reading

I spent a lot of time on the el yesterday riding all over Chicago, and there were lots of folks reading books. When you actually look at what people read, you realize that the reading habits of average folks range far beyond the coverage of newspaper book sections. In terms of what actually gets read, genre fiction certainly seems more popular than literary fiction. Here are the books people were reading on the red, purple, and brown lines yesterday.The Tristan Betrayal (a posthumous effort by Robert Ludlum that inspires PW to say “Perhaps it’s time to let the master rest in peace.”)Five Quarters of the Orange (Joanne Harris’ follow-up to Johnny Depp-vehicle Chocolat)Dutch II (part 2 of a trilogy by Teri Woods – and put out by Teri Woods Publishing – that scores an Amazon ranking of 1,229)Devil in the White City (I think every resident of Chicago has read Erik Larson’s account of murder at the World’s Fair.)Great Expectations (I love it when I see people reading classic novels on the el – it can restore ones faith in society, I think)Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Jonathan Safran Foer is reaching the masses!)Hotel Pastis (Peter Mayle’s “novel of Provence”)Sense and Sensibility (Jane Austen never goes out of style)Deception Point (The obligatory Dan Brown thriller – law requires that at least one Dan Brown novel be present in every train car and a dozen on every airplane.)Elantris (PW says: “[Brandon] Sanderson’s outstanding fantasy debut, refreshingly complete unto itself and free of the usual genre cliches.”)Lana: The Lady, the Legend, the Truth (Lana Turner never goes out of style either)We Thought You Would Be Prettier (Laurie Notaro’s “true tales of the dorkiest girl alive” – ranked 1,446 on Amazon)

Book to movie news

Scott Rudin the Hollywood producer known for bringing adaptations of contemporary literature to the silver screen – he was responsible for Wonder Boys and The Hours, for example – may be on his way out at Paramount. This means that several forthcoming literary adaptations could be in jeopardy, including big screen versions of three new books: Ian McEwan’s Saturday, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. Farther along in their development are The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon and, of course, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Though adaptations can be a risky proposition, I do hope that some of these end up getting made if only to satisfy my curiosity. Here’s the story from the Hollywood Reporter.

Upcoming Books: Daniel Alarcon, Shalom Auslander, Tash Aw, Frederic Beigbeder

There’s some interesting fiction hitting stores in the next few weeks. Here are some to look for.You may remember Daniel Alarcon’s story “City of Clowns” from the summer 2003 debut fiction issue of the New Yorker (it also appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2004. Now the story, about a newspaperman in Lima, will anchor a debut collection called War by Candlelight. According to HarperCollins the collection “takes the reader from Third World urban centers to the fault lines that divide nations and people.” If you want to sample more of Alarcon’s writing try “The Anodyne Dreams of Various Imbeciles,” originally published in The Konundrum Engine Literary Review or you can enjoy this musing about the Mall of America at AlterNet.Another debut collection coming in April is Shalom Auslander’s Beware of God. In a recent review at small spiral notebook, Katie Weekly compares Auslander’s writing to that of Philip Roth and Woody Allen, but goes on to say: “Unlike the angst-ridden, often cynical work of Roth or Allen, Auslander’s stories are more observational, sometimes magical and always humorous.” (err… don’t know if I’d describe Woody Allen as angst-ridden, but anyway…) If that sounds like something you’d be into, I highly recommend you listen to Act 3 of this recent episode of “This American Life,” in which Auslander reads his story “The Blessing Bee.” If you like that you can read another story from the collection, “The War of the Bernsteins,” here.The Harmony Silk Factory, the debut novel by 25-year-old Malaysian author Tash Aw has been compared to The English Patient in the British press. The book takes place in Malaysia in the first part of the 20th century, and centers around the textile factory that gives its name to the novel. The book is already creating a generous amount of buzz on both sides of the Atlantic including being chosen as one of Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers selections for 2005.As this recent article in USA Today discussed, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close isn’t the only novel to deal with 9/11 that’s coming out this spring. French author Frederic Beigbeder’s Windows on the World takes place in the final hours of the restaurant of the same name. The book is actually two years old and was very successful when it first came out in France, debuting at number two on the French bestseller list. The early reviews are good, with Publishers Weekly describing the book as “on all levels, a stunning read.” Still, the subject matter may be too wrenching for American readers. Beigbeder acknowledges in the Author’s Note that he altered the English version of the book slightly because he was concerned that the book was “more likely to wound” than he intendedStay tuned. I’ll be posting about more forthcoming books soon.

Foer Excerpt Up

Houghton Mifflin has posted a long excerpt of Jonathan Safran Foer’s forthcoming book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Amazon also has the excerpt up.) And, well, I don’t quite know what to say about it. Have a look. You’ll see. It’s a long, furious stream of consciousness – the warp speed thought process of the 8-year-old, genius protagonist, Oskar – with a punch in the gut finale. It seems that this book is sure to produce a frenzy among critics and readers when it comes out in April, but it’s too early to know whether that frenzy will be positive or negative. On Neal Pollack’s blog, the quality of the excerpt and the book’s use of 9/11 as a plot point are already being debated.

Murakami movie and more

A Japanese movie based on the Haruki Murakami story “Tony Takitani” will get a US release this summer, according to this report. The film will have its North American debut at Sundance this Sunday. Meanwhile the Village Voice says Murakami’s new book Kafka on the Shore “is so strange that even its chestnuts take on an air of mystery.”An excerpt from Campo Santo, a travelogue of Corsica by the late WG Sebald, is up at the Guardian. The book will be out in the US in March.I’m still curious about the two novels coming out this year that will have illustrated or photographic components: Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. How will these illustrative elements be presented? Will they add to or take away from the reading experience? A blogger reading the German translation of Queen Loana describes the book as “over 500 densely printed pages sprinkled through with images, reproductions of art, old magazine covers, pictures of everyday household objects from the 30s and 40s, etc., etc. Basically, a sort of menagerie of Eco’s childhood.” For what it’s worth, 137 pages in, she isn’t very impressed with the book. I know that review copies of Extremely Loud are circulating, so maybe we’ll hear more about that one soon.

Quick Notes: Zadie Smith and Jonathan Safran Foer

In the comments of the last post, Laura asked about a new novel by Zadie Smith called On Beauty. There’s no release date yet for the US, but I suspect it will be close to the UK date, which has been set for September. The Guardian has described it as “a transatlantic comic saga,” but I haven’t seen anything else regarding the subject matter. Smith is also writing a musical about based on the life of Kafka with her husband Nick Laird as well as a non-fiction book called Fail Better that will come out in 2006.Of all the books mentioned in my preview post, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close seems to be generating the most excitement. Among those excited is my mom, who was inspired to dig up some links to some old interviews with and articles about Foer. These may help you pass the time until his new book comes out: an interview with Robert Birnbaum at identitytheory.com, an interview with Decode Magazine and a profile in The Jewish Journal.UPDATE: Found this story when reading back through the archives at Conversational Reading. It asks when America’s fiction writers will take on the subject of 9/11. While I think it’s an odd request — I’ve never been under the assumption that fiction writers are expected to pen novels ripped from the headlines — we will soon have such a book: Foer’s new novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. From Houghton Mifflin’s description of the book: “Oskar Schell is an inventor, Francophile, tambourine player, Shakespearean actor, jeweler, pacifist. He is nine years old. And he is on an urgent, secret search through the five boroughs of New York to find the lock that fits a mysterious key belonging to his father, who died in the attacks on the World Trade Center.”

The Most Anticipated Books of 2005

Now that all the 2004 best of lists are behind us, I thought folks might be interested in what we have to look forward to. I have no doubt that in 2005 we will be introduced to many new literary faces, but there are also a number of well-known authors whose books will hit shelves this year: Murakami, McEwan, Foer, and more. So, I’ve compiled a list of books that you may find yourself reading this year. The list goes through July; some of the release dates are rough estimates, and a few of the dates will probably change. Also, I’m sure there are books I’ve missed, so please leave a comment with any other books you might be looking forward to this year.There’s a passel of intriguing books coming out in January. Hitting stores any day now is William Boyd’s latest collection of stories, Fascination. This one has been out in the UK for a couple of months, and the Gaurdian described Boyd’s stories this way: “They would seem a little too perfect if they weren’t also suffused with an understanding of love, desire and emotional incompetence.” You can read an excerpt here. Next week sees the arrival of Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland. The New York Times isn’t impressed, calling it “a high-art twist on chick lit,” but the Boston Globe says the book “remains as thoughtful and melancholy as the Beatles song its title evokes.” You can read an excerpt here (pdf). Then, on or around January 18th, comes a book that many readers have been looking forward to: Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. This one’s been out for a while in the UK, too. Kafka is not a departure from Murakami’s surreal oeuvre. The book follows the parallel paths of 15-year-old runaway named Kafka and Nakata, an elderly bumpkin who can communicate with cats. According to initial reviews, the book doesn’t seem likely to be considered his finest work, but it should please Murakami fans. I encourage you to take a look at the Kafka page at the Complete Review for all the review coverage, and if you would like to read the first five chapters of the book, go here, click on the contest link, fill out your info, and use the password “kafka.”February: In 1990 Charles Johnson won a National Book Award for his book Middle Passage. Since then he has written a novel and a collection of short stories, and on February 8, a new collection, Dr. King’s Refrigerator, will be released. A Publishers Weekly review says that some of the stories are too didactic, but “Johnson’s longer, more carefully fleshed out stories are most effective.”March: Francine Prose’s A Changed Man, which will be out March 1, looks very intriguing. An early review by Publishers Weekly describes this story of a young neo-Nazi who walks into a human rights organization office wanting to change his ways as “a good-natured satire of liberal pieties, the radical right and the fund-raising world.” It will be interesting to see if this book proves to be, as HarperCollins declares, “Prose’s most accomplished yet.” Given the astonishing success of Ian McEwan’s Atonement in 2002, his follow-up effort, a novel called Saturday, may be the most anticipated work of fiction in 2005. A recent piece in the New Yorker which was taken from the new novel shows promise. The central character of the novel, Harry Perowne, is a confident but unconventional neurosurgeon whose altercation with a thug following a car accident is the catalyst that sets the plot inexorably in motion. You can read the excerpt here. Look for the book on March 22. After writing a book as massive as Rising Up and Rising Down (that’s 3352 pages, by the way), you’d think William T. Vollmann would take a break. Apparently not. On March 24, Viking will release Vollmann’s latest collection of short stories, Europe Central, which take place in Russia and Germany during World War II. The breadth of Vollmann’s work is truly astounding.April: Buoyed by the success of his Boston Red Sox book (co-written by fellow fan Stephen King), Stewart O’Nan is probably hoping that some of those baseball fans will become fans of his fiction. His new novel, The Good Wife, comes out on April 1. O’Nan also considered calling this novel Upstate, a reference to the incarcerated husband of the book’s protagonist. Everything I read about Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, makes me more and more curious. Among young, bright writers who have emerged in the last couple of years, Foer is probably the youngest and may be the brightest as well. His first novel, Everything Is Illuminated included narration in broken English, and his short story “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease” did things with typography that I haven’t seen done in fiction before. The new book – set to arrive on April 4 – will continue with this sort of experimentation, including the use of photography to illustrate the novel. There’s an interesting interview available at this website where Foer goes into detail about the new book (You have to click on the Foer link and then on Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to get to it, but it’s worth the trouble). After a five year hiatus, Kazuo Ishiguro has a new book coming out on April 5. The new book, called Never Let Me Go, is about an English boarding school with a troubled, but until now forgotten, past. You can read an excerpt here.May: All the dedicated (some might say rabid) Chuck Palahniuk fans out there will be pleased to hear that he has a new book coming out this year (his official fan site is known as “The Cult,” by the way). Haunted is a novel in 23 stories. Each story centers on a visitor to a writers’ retreat where things, inexorably, go awry. I say it sounds like an update on the classic summer camp horror flick, but Doubleday describes it as “The Real World meets Alive.” Look for it May 17.June: Paul Theroux’s latest work of fiction is about “the ultimate one-book wonder.” For such a prolific writer, with a new novel or travelogue out nearly every year it seems, I wonder if creating this character was a struggle for Theroux, if he was able to get into the mind of a man with writer’s block, something I suspect Theroux is not often afflicted with. The book is called Blinding Light. It will be released on June 1. Apparently Jonathan Safran Foer isn’t the only literary stylist coming out with an illustrated novel in 2005. Umbarto Eco’s new novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana will be of the illustrated variety as well. According to the Harcourt publicity, the memories “racing before the eyes [of the book’s amnesiac protagonist] take the form of a graphic novel.” No word on who supplied the artwork — or if it was Eco himself, but the book has been out in Europe since last year so I suppose someone knows the answer. Here are some thoughts on the book from a blogger who read the German translation. The book comes out on June 3. George Singleton’s forthcoming novel — titled Novel — is the only debut novel on this list, but Singleton is already well-known by readers who enjoy his comic stories and Southern charm. You can read one of his short stories here. The new book, which is set to come out on June 6, is about a snake handler from the town of Gruel, South Carolina.July: John Irving isn’t quite the superstar novelist he once was. Irving’s novels — The World According to Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Hotel New Hampshire — were my introduction to contemporary literary fiction, and he was my first real “favorite author.” But the middling quality of his recent novels, each one more mediocre than the last, ill-timed remarks about who should or should not pay taxes, and his dalliances with Hollywood have lost him some of his fans. Still, he keeps writing novels, and maybe this next one, Until I Find You (about a son’s search through the tattoo underworld for his ink-addicted father), will be a return to form. The book comes out on July 12.And if these aren’t enough for you check out preview articles from The Herald, The Age (reg. req.), the Boston Globe, and the Guardian. Happy reading in 2k5.

Forthcoming Foer

I found an interesting interview with Jonathan Safran Foer today. I’ll be including this in an upcoming post about books to look forward to this year, but I wanted to post it separately first because I think it’s pretty interesting, and I can’t recall seeing it posted anywhere else. In the interview he talks about his forthcoming novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which will include photography along with the text, and which seems to be a continuation of the rule-breaking, avant-garde style he has been cultivating. The rest of the interview provides an interesting picture of this young author. The only annoying thing is that the interview is kind of hard to get to. First go to this link, click on Foer and then click on “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.”

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