This Week's Reads

Jonathan Safran Foer, Åsne Seierstad, Jonathan Wilson, and Mary Guterson.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

By Jonathan Safran Foer (Houghton Mifflin, $24.95) Will this interesting (but flawed) second novel join its flawed (but interesting) predecessor, Everything Is Illuminated, on the list of literary smash hits, cementing the 28-year-old Foer's reputation? At minimum, Extremely Loud is more deftly executed than Everything Is Illuminated—the writing is stronger and more precise, and the characters more visceral. The story is pretty good, too, though it borrows a lot from the more original Illuminated. Both novels use dueling past-present narratives; both make heavy use of the epistolary form; and both feature a young hero in search of important familial truths. Here, it's 9-year-old Oskar Schell's quest to understand the loss of his father, Thomas, in the 9/11 attacks. After he finds a key stashed in his late father's closet, he resolves to scour New York for the matching lock—one of 162 million, he estimates. He begins by making house calls, starting at the beginning of the phone book. The impossibility of this pursuit never occurs to Oskar, who believes that when he finds the lock, the pain of his father's death will somehow be undone. Oskar is engaging from the start, a precocious wisecracker. He writes incessantly to Weird Al Yankovic, Jane Goodall, and Dr. Stephen Hawking. He invents life-saving devices like the bird-seed shirt, in case you need to be airlifted from a burning building, and a microphone pill that, when swallowed, plays your heartbeat through little speakers. Oskar's curiosity and creative spirit—his joie de vivre—set up a tragic irony, since most of his energy is spent grappling with his father's death. Oskar's relationship with his father is the novel's powerful imaginative center. In one flashback, Thomas tells Oskar the beautiful urban fable of the Sixth Borough, the lost island of New York City that floated away before Oskar was born. But Foer's virtuosity has deepened to include serious realism, too, as when Oskar accuses his mother (wrongly) of not having loved his father—dead two years now—and of dishonoring his memory by hanging out with her innocuous friend Ron. Yet for all its good qualities, you can still feel the book straining to avoid being outshined by its own forebear. Its blustery title, use of 9/11 as a defining event, and nonstop textual and typographical acrobatics—some pages have only one sentence, others have none, still others slam together so many that the page turns black—do little more than trumpet the book's insecurities ("am I loud enough, smart enough, experimental enough?"). This bells-and-whistles approach is what gives literary experimentation a bad name. Anyone can mess around with white space. Foer might've devoted some of that effort to plain old revision. The novel's supporting narrative—a lengthy series of letters written by Oskar's grandparents recounting their unhappy lives after fleeing World War II Germany—simply doesn't work at all. Their language is drab, unconvincing, and cliché-ridden ("if I were able to live my life again, I would do things differently"), and their only qualities are negatives: lost family, muteness, blindness, and doubt. In the end, it's not clear what their story has added, other than about 100 pages. Still, Oskar's comparatively lively voice is so entertaining that you don't mind plowing through the weaker sections to get back to it. It's too bad the book ends with a clunk. Foer goofs by substituting a potboiler finish for the metaphysics he's previously taken such pains to articulate—where loss remains a mystery without a logical solution. Presto! The turning of a key simply undoes the painful, murky enigma of death. Luckily, Oskar is there to save his creator yet again: It's not the mechanics of the novel you remember, but the resonant voice of its sad young narrator. DAVID SARNO Jonathan Safran Foer will appear at Richard Hugo House (1634 11th Ave., 206-322-7030), 4 p.m. Thurs., April 21; and later that evening with local novelist Charles D'Amrosio at Chop Suey (1325 E. Madison St., 206- 324-8000; 21 and over), 8 p.m., followed by DJ and dancing. A Hundred and One Days

By Åsne Seierstad (Perseus, $22.95) Liberation, invasion, occupation— whatever you want to call it, the Iraq war has officially turned two. (Contain your ambivalence, please.) With the chaos, bloodshed, and occasional glimmers of hope have come more than a few books. Fortunately, a growing number of writers are kicking ideological axes to the curb in favor of comprehensive reporting. Jon Lee Anderson's The Fall of Baghdad comes to mind, as does Evan Wright's Generation Kill. Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad's Days is a well-meant step in this direction. It privileges ordinary Iraqis to geopolitics; if the word "neoconservative" appears in these pages, it does so quietly. Seierstad (The Bookseller of Kabul) is a veteran war correspondent who cut her teeth in Chechnya, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. She stayed in Baghdad from January of 2003 through May of that year corresponding for several Scandinavian newspapers and TV networks. Seierstad's stated aim was to try and cover the war through basic muckraking: "to find dissidents, a secret uprising, gagged intellectuals . . . to point out human rights violations, expose oppression." Mostly she writes about how hard it is to report with a Baathist media minder in tow. In other contexts, this might seem like excessive shoptalk. And yet to witness how a regime suppresses truth and institutionalizes its falsehoods is to understand a dictatorship in all its paranoid and delusional glory. For example, when the intrepid Seierstad asks her Ministry of Information escort questions about civil war between Sunnis and Shias, she's met with blanket denial. The regime's reality problem leads to scenes of 1984-ish inanity. When the author happens upon Iraqi soldiers waiting to be treated at a hospital, a bewildered doctor denies they're soldiers. As Seierstad learns, Iraqi troops know not from casualties. They don't exist. War is peace. Freedom is slavery. . . . Seierstad hustles to hospitals and bombing sites where civilian casualties are raw and undeniable. But her stories aren't unified by central characters, nor by an overarching analysis or theme. What's left are pulpish installments rendered in a mawkish staccato voice evoking the improbable collision of Maeve Binchy and a weary Associated Press editor. A lot's happened since Seierstad left Iraq. The capture of Saddam, Abu Ghraib, the growth of the insurgency, Iraq's elections. A follow-up trip might have added a touch of continuity or a dose of relevance. Ultimately, Days leaves you wondering not about the Iraqi people but why the book can't make you care. When we think of becoming desensitized, TV news is often the first locus of pointed fingers. Odd that a well-meaning book can do the job of a thousand droning sound bites. JOHN DICKER Åsne Seierstad will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Mon., April 25. An Ambulance Is on the Way: Stories of Men in Trouble

By Jonathan Wilson (Pantheon, $21) Maybe it's because men die sooner, but most of the narrators in this slim story collection have to endure all sorts of medical indignities: being poked and prodded, X-rayed and examined, made to feel—with justification—that their flesh has betrayed them long before the spirit fails. What's left? Busy wives, bored and independent children, plus the occasional friend who calls out of the blue to compare misfortunes. The ambulance can't come fast enough. Jonathan Wilson (A Palestine Affair) makes no attempt to disguise the midlife theme to what might be considered a companion volume to the movie Sideways. In "Dead Ringers," a guy hates how his FM station makes him feel old: "He wanted desperately to be with the rap and rock listeners, to eschew the endless loop of James Taylor and Fleetwood Mac." A father drags his teen son to Jamaica's Bob Marley museum in "Fat Twins," trying to bond when the kid just wants to get laid. In the title story, longest and best among the 11, a guy goes to the doctor, considers the Holocaust, deals with squirrels in his attic, gets driven out of the house by his wife's book group—now so debased that it becomes "an object group" ("Who reads books anymore?")—and ruminates on his father's death. Mortality presses on every side in the leafy Massachusetts suburbs; the small and the infinite jostle for attention. Wilson's effective, unshowy prose helps level out the big questions and trivial annoyances faced here. His protagonists—including one woman, in the first-person "Fundamentals"—don't really distinguish between such extremes. They're thoughtless and philosophical in equal measure. Drug smugglers, cops, and even terrorists circle Wilson's cul-de-sac; these peripheral dangers signal death among the elms. In "Sons of God," the newly religious narrator muses, "On account of 9/11, the entire nation was crossing its fingers every time it crossed the street. The fundamentalists had returned us to fundamentals." By the time we get to Jerusalem, in Wilson's final story, the insular suburbs have been expanded into something almost sublime. BRIAN MILLER We Are All Fine Here

By Mary Guterson (Little, Brown, $18.95) First, to acknowledge the elephant in the room: Mary Guterson is the sister of that Guterson, best-selling author and Bainbridge Island scribe made good. Readers who approach We Are All Fine Here expecting rugged wholesomeness and valedictory descriptions of landscape, however, will be either disappointed or thrilled; Guterson's debut is as acerbic, blunt, and interior as her brother's fiction is thoughtful, atmospheric, and slow. Unenthusiastically married to decent, plodding Jim and herself underemployed as a "para-educator" in a middle-school resource room, Guterson's heroine, Julia, has never stopped carrying a torch for her college love, the charming and infuriating Ray. When he calls, Julia still jumps—jumps, in fact, into bed. Even though she's pushing 40 and already has a surly teenage son, Julia later discovers that she's pregnant, and she's not sure whether Ray or Jim is the father. Studded with lists, "relationship tests," and breezy, unpunctuated dialogue, Guterson's jittery prose can read like standard-issue chick lit. The resemblance, however, is superficial; Guterson's jokes are darker, her heroine less sympathetic. In fact, Julia verges on downright unlikable. "Isn't that really every woman's fantasy?" she muses. "That her husband would die and leave her everything and she wouldn't have to go through a messy divorce and also wouldn't have to live with him forever and put up with doing his laundry and dealing with his parents, and cooking things with no dairy products for every meal because he's goddamn lactose-intolerant?" As a teacher, Julia finds her charges obnoxious and smelly; and as a mother, she's reconciled herself to a job badly done. Fortunately, she's funny, too, and the book is so well paced that the reader watches Julia grow less brittle and more human without quite knowing that's what's going on. When the action takes an unexpectedly moving turn in the book's final pages, her family's tentative rapprochement is all the more poignant because it's played close to the chest. They may not in fact be all fine here, but they're as close as most of us get. MARY PARK

 
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