By Jonathan Safran Foer
Teaser from Amazon:
Nine-year-old Oskar Schell has embarked on an urgent, secret mission that will take him through the five boroughs of New York. His goal is to find the lock that matches a mysterious key that belonged to his father, who died in the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11. This seemingly impossible task will bring Oskar into contact with survivors of all sorts on an exhilarating, affecting, often hilarious, and ultimately healing journey.
If you saw my preview to this review (posted last week), you know that I have never read a novel about September 11, 2001. I have waited a long time to see a novel that might describe something--anything--about those events in an accurate way, and I think that Jonathan Safran Foer's novel comes as close as possible. Because how do you really describe something like 9/11? No, I wasn't in New York City. I am not a New Yorker. But that doesn't mean that that day didn't have a profound impact on my life.
And I remember almost everything about "the worst day," as Foer describes it. I remember my mother waking me up, saying that a plane had struck one of the Twin Towers. I remember turning on the television just in time to see the second plane flying toward the next tower. I remember holding my breath and knowing, immediately, that this was not an accident. I thought about the people in the planes and then about the people in the towers. I knew the towers wouldn't hold up.
I had to go to class that day, and I remember running to our student union building before class so that I could stare in silence (with a couple hundred other people...people I didn't know but who were such a comfort) at a television screen. News tickers started to take over my life. When I finally walked to class, I was still in shock. I couldn't imagine discussing literary criticism in the middle of all of this. But that is what we did...well, at least after the first fifteen minutes of class. My professor, when he came into the room, went on a tirade about Bush, and I remember thinking, "This is not the time."
I also remember picking up my mom for her dinner hour that day. She had to work late, and I always picked her up to take her to dinner around 5 p.m. On the way to the department store where she worked, I saw guards standing everywhere around the Veteran's hospital, watching for who knows what. The streets were empty on the way to the store, and we sat in a small cafe and watched the news over dinner.
In the days that followed, I had a strange physical reaction to everything. My chest hurt so badly, and I realized that I had been curled up into myself for days (literally), and that my muscles were protesting. I went to church that Friday, because the president asked us to go. And I still continued to watch the news, leaving the television on as I slept at night.
Throughout the whole experience, the news (even though we might question what we heard in retrospect) was my lifeline to my sanity and my country. I had to watch because I had to know...something. Anything. The chaos and insecurity of that time--exactly what the terrorists wanted--happened. Some say that allowed them to win, but I would say that it made me stronger. The thing about constant news (and the need to know) is that it arms you. Sometimes it is with really bad information, and you have to develop the common sense to know how to filter what you hear. But having information makes you powerful. Knowing the state of the world makes you powerful--and usually in really unexpected ways.
As I said in my "preview" post about Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, one of my first thoughts after I calmed down from the chaos of 9/11 was that I knew the children and young people who went through it first hand in New York would one day produce works of art--movies, paintings, books--of such amazing beauty about this event. I don't think I was wrong.
Though Foer's book doesn't directly allow you to experience 9/11 through the eyes of one of the immediate victims in the towers or airplanes (which would be hard to do unless that person survived), it does give you the experience of nine-year-old Oskar Schell, whose father died in the towers on the morning of the terrorist attack.
I love Oskar. He is strange and quirky and unreasonable in so many ways, but his voice stays with me. I miss him now that I have finished reading the book, and, to me, that is the mark of a good reading experience.
The essence of the plot is this:
Oskar Schell, released from school early on September 11, 2001, arrives home to find messages on his answering machine. The messages are from his father, who is trapped on one of the upper floors of the trade center towers. Unable to answer the phone when it rings again with his father's last message, Oskar is haunted by his actions and by the events which took his father's life. Oskar's father, Thomas, loved to play games that required Oskar to go on scavenger hunts, and when Oskar finds an envelope in his father's closet, he wonders if this is the last game instigated by his dad. The envelope simply has the word "Black" written on the outside. Inside, there is a key. Oskar spends the remainder of the book searching for the key's lock, meeting all kinds of people along the way who help him (ultimately) come to an understanding about himself and his father's death.
Yeah, that is it in a nutshell. But there is so much more. There is the background story of Oskar's grandparents, the mystery of Oskar's mother's actions throughout the story, and so much more to consider. In the end, the most wonderful thing about this book is that it explores what so many of us felt on that horrible day. Yes, Oskar is directly changed by 9/11, seeing as how he is related to a victim and lives in New York. He claims a certain ownership over the tragedy (I believe at one point he says, "Shouldn't this be mine?" or something like that). But his confusion and grief are common to most Americans and others around the world as they watched what happened.
The other side of the coin...
Not everyone loves this book, though. I read one review that explained that though Foer did get Oskar's sadness right, the rest of the book was "annoying." Well, it is told in unusual ways (there are photos and strange manipulations of text...but none of that bothers me...in fact, I like it). There are little things Oskar does that might seem annoying, but he doesn't bother me either. He is a child, but he is also an old soul in a child's body. He has been through so much, and it has completely altered his existence.
Another reviewer said that she didn't like the book because eventually she basically had to feel too much.
I get it. This isn't an easy read or an easy subject. We are all going to have different reactions.
But, just for me, the book was close to perfect. It captured the one overriding need that I had during the whole event: the need to cling to whatever truths I could find.
And Oskar does this, too. He talks about truth a lot, but he also struggles with holding onto it. It is a mark of trauma, this need to hold onto reality and yet relive and make up things, and Oskar's character brilliantly portrays this issue. One thing Oskar keeps saying throughout the book is, "I know this." Each time he said this (or something like it), I almost broke down. I think those moments captured the desperation of his mind to cling to anything that is stable. So much is unknown and causes him panic (a feeling, as I said, I remember well at that time), and to think of a little boy having to give himself some confidence in his world by saying, "I know this," is just staggering.
In any case, you should read this book. Though it can be strange and you need to make an effort with it at times, I think this book is totally worth it. It is cathartic, healing, and beautiful.