I picked this book up because a) I’ve owned it forever and pandemic reading has meant trying hard to find books off my own shelves. I’ve owned this for oh, about thirteen years? Back when I still thought I had to read books other people thought were “good” and “important.” And b) because of CBR Bingo, in which the Nostalgia square meant finding a book set during the time in which I was in high school. I had a surprisingly hard time finding books to fit this description, and none other than this one I already owned. So! This book it was. And it was fine.
I’m just really skeptical of Jonathan Safran Foer*. It says a lot that I haven’t read anything of his since the first book I tried (Everything is Illuminated, back in 2010), and even as I gave that book four stars, my Goodreads review of it says, “I feel like what this book is telling me is that Jonathan Safran Foer is a good writer, and he knows it.”(I would not have given it four stars today.) That feeling has only intensified. In my opinion, this book (and his writing in general) is a constant mesh of his need to be clever and impressive getting in the way of actual meaning.
*I can’t be the only one who can’t take him seriously after the Sony hack revealed he left his wife for Natalie Portman, who was like, what the fuck? Why did you do that?
This book is narrated mainly by Oscar, a boy in post-9/11 New York City whose father was killed in the attack on the World Trade Center. Writing in the perspective of a child can be challenging enough, but Foer also chose to have his protagonist be neurodivergent (most likely he is on the autism spectrum disorder). As a result, for every moment that felt true, there was an equally eyeroll-worthy moment where he ruined it. He also has these found objects in the narrative, and journal entries from Oscar’s family, including his grandparents, and it’s not enough for them to just be people with stories (both of them are immigrants), but one of them has to be mute for no reason, except so that JSF could have the character have this kitschy/cutesy tic of carrying around a notebook and pointing to pre-written phrases when trying to communicate, and having the words YES and NO tattooed on his hands (and including a picture of the hands in the book!)
It’s just this constant battle for me with with his writing: of him trying to say true things but saying them in such a way that makes me want to throw the book across the room. Just say the thing! Stop trying to impress all the women you meet at literary parties! (And Natalie Portman, apparently.)
I did watch the movie after, and I quite liked it. I wasn’t going to watch it, but I happened to hear someone eloquently defend the movie on one of my favorite podcasts (Screen Drafts), when they were making a Top 7 Max Von Sydow Movies list. I liked that I got to experience all of the story without most of the bullshit, and Max Von Sydow was really lovely in it.
CBR Bingo: Nostalgia (I was fifteen/sixteen)