Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

With “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”, Jonathan Safran Foer has written a novel for everyone.

The novel is filled with humanity, emotions, tempers, lost, kindness and the human connection that we all share. Foer describes with such compassion the delicate relationships between us in a compelling unbelievable journey, which although is so unlikely, gives us a chance to hope and have faith in each other in this completely strange world we occupy.

Although the book is praised to have dealt with the sorrows of 9/11, I didn’t really feel this was the objective of the book. The novel is merely using  9/11 as an instrument to address a much vaster topic of human kind. It’s not just the lost and pain of the 9/11 victims that readers feel, it is also the suffering and regrets of victims of wars before my generation’s time. The feeling of compassion I had for these characters proves that Foer can genuinely tuck at heartstrings with sincerity and love.

I read reviews of this book upon completion, and many criticisms of the novel revolves around the “over-the-top” portrayal of human emotions, or the fact that Foer had “stolen” ideas from other works, or the unlikely events in the story. I however received the book with more open arms and I embraced the modern fairy tale emerging from the sadness and loneliness of our lives. Foer offers his readers hope and courage to cure ourselves from the prison that we build for ourselves by curling into our own blanket of silence. We can break the silence and reach out to others.

Contrary to what some online comments say about the nine-year-old Oskar Schell, I found him very adorable and creative. From the first chapters I admired his ideas to “fix” the problems he sees around him; impractical ideas, to be fair, since he is only supposed to be nine years old, but ideas that reflect his longing for compassion and care. My favourite Oskar Schell idea was the idea of building a massive system of drains from everyone’s pillows to collect people’s tears when they cry at night, and in the morning the weatherman can inform the entire city of how much people have cried. I admire that kind of caring thought, and it made me think of how much we estrange each other.

In an era of instant connection via internet, Foer offers a completely different way for us to connect to others: go on a journey on foot. As the novel traces Oskar’s clumpsy footsteps throughout New York, readers are opened to a world much different from the one we envision in our heads when we think of “the world out there”. It is a city where there are no kidnappers, there is no reason to be afraid of talking to a stranger, asking strangers about their personal thoughts. It is a world where you can ask for a hug, a kiss without feeling out of the norm, where people can believe one another and support a child through his quest for the truth. This is why I think this story is a modern day fairy tale; it represents such simple dreams and hopes romantically in an imagination that is so close, yet so unbelievable.

Oskar’s quest to find the truth hidden behind his father’s key isn’t an ordinary journey. And for those who were disappointed in the ending, I would say, “you have totally missed the entire point of the story.” It is a quest for intimacy, for belonging and love. Put in Oskar’s own words, his journey was to bring him closer to his father, a spiritual embarkation that revealed how similar we all are, in the quest to feel closer to another human being. Foer had depicted what I had always hoped was true: that somewhere out there someone is feeling the same way I am and is striving towards the same goal as I am. We are surprisingly parallel adventurers, and without knowing, we form invisible connections with our paths.

At the same time, the story is also about how we fail to reach out and understand one another: “He looked confused, or embarrassed, or surprised, or maybe even sad. I couldn’t tell what he was feeling, because I couldn’t speak the language of his feelings.” The characters often fail to express themselves, through the lack of courage and faith. This human flaw causes each of them to unintentionally hurt each other and drift apart. And yet shining brightly in the center of the story is a boy who is determined on his own goal, and without knowing, touches these adults and heal them in ways no reader could have predicted.

The novel is a stunning read, filled with gentle metaphors and pictures that will provoke thoughts and feelings. It is a book written for everyone because everyone needs a nice fairy tale to hope in and believe in. 



A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess

In this short novel, Burgess traces the happenings of a teenage “gangster”. With the use of Nadsat, Burgess’s invented language, the protagonist, Alex, is stylistically portrayed as a symbol of rebellion and ultra-violence, whose journey spans between high and lows of power. The narration is kept simple and linear, though not without interesting twists, and concisely raises some key questions about humanity, repression and freedom. 

The language in the novel created a challenge for me to break the ‘code’ of speech, and although I still haven’t understood every word in Nadsat, I can appreciate the tone of rebellion that the language conveys. And throughout the novel, the language is fast-paced, straightforward, strong, depicting sharp images of attacks and assaults, as well as Alex’s quick-minded intelligence. This all makes “A Clockwork Orange” a compact novel, surged with adrenaline and fright.

The novel is not just about violent crimes however, but also of subtle but “big” questions of our humanity. It challenges the idea of being “cured”, “healthy” and “good”, as opposed to being evil and repressive. Alex remains quite undeniably a horrible villain until the second part of the book, where the “good intentions” of the people trying to cure him becomes questionable. Surely Alex is “evil”, but so is the government, according to those who are against the Ludovico technique, since it tortures and distorts individual personality, striping people off their right to choose his own fate. So what constitutes as evil? It is easy to agree evil is beating up helpless people, but is it also evil to beat up those who beat up people, with an even more powerful and torturous method? It is debatable how far the government’s power should extend to, in the name of justice even, to “correct” or transform human beings into personalities accepted by the general society. “You’ve sinned, I suppose, but your punishment has been out of all proportion. They have turned you into something other than a human being.” (Chapter 4, part 3) Forcing conformity is repression, therefore it is evil, but what if it is the conformity to “goodness”? And with the juxtaposition of two situations of “cure”, one announced by Dr. Brodsky, whose mission is to turn Alex into a violent-hating and “good” citizen, and one announced by a different doctor later on, who considers him returning to a violence-seeking state of mind as “good”, emphasizes the subjective of “healthiness”, and the fact that upon different intentions, different meaning and idea are used for the same word. So what constitutes “evil” and “goodness”? Perhaps they can never have definite meaning, since human intentions vary wildly from person to person, and from time to time.

Another idea the book tackles is the meaning of being “human”. Raised by the jailer and F. Alexander, the subject of debate involves concepts of freedom of choice: if a man is good, but he did not choose to be good, instead forced to be good, is he still human? In contrast, if a villain chooses to be evil, he is still human, because he has a choice in his actions. Is it still humane to force an individual to be “good”, even though that means stripping away his freedom? Or is this act acceptable, because “goodness” trumps freedom? “You have no power of choice any longer. You are committed to socially acceptable acts, a little machine  capable only of good.” (Chapter 4, part 3) Alex’s situation puts our morals into question, asking whether it is freedom that is superior to “goodness” (which consists of kindness, caring, respect, etc.), or the opposite. How important is freedom, and how much are of it are we willing to give up for other benefits. For example, would you give up your right to smoke in public so you don’t have to smell other people’s smoke? “The tradition of liberty means all. The common people will let it go, oh yes. They will sell liberty for a quieter life.” (Chapter 5, part 3) And it is also the question of how much freedom should one be allowed, and how much of it should be restricted upon individuals who have encroached on other’s well-being. In reality, this issue arises in areas such as the debate around whether the capital penalty should be legal, whether rapists should be castrated etc. And in Alex’s case, I had to debate whether he is a hero or a villain, and still i have not decided.

Finally, “A clockwork orange” is a portrayal of youth, with all its strength and power, its capacity to do good and bad, to be influenced and to revoke and fight against influence. Burgess demonstrated this chaotic time of one’s life through the over-the-top violent life of Alex, with all his sins and wit, his ability to realize what is being done to him and the rebellious instinctive behaviour that is so familiar to any youth. And the final chapter, where the anger and greed for power subsides, Burgess calls the dying flame of violence “maturity”, a state of mind with calmness and seeking of the future. Alex is a hyperbolic description of us teenagers and young adults, who seek for pleasure and fight to find it, who thirst for being a non-conformist and being free to pursue what we claim make us powerful. But it is not just a novel for growing youths, it is also a reflective piece on the freedom of life and self-determinism.