Thisby Thestoop and the Black Mountain

It’s fair to say that I read a good number of books children’s books. Having kids of my own, I like to pilfer their shelves from time to time. In our house, we like to stock “the classics” as a sort of quality guarantee. Since children’s books became a genre there have been writers who have tried to cash in on the children’s market as a way to make a quick buck with little effort. Reading “the classics” means that you get the best books from every era without having to wade through the formulaic twaddle, most of which has mercifully been forgotten over the years.
It’s a different story with modern children’s books. Picking up a new children’s book means taking a chance on wasting your time, and the modern children’s book publishing machine loves tried and true formulas. After the success of Harry Potter we got books about schools for magical/mythological/specially talented kids who are sorted into groups based on their personalities. After The Hunger Games took off, we’ve have had m…

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

A boy whose father died in the World Trade Center on 9/11 finds a mysterious key in an envelope in his house with the name “Black” written on it. Looking for closure and information about his dad, the boy sets out on a quest to meet everyone in the city of New York with the last name Black and uncover the mystery behind the key. This sounds like a great premise for a novel. Just the type of novel I’d like to read. So what went wrong?

Here’s the first problem. If you ever read a book by Charles Dickens or any of the eminent Victorians, it will become readily apparent that they were in love with words. They would string words together in long lines, elegant, beautiful, polysyllabic words. Language was life and their books were full of it. Then the moderns came, and they were suspicious of words. In their minds, words often obscured action and thought rather than revealing it. Hence the terse prose of someone like Hemingway. However, because of this belief, the modern writers were very selective of what words they did choose and thus created some masterpieces of literature. Jonathan Foer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, seems to neither love nor hate words, but to consider them unworthy of attention. It appears that his book is designed for people who read on the Internet, that is, designed to be skimmed rather than read. There are certainly many words, no Hemingway here. However, those words are not beautiful, they do not flow, and they are often extraneous lists, strings of numbers, or illegible text.

The second problem is that the book relies heavily on gimmicks. On that theme I have three suggestions:

1. Gimmicks ≠ Good writing

2. There is a reason we don’t publish books written by nine-year olds. They have not learned or experienced enough of life to contextualize or draw conclusions about traumatic situations. So here is the problem. If you, the author, want to be profound, then your 9-year old can’t seem like a real nine-year old at all. But if your nine-year old is like a real nine-year old, then what you’ll get is something like “Axe Cop”, which is awesome, by the way, in ways this book only wishes it could be. To sum this point up, if you have something profound to say, choose a narrator capable of saying it. A nine-year old narrator sounds like a great gimmick, but then, see #1 above.

3. In the movie “Naked Gun 33 1/3”, there’s a scene that takes place at the Academy Awards. The nominations are being read, and they go something like this. “‘Fatal Affair’, one woman's ordeal to overcome the death of her cat, set against the background of the Hindenburg disaster.” “‘Final Proposal’, one courageous pioneer woman's triumphant victory over bulimia, set against the background of the Donner Party Crossing”. “‘Basic Analysis’, one woman's triumph over a yeast infection, set against the background of the tragic Buffalo Bills season of 1991.” This book more or less fits in the same list. Bringing a major tragedy into your book doesn’t automatically make it profound. In fact, if not handled well, it can simply seem gimmicky and trivialize the tragedy. (See # 1 above). I mean seriously, would you do this sort of thing with the Holocaust? …oh…you already have?... nevermind…

Finally, this book reminds me of a good number of mediocre books published by Scholastic that I read as a kid. I remember reading a book called There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom about a bully who has a bad home life, plays with his stuffed animals who are his only friends, and can’t socially connect with his peers. I read a book called Dogs Don’t Tell Jokes about a nerdy boy who wants to be a stand up comedian and struggles to connect socially with his peers. I read a book called Tales of Fourth Grade Nothing about, you guessed it, a fourth grade boy who feels put upon by the world and by the birth of his little brother and has a hard time connecting socially with his peers. Do I need to even mention Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret? Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close reminded me of a grown up version of one of these Scholastic books. In reality, growing minds should not be fed a diet of introspection and angst. They are much better off reading Kidnapped, Treasure Island, Lord of the Rings, Tom Sawyer, King Solomon’s Mines, The Jungle Book and the like. And regarding Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I think grown ups would be better off reading something else as well.

In summary, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close had a promising premise but fizzled out under the author’s sentimentalism and artificial depth.

1/5 stars