Six degrees of separation, FROM Extremely loud and incredibly close TO The women’s pages

I have never played this #6Degrees “meme” before but when Kate (BookasAreMyFavouriteAndBest) announced that Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely loud and incredibly close (her response) would be the October starter, I knew I had to do it. Read on to see why …

Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely loud and incredibly closeI have read Extremely loud and incredibly close and as I recollect I enjoyed it. I don’t remember the details now, but I did think that Foer managed well that fine line between warmth and sentimentality. However, the book is memorable to me for another reason, which stems from the fact that one of my online reading groups discussed it. A member of that group had great trouble with the title. It is, after all, not only a bit of a mouthful, but rather abstract, with nothing that you can particularly hang your memory on. Anyhow, in one email my online-bookgroup friend described it as “Foer’s Amazingly and Suddenly (I’m sorry I can’t keep that title straight)”. Every time I think of Foer, I think of her and smile! Hello, Susan!

Andrew O'Hagan Book CoverAnd this makes me think of other books with long or hard to remember titles. One I’ve reviewed here is Andrew O’Hagan’s The life and opinions of  Maf the dog and of his friend Marilyn Monroe (my review). This book entertained me at the time because of the way it plays with reality, art and the imagination. Maf, the dog, suggests that “we are what we imagine we are: reality itself is the true fiction.” I love this paradoxical way of viewing ourselves, of seeing the artifice in “reality”. However, the point is that while I usually remember Foer’s title, I always have trouble with this one. I had to do a keyword search on my blog to get it exactly. All I knew was that it had “dog” and “Marilyn” in it!

But now, where to go? I could move to a book whose cover design comprises mostly words. There are a few of those around. But I really can’t go past another “life and opinions” book, Laurence Sterne’s The life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, gentleman. It’s been many a decade since I read this book – back in my university days – but its tongue-in-cheek-take-the-reader-along-for-a-ride style, its purporting to be what it isn’t, that is, a biography, was an eye-opener to my young literature-student self. It also introduced me to the picaresque style of novel. This is a style I always look a bit askance at, and yet usually enjoy when I get down to it, because it tends to be satirical – and I’m never averse to a bit of satire.

Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in AmericaAn Aussie example of the picaresque – though it’s not set in Australia – is Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America (my review). The object of Carey’s satire, that “great American experiment, democracy”, seems rather apposite given the current presidential race shenanigans. Donald Trump represents the very values and attitudes – the unquestioning belief in capitalism – which Carey satirises. Another issue Carey questions in this novel is whether “high” art and “total” democracy are mutually exclusive? Do you let the majority decide what art they will support and fund? If or when you do, what art will they choose, he ponders.

Steve Toltz, Quicksand, soverArt, the making of it, is also one of Steve Toltz’s targets in his satirical novel Quicksand (my review) but his angle is slightly different. Part of it is the way people plunder the lives of others to make art, and part is an exploration of why we make art. Is life easier with or without art is one of his questions. Protagonist Liam at one stage desires a life “unencumbered by art” whereas art teacher Morell suggests we make art to understand who we are and why we’re here. In the end, though, like many good satires, there’s no simple answer.

Debra Adelaide, The women's pagesBut, shock, horror, my first five books are all by men, even though women writers comprise well over 50% of my reading. How did this happen? I’m not sure, but I can’t end without one woman writer! Debra Adelaide’s protagonist, Dove, in The women’s pages (my review) is, like Liam in Quicksand, writing a novel – but Adelaide’s is not a satirical novel. It’s a more personal drama about the urge to write fiction (create art, in other words), about how fiction might illuminate life’s meanings, and about how we tell and use stories.

I’ve come a long way from Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely loud and incredibly close, a 9/11 story, and yet not so far really, because both books – Foer’s and Adelaide’s – are about grief and loss, and both, one indirectly the other directly, are about how art might play a role in resolving the tragedies that confront us. That seems to make a rather nice circle, albeit comprising 6° not 360°!

If you’d like to read other responses to this “meme” check out Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) and Jenny Ackland’s (Seraglio).

23 thoughts on “Six degrees of separation, FROM Extremely loud and incredibly close TO The women’s pages

  1. I love the way you’ve referenced the current US election to the Peter Carey!
    (Only a few weeks to go, and then we will know whether to slash our wrists or not…)

        • Not slitting my wrists today at any rate, on way over to Rottnest for a birthday party. I gave up on Carey at O&L, Tax Inspector my favourite. Of his writing in US, think his ambition exceeded his ability but happy to try him again if you (both) think he has come back to his roots. Reconsidering re wrists – bloody tour guide on loudspeaker giving running commentary as we go down the river.

        • Well, he’s so prolific that you’ll probably find everyone has different favourites so I think you’ll have to decide for yourself!

          As for commentaries, one of our funniest experiences was on a river in Japan where the guide burst into song. It wasn’t a very exciting river so he had to gussy it up however he could.

  2. I’ve never heard of the Andrew O’Hagan title, though I’ve heard of him. The Peter Carey, I’m not sure whether I will venture there but I am keen to read more satire, and as Lisa says, the US election is hoving in the not-too-far distance.

    • My reading group did the O’Hagan, Jenny. I’ve never heard much about it, before or after, but it was a good read.

      I know a lot of people are anti-Carey, but I’ve mostly liked him. I think he’s one of those writers whom you never know what he’s going to do next. And I guess because I’ve lived in the USA, I particularly enjoyed Parrot and Olivier.

      • I don’t get the anti-Carey thing. Is it tall poppy? I agree, I like the way he does different things. McEwan is another – not always successfully but always interesting.

        • Oh good .. and yes, McEwan too. I don’t get that either. I think there might be a tall poppy thing with Carey, and he has come across sounding a little arrogant at times I think, but my view is that you focus on the writing not the writer.

        • I loved Carey’s early Australian novels, (Bliss, Oscar and Lucinda, Illywhacker etc) got a bit bored with the ones he’s written since he’s been in America, but am back on board ever since The Chemistry of Tears because I like it when he does quirky stuff.

        • Didn’t you think Parrot and Olivier had its quirkiness, Lisa? I can’t recollect whether you read it or not. I enjoyed The chemistry of tears but I did love the rather audacious satire of Parrot and Olivier.

        • No, I wasn’t so keen on that one. I must get round to reading his last one because now he’s got a new one out (yes?) and #StoryOfMyReadingLife I am falling behind.

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