Day 1050: Golden Age

Cover for Golden AgeGolden Age is the last book in Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy. It begins in 1987 and finishes a couple of years into a slightly dystopian future.

The Langdon family tree has expanded since the first book. Now, the original Langdon children are in their 60’s and 70’s. One has died of cancer, and by the end of the novel, only one of them is still living.

By necessity, this novel concentrates more on some of the Langdon descendants than others. Frank and Andy’s sons Richard and Michael are continuing to clash. Richard forges a political career by being a compromiser, while Michael makes it big on Wall Street and subsequently misappropriates funds from several member of his family. Joe’s son Jesse continues to struggle with the farm while both of his sons go to war. Claire finally finds happiness with Carl. Felicity becomes an environmental activist, while Janet spends most of her time with horses. Henry and Andy are also important characters.

Like the other novels, Golden Age covers most of the important events in its time period, the past 30 years—recessions, wars, 9/11, climate change, and fiscal crimes. Guthrie goes to Iraq. A family member is killed on 9/11. Michael is a major criminal on Wall Street.

Although I still felt some distance from the characters because there were so many and because the narration skips around from one to another so often, I couldn’t help but be caught up by the sheer volume and breadth of the trilogy. I wasn’t sure what I thought about the projection into the future of a country largely devoid of rain and mounting in chaos. Smiley, of course, couldn’t predict our current peculiar election results, which shows up the problems with this type of predictive writing in a largely realistic novel. Some aspects of her last chapters remind me a bit of Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam series.

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Day 113: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Cover for Extremely Loud and Incredibly CloseI’m probably the last person to read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which was enormously popular six years ago. I suspect I avoided it for awhile because of the subject matter, which is, of course, 9/11.

Oskar Schell is an extremely precocious nine-year-old boy who is grieving for his father, a casualty at the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Hidden away in a vase in his father’s closet, Oskar discovers a key with a label that says “Black.” Since his father was always leaving him puzzles, he believes that if he can find the person named Black who has the lock that goes with the key, he will get a message from his father. He especially needs this message because that day, his father called repeatedly from the World Trade Center but Oskar could not make himself pick up the phone. In search of this message, Oskar begins visiting everyone in New York whose last name is Black.

The story of his grandparents’ past is told in parallel in a series of notes and letters. His grandparents both lost their families in the bombing of Dresden (perhaps too neat a parallel). Later, they met in New York, but his grandfather, severely traumatized and unable to speak, deserted his grandmother when she became pregnant.

Although it has been criticized for triteness, I found Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close a touching and funny novel about loss and about the relationship between fathers and sons (but also implicitly about mothers and sons). It is told in the nontraditional narrative style that is becoming almost traditional–in first-person narration by Oskar, in letters and pictures, and even in pages of illegible typing.

Oskar is a frighteningly intelligent, creative, unusual, and quirky child, and the depiction of his character is my major criticism. To me, he seemed very similiar in tone and style, and in repetitions and oddness, to the autistic older boy in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. Other reviewers have mentioned Holden Caulfield. In fact, although you will like Oskar, you will also find him annoying at times and, I feel, unbelievably precocious for his age. He does not make a believable nine-year-old, no matter how intelligent.