I read this book when it was first published in 2005, and I remember thinking it was great. So when Girl Detective announced it as the September book for her Gods and Monsters book club, I thought, well, cool beans, always nice to revisit a good book, right?
Except when it turns out not to be anywhere near as good as you remember it being.
This time through, my primary feeling was annoyance. I found the overly precocious narrator, Oskar, annoying. I found his grandfather's letters annoying. I found all the tricksy, cutesy stuff the author did annoying. There are illustrations and textual additions that are supposed to do something, but all they did was annoy me. I mean, for crying out loud, look at this:
And don't even get me started on the text that bunched in on itself, for pages.
I'm not opposed to unique storytelling formats when they actually serve the story. I've read Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad twice now, and both times I loved loved loved the Powerpoint chapter. To me, it's a great representation of the character, fits who she is and what she's writing about. The mess above? Not so much.
Plus there are plot items that not only annoyed me, they made me cranky. So--Oskar's a little boy, extremely bright, with parents who were pretty frank with him about things, but neither of them thought to explain what a more contemporary definition of the word "pussy" was? And really--if Oskar's father died on 9/11, would his mother really be OK with Oskar wandering all over NYC by himself for hours at a time, even if she knew where he was going? She'd be confident that he'd be safe? Really? Really?
I have to wonder if the reason I thought well of it in 2005 was that it seemed far too soon after 9/11 itself to be critical of a piece of writing about it. Like, then the terrorists would win. Maybe that's part of my problem with the book, too--not that I've read every novel written with 9/11 as a backdrop or starting point, but I've read several, and really, they pretty much all pale in comparison with the real stories that happened that day. A much better book--as far as I remember--is the nonfiction account 102 Minutes. It's straightforward, honest, and heartbreaking.
Nothing tricksy about it.