Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
Review by W. R. Greer
Many recent novels deal with how the world has changed since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City, and how our perception of the world has changed because of it. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer deals with its direct effect on one family. The novel begins sometime after that fateful day. Thomas Schell, father, son, and husband, perished in the attacks, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is narrated by his son, Oskar. It’s interspersed with letters from Oskar’s grandfather to his son, Thomas, and letters from Oskar’s grandmother to Oskar. Together it tells the history of this family, and the pain and suffering caused by the loss of their loved one.
Oskar is a highly intelligent 9-year old boy. He’s creates jewelry, creates fanciful inventions to keep people safe, speaks some French, corresponds with Stephen Hawking, plays the tambourine, and he’s both an atheist and a pacifist. Precocious children can be the death knell for a novel. They act more adult than childish and they often exist as nothing more than a metaphor for lost innocence, rather than having any real depth of character. Fortunately, Jonathan Safran Foer has created a character who is painfully real. Despite his intelligence that gives him a better understanding of the physical and historical aspects of the world, Oskar retains the emotions, confusion, and exasperation of a 9-year old.
Oskar lives with his mom and his grandmother lives across the street. Mom has a new friend, Ron, whom Oskar has disliked from the start. He doesn’t think it’s right for his mother to be laughing and playing board games with another man so soon after his father’s death. Oskar tells of when Ron offered to buy him a set of drums:
Money can’t buy me love, obviously, but I asked if it would have Zildjian cymbals. He said, “Whatever you want,” and then he took my yo-yo off my desk and started to walk the dog with it. I know he just wanted to be friendly, but it made me incredibly angry. “Yo-yo, moi! I told him, grabbing it back. What I really wanted to tell him was, “You’re not my dad, and you never will be.”
Oskar has heavy boots, as he calls feeling down, because he carries a secret he hasn’t shared with anybody else. He was sent home from school soon after the attacks on 9/11 and was the first one home. There he found five messages from his father calling from one of the World Trade Towers on the answering machine, and he replaced the phone and kept the messages to himself. He likes to be in his father’s closet because “it made my boots lighter to be around his things, and to touch stuff that he touched.” He finds a vase on the highest shelf of the closet, and inside the vase he finds a key in an envelope. The only thing written on the envelope is “Black.”
This key sets Oskar off on a quest to find the story behind it, to find the secret that his father kept, in hopes that it would help him understand his dad better. He computes how many keys and how many locks there must be in New York City, and decides that “Black” must be somebody’s last name. Starting with the top of the alphabet for all the Blacks in the phonebook, he then sets out every weekend to visit them in order and see if they know anything about his father or the key. Most of the people he visits also seem to be dealing with some sort of loss in their lives, and Oskar is often at a loss how to interact with them. He finds a Mr. Black in his own building, a 103-year old war reporter who hasn’t left his apartment or heard anything since his wife died. He is so taken by Oskar’s quest that he agrees to accompany him on his journeys across town. Mr. Black tells Oskar, “It’s not a horrible world . . . but it’s filled with a lot of horrible people.” Eventually Oskar is aided by the mysterious tenant in his grandmother’s apartment, and Oskar convinces him to help dig up his father’s empty casket.
In addition to Oskar telling his story of the search for the secret of the key, the letters from Oskar’s grandparents tell their story, and how it all led to this point in Oskar’s life. His grandfather, also Thomas Schell, was a teenager in Dresden during World War II. He fell in love with a girl named Anna, and after the firebombing of Dresden, he’d lost Anna, all of his family, and the ability to speak. He has the words “Yes” and “No” tattooed on his hands, so he can answer questions by showing the appropriate hand. He writes messages for conversation, often pointing to the same sentences over and over. He’s spent his life writing, trying to explain himself and why he is who he is.
Oskar’s grandmother was Anna’s sister, and the only family member to survive the firebombing. When she came across Thomas Schell in New York, she knew she had to marry him as a way to maintain a grip on her past. She also knew that he married her only as a replacement for Anna. Their life together was odd, with a set of rules governing behavior and interactions between them. It was their way to survive their losses and grasp at what they could offer each other. When she became pregnant, Oskar’s grandfather left and returned to Germany, never knowing his son.
Oskar’s grandmother’s letters are touching and poignant. Her life has been one of continual loss. She lost her family in Dresden, her husband when he left, and then her son in the terrorist attacks. She’s close to Oskar, and is the most accepting survivor in the book. She’s not exactly happy, but she knows she’ll carry on whatever life has in store for her.
Oskar’s grandfather’s letters are the most gimmicky in the novel. Some pages are blank, others have one sentence each that he uses for conversation, other pages have text overlapping each other, and there are three pages of numbers as he attempts to communicate via a touch-tone phone. His life was one of energy and hope before the firebombing, and a numbed survival at best since. His character, though, suffers from the same problem. His story of life before the tragedy that took his loved ones brims with this energy and hope, then runs stale and uninteresting for all the chapters after it. He never really comes alive, and is perhaps the one major person in the book that is more a metaphor than a fleshed-out character.
Oskar’s grandparents’ story obviously serves to connect the disasters together, including all the disasters that happened between them. Oskar’s loss of his father is just one in an epidemic of tragedies that afflict the world. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close might have been a more focused and powerful story if it had only concentrated on Oskar’s story. It is Oskar’s chapters that are engrossing and painful as he goes in search of his father’s secret, hoping to learn more about his father so he can be closer to him even in death. His confusion, anger, and misunderstanding of the world stay at the 9-year old level. He can be exasperating and difficult, as when he tells his mom that if he’d had a choice, he’d have chosen her to be in the towers that day instead of his dad. His intelligence, curiosity, fears, and insights he gains on his quest throughout the city are both heartwarming and heartbreaking.
Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel is not a perfect one. In addition to the oddities in Oskar’s grandfather’s chapters, the book is full of photos and drawings, all things that Oskar collected in his attempt to understand his world. Among these is a photo of a body falling from one of the towers, one which Oskar enlarges to see if maybe it was his dad. While these are all supposed to be reflective of Oskar’s mind, they don’t really add anything to the novel.
If you only read perfect novels, then there would be very few books to read at all. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close can be uplifting and soul searing at different times. With the horrors and wounds of the 9/11 attacks still fresh, this novel may hit too close to home for some people. By the end of this book, how that awful day happened for all members of Oskar’s family is known, and beyond the pain lies hope, and Oskar is not as alone as he thinks he is. Oskar Schell’s story is one to cherish, and perhaps that metaphor for the lost innocence of the world is one we all ought to acknowledge and embrace.
Copyright © 2005 reviewsofbooks.com