Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: A Novel
by Jonathan Safran Foer
A review by Priya Jain
I have to admit that I haven't been too keen to read any of the half-dozen or
so 9/11 novels marking this season's fiction lists. That date still feels too
close, too fresh in the memory to necessitate a literary reminder, too difficult
to render in fiction without the kind of overearnestness that ultimately estranges
the reader from the emotional center of the event being described. That's why
I was surprised to find that Jonathan Safran Foer's touching account of the grief
and disorientation of 9/11's aftermath is also strangely healing.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the story of Oskar Schell, an
eccentric 9-year-old, the kind of child that adults adore and kids love to pick
on. Oskar -- like most of the characters in this book -- isn't exactly what
you would call a realistic invention, but he is nonetheless an endearing and
funny narrator. A sort of male, science-geek version of Eloise, he's precocious
and independent, coming and going from his Upper West Side home without much
adult interference. He dresses exclusively in white, plays the tambourine as
he walks down the street, makes jewelry, obsessively searches the Internet and
proclaims his favorite book to be A
Brief History of Time.
Oskar's problems begin when his father dies in the attacks on Sept. 11, after
which he becomes a tortured insomniac, or, as he puts it, he's "in heavy
boots." He obsessively invents contraptions to keep people safe, or at
the very least, to ease loneliness ("air bags for skyscrapers, solar-powered
limousines that never had to stop moving, a frictionless, perpetual yo-yo").
He also bruises himself on purpose, and he keeps a scrapbook titled "Stuff
That Happened to Me," into which he pastes things he finds on the Internet,
like pictures of decapitated soldiers and shark attacks, "even though I
knew they would only hurt me, because I couldn't help it."
The real reason for Oskar's self-punishment is the secret he's keeping from
his family: the five phone messages from his father, trapped in the Windows
on the World restaurant at the top of the north tower, which Oskar found and
hid when he came home from school on "the worst day." "The secret
was a hole in the middle of me that every happy thing fell into," he says,
and that hole, coupled with the discovery of a mysterious key in his father's
closet, sets him on a journey throughout the city to find the lock it belongs
to and, he believes, continued closeness with his father. And so he spends his
weekends combing the city for people named Black -- the only clue he has --
on a mission he's decided to keep secret, separating him even further from the
rest of his family.
What Oskar doesn't know is that he's not the only one with an emotional hole.
His mother struggles through her grief with a male friend, whom Oskar, in typical
9-year-old fashion, highly resents as a father replacement. His grandfather,
Thomas Schell, remains tortured by the death of his first fiancée, Anna,
and their unborn child, in the bombing of Dresden, a loss that has rendered
him mute and dependent on a daybook and the "Yes" and "No"
tattoos on his hands to communicate. And Oskar's grandmother ruminates over
the destruction of her entire family, including that same Anna, who was her
sister, and the knowledge that her marriage is based solely on this shared loss.
Oskar's grandparents' narratives alternate with his; as Thomas writes letters
to Oskar's father, whom he abandoned before birth and to whom he obsessively
writes unsent explanations, Grandma (who remains unnamed) writes her story to
her beloved Oskar. Both grandparents are trying desperately to explain, more
to themselves than to their progeny, it seems, the work of creating a normal
life after tragedy -- something that Thomas, at least, failed miserably to do.
As Oskar himself pushes away his family, "zipping up the sleeping bag of
myself," he mimics his grandfather's flight; the central tension of the
novel lies in the hope, for the sake of this odd child, that in the end he'll
choose love over fear.
Ultimately, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a story of that choice,
thrust upon the characters by inconsolable grief. The catch of the title is
that it is tragedy that is loud and close, but the people who can share and
relieve grief are all too quiet and far away. It's an intimate story tightly
centered upon one family, but one that links itself to tragedies past and to
other personal losses through Oskar's surreal encounters with the city's residents
named Black. It's in these meetings, when Oskar reforges the bond of shared
experience, that the novel becomes remarkably consoling.
Foer has chosen an experimental form for this second novel, one that includes
pictures and blank pages, one page covered with type so closely knitted together
that it's impossible to read, a couple more that are filled with just numbers.
Some of these link parts of the narrative to others, like the sudden appearance
of doorknobs in the midst of Thomas' pages, which only make sense once we know
that he's pasted them into the daybooks in which he writes his letters to his
son and his one-sentence communiqués with the rest of the world. Some
suggest emotions that cannot be expressed in words; the only indication we have
of the sense of abandonment Oskar's father feels from Thomas is the one letter
he has, which is covered with red circles -- from the same pen, we know from
Oskar, that his father used to mark up errors in the New York Times.
In many ways, Extremely Loud resembles Foer's first book, Everything
Is Illuminated: the multigenerational wrestling with cataclysm, the obsession
with patrilineal history, the alternating narratives. But while Everything
Is Illuminated was a wonderful debut novel, funny and touching, it was also
awkward and clunky the way first attempts often are. A great novelist knows
how to guide a reader through the emotional terrain of the story; Foer often
lost control of that landscape. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is,
by contrast, the result of a more mature and even pen. Even Foer's flashier
tricks, rather than overwhelming the story, serve to heighten the emotionality.
It seems clear at this point that Foer has successfully graduated from being
a one-off wunderkind to an accomplished and graceful writer. What he has given
us is not just a remarkably clever work, but the 9/11 story we need, even if
we didn't know it.