Like his remarkable debut, Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer’s new novel manages to be formally ambitious, deeply flawed, and exceptionally fascinating all at once. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, as its title might suggest, is even more clamorous with emotion than its predecessor—or perhaps it only feels that way because the hilarious Ukrainian tour guide Alexander Perchov, Illuminated’s most indelible voice, has no comedic equal in the new book.
Foer used Perchov as a refractive lens, heightening the emotional impact of fraught circumstances by describing them from a perspective that was humane but generally helpless to grasp their full historical weight. He attempts something similar with Oskar Schell, the primary narrator of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, although with only moderately humorous intent.
Oskar is the sort of nine-year-old who writes letters to Stephen Hawking and muses about his “raisons d’ ętre” but doesn’t know better than to describe his cat to a school bully as “my pussy.” His father, Thomas Schell, died in the September 11th attacks, and when Oskar was let out early from school that day—before the actual collapse—he was the only one home to hear the increasingly frightening phone messages his father left from the World Trade Center. Foer chooses to reveal the content of this final, one-sided communication between father and son gradually, and it is only at the novel’s conclusion that we understand the full range of Oskar’s grief and guilt about what happened that day.
Much has been made of the fact that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is one of the first novels to deal directly with the WTC attacks. In my opinion, the questions surrounding that fact (Is it still too early to produce a novel/song/movie about 9/11? Is it crass to do so? Etc., etc.) represent something of a dead end for debate. Of course artists will tackle pivotal, world-changing events. Some will succeed, some will fail. So let’s discuss their efforts as works of art.
After the funeral, Oskar discovers a key hidden deep in his parents’ closet, and, imagining it to be part of one of the idiosyncratic scavenger hunts his father often devised for him, spends the bulk of the novel scouring New York City for the lock which it opens. As one might imagine, Foer is compelled to pull some awkward tricks to contrive his narrative so that a nine-year-old essentially has the latitude to come and go as he pleases, exploring the boroughs at will and knocking on all sorts of strange doors. Nevertheless, the exceptional wit and confidence behind Oskar’s voice tend to excuse the logistical awkwardness of the plot.
More problematic—but still intermittently powerful—are the sections of the novel narrated by Oskar’s grandparents, whose motivations often feel obscure (“is ignorance bliss, I don’t know, but it’s so painful to think, and tell me, what did thinking ever do for me…”) and whose typographical eccentricities rapidly grow tiresome. Both were traumatized decades earlier in the firebombing of Dresden, and in one elegant passage, Oskar’s grandfather describes how his grief robbed him of the power of speech. Unfortunately, his muteness sometimes results in literary conceits that, while unusual, can be irritating. At one point, he types out his story using a telephone keypad, giving the reader several pages entirely composed of sentences like “4, 7, 4, 8, 7, 3, 2, 5, 5, 9, 9, 6 8?” Now, you could spend a few hours decoding these pages with the iTAP feature of your cell phone—or you could just acknowledge Foer’s cleverness with a beleaguered sigh and move on. The grandparents’ narration offers the fewest literary or emotional pleasures for the reader, so it is always a relief when we return to Oskar’s perspective.
Oskar’s quest is the hunt for a MacGuffin, pure and simple. Foer is much more interested in the assortment of eccentric and philosophical characters encountered along the way, most of whom have suffered losses and are implausibly receptive to the idea of being interrogated by a nine-year-old boy. These people are often conceptually interesting—like, for example, the elderly war correspondent who explains his one-word categorization system for historical figures (“‘Elie Wiesel: War!… Arnold Schwarzenegger: War!… Mick Jagger: Money!… Pope John Paul II: War!’”)—but they are not always richly realized as characters.
It would be unfair to describe in too much detail the endpoint of Oskar’s lock search, but I will say that his arrival there is a profound anticlimax. Foer handles the discovery of the lock without his usual creativity, offering only a few dutiful gestures toward the reader’s expectation that the protagonist will learn something in his search (“‘For what it’s worth, your father seemed like a good man,’” says an incidental character). Foer also deprives both Oskar and the reader of a crucial piece of knowledge—one that he, the author, could have used to great artistic effect. It is unfortunate that this scene is so ineffectively crafted, but I did admire how, several pages later, Foer manages to use a letter from Stephen Hawking as the emotional peak of the novel’s end.
Foer’s insertion of artwork, photos, and other illustrational flourishes into the text is, for the most part, also impressive. We get to flip through Oskar’s “Stuff That Happened to Me” scrapbook, which jarringly includes a paper airplane diagram before an image of a body falling from the World Trade Center, and, in another chapter, an account of the Dresden firebombing is marked up with bright red pen, the fierce little ovals of ink mimicking the “clusters of red flares” destroying Dresden. The same chapter also contains an eerie, nightmarish scene in which Oskar’s grandfather is given a rifle and begged by a disfigured zookeeper to “‘find the carnivores’” now loose in the burning city.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close contains a wealth of small, haunting details like that. Particularly memorable are the wistful inventions Oskar dreams up, like “a special drain that would be underneath every pillow in New York, and would connect to the reservoir. Whenever people cried themselves to sleep, the tears would all go to the same place, and in the morning the weatherman could report if the water level of the Reservoir of Tears had gone up or down….” As a whole, though, the novel has a hard time cohering—the grandparents’ stories feel contrived, beholden more to an author’s poetic whimsy than to human reality, and after a while, Oskar’s adventures begin to seem haphazardly episodic. Still, such flaws are glaring but not fatal. The novel is absolutely worth reading, full of numerous unexpected pleasures and innovations. It has moments of brilliance punctuated by episodes of noble failure, and in that sense, it strongly resembles its nine-year old protagonist.