After reading Everything is Illuminated, I didn’t have very high hopes for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I found Jonathan Safran Foer’s writing a little too self-absorbed and indulgent for my tastes.
But Foer really hits his literary stride with this book. I was deeply moved by this tale of life, loss, and growing up.
Oskar Schell is nine years old. His father, Thomas, was killed in the 9/11 attacks. After his father’s death, Oskar finds a key when he accidentally breaks a vase of his father’s. The key was in an envelope labeled “Black,” which is written in red pen. This brings him to the conclusian that the key belonged to someone by the name of Black. He’s convinced that this key will allow him to find out something significant about the father he loved and wasn’t done getting to know, and he begins a hunt for the owner.
We also get to hear the story of his grandparents. They both survived the bombing of Dresden and lived to see the tragedy of 9/11. His grandfather, also named Thomas, was in love with his grandmother’s sister, who died during the bombing of Dresden. Thomas comes across Anna’s sister in New York. By this time, he has lost his powers of speech and keeps a notebook with him to be able to communicate with others. Foer unfolds their story through letters that Thomas has written to the son he never met, and through Oskar’s grandmother’s letters to him.
The book also makes use of some “gimmicks.” Oskar has his grandfather’s camera, and Oskar’s photographs are interspersed throughout the book. Oskar finds his father’s name written on a pad of paper at a stationery store where people are trying out different colored pens. We get to see pages from Oskar’s grandfather’s notebook. I generally roll my eyes at these types of shenanigans, but Foer actually used them thoughtfully to enhance the story, as opposed to using them as diversions to distract from the story. His use of photographs and color in particular makes the story seem more real to the reader.
I read other reviews of the book after I finished it and was surprised to see so much vitriol leveled at it. Some critics accused Foer of taking advantage of readers by using 9/11 as the backdrop of his novel. It was rather bold of Foer to write a novel about 9/11 less than five years after the tragedy. But I think time has been kinder to the novel than the critics have been, and I didn’t personally find it to be as cloying and sentimental as Foer’s harshest critics.
Others found Oskar to be a little too precocious to believe. But I think that his voice was spot-on for a smart kid who has suffered such a tragic loss. Sure, he knows a lot more than your typical nine-year-old, but I like that Foer made him kind of an arrogant, little punk. Smart kids are generally arrogant like this. And he’s still got the emotional maturity of a nine-year-old: he yells at his mom, does reckless things without thinking of the consequences, and holds onto impossible hope.
Overall, I thought it was a powerful book about coping with loss, and Foer has completely redeemed himself in my eyes for Everything in Illuminated.