”Meet Oskar Schell, an inventor, Francophile, tambourine player, Shakespearean actor, jeweler, pacifist, correspondent with Stephen Hawking and Ringo Starr. He is nine years old. And he is on an urgent, secret search through the five boroughs of New York. His mission is to find the lock that fits a mysterious key belonging to his father, who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11.
An inspired innocent, Oskar is alternately endearing, exasperating, and hilarious as he careens from Central Park to Coney Island to Harlem on his search. Along the way he is always dreaming up inventions to keep those he loves safe from harm. What about a birdseed shirt to let you fly away? What if you could actually hear everyone’s heartbeat? His goal is hopeful, but the past speaks a loud warning in stories of those who’ve lost loved ones before. As Oskar roams New York, he encounters a motley assortment of humanity who are all survivors in their own way. He befriends a 103-year-old war reporter, a tour guide who never leaves the Empire State Building, and lovers enraptured or scorned. Ultimately, Oskar ends his journey where it began, at his father’s grave. But now he is accompanied by the silent stranger who has been renting the spare room of his grandmother’s apartment. They are there to dig up his father’s empty coffin.”
Thoughts: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is really two separate stories that only mesh together at the very end. One is the story of Oskar Schell, an eight-year-old struggling to make sense of his father’s death at the World Trade Center on September 11th. The second revolves around Oskar’s grandfather, who lost his first love in the Dresden bombings during World War II. Both deal with love, trauma, loss, and grief, and both are so filled with despair to make the reading of Jonathan Safran Foer’s second novel extremely uncomfortable and incredibly emotional.
The problem lies with the narrators themselves. Their stories are interesting, even mesmerizing. Unfortunately, Oskar is too precocious and a bit too condescending for someone his age, while Oskar’s grandfather is too rigid and remote to allow a reader to build those necessary emotional connections with either narrator. The idea of an eight-year-old wandering around all five boroughs of New York by himself, especially in this day and age of hyper-vigilance of children brought on by an increased fear of kidnapping, is too preposterous to consider remotely plausible. Even when he finally asks someone to keep him company on his search, Oskar’s searches do not mirror the close attention everyone paid to their loved ones in the aftermath of 9/11, even years its occurrence.
As for Oskar’s grandfather, his story is more convoluted than Oskar’s as the way it is told is less direct and less honest. What makes his narrative unenjoyable is his character itself, especially as a reader not only gets to build a mental image of him through his own words, they also get the benefits of Oskar’s grandmother’s impressions of her wayward husband. While he is trying to justify his actions to his unborn son, his words appear as excuses even while he is simultaneously attempting to overcome his own guilt. He is not lying to himself but he is not being 100 percent honest either. The result is that he comes across to readers as cold, incapable of loving anyone other than his dead first love, and unwilling to even attempt to change.
At the same time a reader is attempting to overcome his or her aversions to either narrator, the print version of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close contains pictures, drawings, and other images that are supposed to enhance a reader’s appreciation and understanding of the story. Instead, and perhaps this is the fault of the e-book rather than the print version, these images were more of a distraction, one that jolts a reader out of the story rather than augmenting it.
That being said, there is one scene near the end, complete with pictures, that negate everything previously stated about the novel. It is the one time in which Oskar loses his inadvertent condescension and is finally able to speak the painful truth. The images that follow are painful and palpably dredge up the terror and horror that everyone throughout the nation was feeling on September 11th, 2001. It is as unforgettable a scene that ever was written in a novel.
Unfortunately, one scene, no matter how powerful, cannot overcome an entire novel filled with idiosyncrasies and foibles. While it is a scene that will haunt a reader for a long time, if not forever, the rest of the novel is too convoluted and disjointed for meaningful enjoyment. The fault lies not with the stories themselves but rather with the narrators chosen to tell the stories and the lack of bridges between narrators. The narrator shifts are abrupt, unannounced and often without any indication of which narrator is now telling his or her story. It is up to a reader to not only keep track of each narrator but also to keep the individual threads of the story together until they finally combine. This places a lot of pressure and responsibility on the reader, especially for a novel about such an emotional topic.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a novel that people either seem to love or feel ambivalent about it. I fall into the latter category. The entire story felt a bit too gimmicky to feel authentic. As the mother of an eight-year-old, I cannot overcome the idea of letting a child that age roam around a city, let alone New York City, by himself. While I recognize that Oskar is struggling with his grief and the sheer terror of what happened that day, his voice is not one I find appealing. As for his grandfather, he just left me feeling sick to my stomach. Again, I understand the trauma and horror of what he experienced, but his actions produce their own kind of revulsion. The penultimate scene, wherein Oskar finally reveals his father’s last message, is appropriately shocking and disturbing enough to trouble me for a long time to come, but that does not override my discomfort of the entire novel. That being said, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a novel that will generate a myriad of reactions in readers, all of which will be as personal and unique as one’s individual experiences and reactions on September 11th.
Acknowledgments: Mine. All mine.