EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE by Jonathan Safran Foer
|The novels of Jonathan Safran Foer are more than just engaging stories; they are puzzles whose pieces are laid out in non-linear fashion from multiple perspectives over many generations. Although one large story is being told, it takes much attention by the reader to grasp all the small pieces that will eventually drop into place by the final chapter. And even then, some pieces just might not fit the story at large. This, too, is okay. For the stories told by Foer are masterful and seem to be getting better with each new attempt.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close tells the larger story of a child trying to come to terms with the death of his father, who perished in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. In an effort to hold onto what he can, the boy, Oskar, finds a key inside a blue vase hidden in his father’s closet, and with only one clue he begins a trek across New York City to find the lock that fits the key. He assumes this key is part of a game that his father was going to present to him, as the two have played such games throughout the boy’s life, but without his dad’s assistance, the task is monumental. Since Oskar desperately needs to hold onto everything that will remind him of his dad, he is determined to work his way through every single lock that the key might fit. And there begins the story.
In between the chapters of Oskar’s search, we meet his grandmother and grandfather, both of whom are survivors of the bombing to Dresden, Germany, during World War II, and throughout the book we are taken on a journey with these two until all three stories converge at the end. In this respect, Extremely Loud is much like Foer’s previous novel, Everything Is Illuminated, but the heart of the second novel is much more relatable and straightforward. The thread that runs from the Dresden tragedy to the World Trade Center tragedy is much stronger than I first anticipated. And each reflection on Dresden seemed to place even more weight on the recent events. Foer chose exactly the right imagery and emotions and words to speak about something that is still so very delicate and sensitive to Americans. And in using a child to speak directly on the subject, somehow it seemed appropriate to revisit that day. Though not less heartbreaking.
Despite the core of the novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close does not have a sad tone. There are times that it is heavy, of course, but there are times of great humor and great fun. Oskar’s quest is enjoyable and a plausible mystery, and the story of the grandparents is astounding, to say the least. Above all, though, this is a story of humanity in the face of tragedy. And that alone makes this book worth anyone’s investment.
Passages of Note
Dad always used to tuck me in, and he’d tell the greatest stories, and we’d read the New York Times together, and sometimes he’d whistle “I Am the Walrus,” because that was his favorite song, even though he couldn’t explain what it meant, which frustrated me. One thing that was so great was how he could find a mistake in every single article we looked at. Sometimes they were grammar mistakes, sometimes they were mistakes with geography or facts, and sometimes the article just didn’t tell the whole story. I loved having a dad who was smarter than the New York Times, and I loved how my cheek could feel the hairs on his chest through his T-shirt, and how he always smelled like shaving, even at the end of the day. Being with him made my brain quiet. I didn’t have to invent a thing.
Eight minutes thirty-two seconds…
But I knew that there couldn’t be pockets that enormous. In the end, everyone loses everyone. There was no invention to get around that, and so I felt, that night, like the turtle that everything else in the universe was on top of.
My boots were so heavy that I was glad there was a column underneath us. How could such a lonely person have been living so close to me my whole life? If I had known, I would have gone up to keep him company. Or I would have made some jewelry for him. Or told him hilarious jokes. Or given him a private tambourine concert.
It made me start to wonder if there were other people so lonely so close. I thought about “Eleanor Rigby.” It’s true, where do they all come from? And where do they all belong?
What if the water that came out of the shower was treated with a chemical that responded to a combination of things, like your heartbeat, and your body temperature, and your brain waves, so that your skin changed color according to your mood? If you were extremely excited your skin would turn green, and if you were angry you’d turn red, obviously, and if you felt like shiitake you’d turn brown, and if you were blue you’d turn blue.
Everyone could know what everyone else felt, and we could be more careful with each other, because you’d never want to tell a person whose skin was purple that you’re angry at her for being late, just like you would want to pat a pink person on the back and tell him, “Congratulations!”
Another reason it would be a good invention is that there are so many times when you know you’re feeling a lot of something, but you don’t know what the something is. Am I frustrated? Am I actually just panicky? And that confusion changes your mood, it becomes your mood, and you become a confused, gray person. But with the special water, you could look at your orange hands and think, I’m happy! That whole time I was happy! What a relief!