Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Jonathan Safran Foer
“It was getting hard to keep all the things I didn’t know inside me.”
Nothing I can say about this novel will do it justice but since I have promised this review I will give it a shot anyway. I avoided this novel for many years due to the subject matter but I am glad to have finally read it. It is an incredibly important novel.
This story follows nine-year-old Oskar Schell, who is dealing with the intense emotional repercussions of his father’s death in the September 11th attack on the World Trade Centre. In attempting to find some closure, Oskar embarks on a search for the lock opened by a mysterious key found in his father’s possessions after his death. This search finds him travelling all across New York City and learning as much about himself as he does about the strangers he encounters along the way. Alongside Oskar’s story there are two other narrators who slowly share their own stories: Oskar’s grandmother and his grandfather, Thomas, both of whom are survivors the bombing of Dresden during the Second World War.
The first thing I will say is that I did not expect to be laughing very often in a book about a child whose father was just killed, but I was laughing out loud by the second page of this story. Oskar is nine years old and his narration is bizarre and endearing. With quick subject changes, beautifully immature views, and a wonderful imagination (think of buildings in which elevators stay still and the floors move to meet you, limousines so long there is no need for a driver – you just walk through to your destination, or a set of wedding rings that flash each time your partner’s heart beats), Oskar’s voice is the perfect choice for telling such a difficult story. I appreciate the way that using Oskar as the story’s main narrator removes some of the political underpinnings of the events of September 11th and makes it a more human story. Another interesting aspect of Oskar’s narration is the way the conversations are presented. Foer doesn’t break up the conversations with indications of who is speaking and instead just separates comments in a single paragraph with new quotation marks. I found it difficult at times to know which character was speaking, which really emphasized Oskar’s intelligence and resourcefulness as he was often speaking to individuals much older than he was.
While this novel didn’t go into much depth about the events of September 11th, Foer did include vivid and disturbing depictions of the bombing of Dresden and the bombing of Hiroshima. By incorporating these two other massive tragedies in the story Foer provided a very compelling contrast to the events in New York City in 2001. In both of these controversial attacks the United States was the attacker rather than the victim. Foer presents all three events without casting blame or passing judgment and instead uses them to show the complicated nature of these events and the repercussions that political movement has on individual lives.
In Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Foer does an unexpectedly good job of exploring the complicated emotions surrounding traumatic events. This novel is extremely visual – a parallel, I think, to how visual the attacks were for people all around the world as the result of news outlets playing and replaying footage of the attacks. For example, this novel incorporates excerpts from letters that are heavily censored, overlapping text, blank pages and a mute character, all of which helped to portray the idea of unspeakable stories. Foer also uses phone calls that get cut off and increased spaces between sentences to help show the fragmented nature of traumatic memories. Foer’s experimental style of writing is extremely effective for helping to depict the complexities of remembering, forgetting, hiding and sharing difficult pasts with family as well as with strangers. This novel also incorporates many full-page photographs from a scrapbook Oskar keeps, but the photos themselves are not depictions of the story being told. Instead, the photos are only important in the larger context which is often not given until several pages after the picture appears. This seemed odd to me at first but in the end the photos seemed to underscore material that can’t be captured in a photo.
This novel places a heavy emphasis on human connection and interaction. Oskar’s quest for the lock seems to be an active opposition to the division, fright, isolation and suspicion of neighbours that was caused by the attacks on 9/11. By going out and speaking to strangers from all over the city, Oskar’s quest contrasts the letters his grandparents write. In these letters there is no back-and-forth interaction and often the letter does not make it to its intended recipient. Oskar’s insistence at asking personal questions result in people opening up to him with secrets they might not have told even their closest friends. His ability to probe for information and create intimacy, compared with the isolated letters from his grandparents, struck me as being an interesting play on the concept of “close.” The word close can mean either being near or being shut, depending on use. When I think about it quickly, I would say that a letter could create more intimacy between strangers than awkward questions being asked in person, but here the opposite is true. Highlighting the irreplaceable nature of genuine human interaction in times of trauma and pain, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a beautiful telling of a story that I never thought could be anything but horrific.