A Review of “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” by Jonathan Safran Foer
I don’t remember many specifics from when I was twelve years old. I know that I was in the seventh grade and that having Mrs. Leinhos for Language Arts and Literature back-to-back was a bit of a bore. But I do remember that one morning in September they announced that the World Trade Center in New York City had been attacked. The principal’s voice was unsteady on the intercom. People screamed and panicked. When my mother picked my brother and I up early from school, she was a mess. We went and bought canned goods and water at a frenzied K-Mart. Back at home, we were watching a live video feed when 7 World Trade Center collapsed at 5:21 pm. A female reporter was talking to a woman with a baby on the street. Both their voices were shrill. Then the reporter noticed in the background where a massive wall of smoke was billowing towards them. They screamed. Someone shouted, “cover the baby!” and before the smoke could reach, the camera dropped and so did the feed. And it was scarier than any movie I had ever seen, because I knew it was real.
9/11 is a difficult thing to remember and commemorate ten years after the fact, but it’s something communities around the country are trying to do. One thing that my alma mater Providence College is doing is with its new common text reading program. I was on the committee my senior year to help plan and institute the program, which involves all incoming freshmen reading the same book so that it might prove to be a fruitful point of discussion within the intellectual community. The committee chose Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”, a novel primarily about nine-year-old Oskar Schell’s experiences struggling to cope with the death of his father on 9/11. So I sort of felt doubly obligated to read it, both for my involvement in the committee and, for lack of a better way to put it, my involvement as an American citizen. And I’m glad I did.
A year after 9/11, Oskar finds an unknown key in his father’s closet tucked away inside an envelope on which the word “Black” is written. The precocious and hopelessly depressed boy embarks on a journey across Manhattan to meet everyone with the last name Black in an effort to discover the lock to go with the key. Emotional journey doesn’t even come close to describing what happens. He’s somehow able to travel about the city, oftentimes alone, and meets nothing but nice people. That’s where things begin to get a little suspicious. And the more we find out about Oskar, the weirder he gets. He wears nothing but white, has a highly depressing scrapbook, constantly plays his tambourine, has his own business cards, and is a self-proclaimed vegan, pacifist, and former atheist (even though he never really fleshes out any kind of conversion experience?). He’s a bizarre person, but then again, losing your father in a terrorist attack is really bizarre too, so it fits.
Stylistically, the formatting of Foer’s book is extremely unconventional. Entire conversations are crushed into single paragraphs with little or no indication of who’s speaking when. Oskar’s scrapbook, his “Things That Happened To Me” journal is cluttered with pictures and notes of things he experiences, either directly or indirectly. Almost randomly throughout the novel we see these pictures, some funny or interesting, others tragic and mournful. The most prominent is a photo of a figure falling out of a tower on 9/11. Oskar often wonders if it’s his father.
Interspersed throughout the main story are narrations by each of Oskar’s paternal grandparents. Both were present at the fire bombing of Dresden, Germany in World War II. Their courtship is bizarre beyond belief as they live in an apartment littered with what they call “nothing places”, where they can “disappear from the universe altogether” (WTF?). They are that depressed, and perhaps rightfully so. While the two of them as characters are even more unreal than Oskar (his granddad simply can’t speak anymore due to emotional trauma so one hand is his yes and the other, his no), their sorrow is believable enough. But the most interesting part of Oskar’s grandparents – and consequently the whole novel – is the link that is blatantly drawn between the events of September 11, 2001 with the firebombing of Dresden. And at one point, Oskar even plays a recording of a victim whose daughter died in the bombing of Hiroshima. All these tragedies are meant to remind us of the brutality not between radical Islam and America or the Allied forces and the Nazis, but simply between human beings and other human beings. It’s a bold move by Foer that on one hand detracts from and delegitimizes the gravity of 9/11, but when you really process it, Dresden and Hiroshima were massive tragedies as well. Granted, the circumstances were vastly different in each case, but a massacre is a massacre. We all bleed red blood. In this way, Foer avoids creating a novel that deliberately takes advantage of 9/11. Some might say it’s still ‘too soon’, but Foer is concerned less with 9/11 in particular and more with human suffering, tragedy, and how we cope.
As a whole, I loved the book. It’s not without its flaws, but you really feel for the characters, as awkward and as strange as they might be. Oskar’s trials make you smile and cry, sometimes at the same time. But most poignantly, we learn that through all the pain experienced by Oskar and the millions of others affected by 9/11, there is still so much love out there. After those planes hit the towers, people in the offices weren’t scrambling to play one last round of Tetris on their office computer or take one last sip of their Starbucks Latte; they were calling their parents, siblings, and children to tell them how much they loved them. Even in a world where horrible things happen, love is the first, the last, and definitely the most important thing that we think about, and that is the most beautiful truth there is. One haunting line that Oskar’s grandmother says to him really stuck with me: “Oskar, I hope you never love anything as much as I love you.” Just let that sink in for a minute, and you’ll get the gist of “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”.