Jonathan Safran Foer is quite different than most young writers today. While his peers favor self-deprecation, irony, and pop culture savvy, the 28-year-old Foer has differentiated himself by tackling Serious topics in a Serious manner. His first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, dealt with the Holocaust; Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, his second, deals with 9/11. He writes on these tragedies with wide-eyed sincerity, undiffused optimism, and his heart on sleeve, without venturing into the mawkish.
Central to the narrative is precocious Oskar Schell, a nine-year-old pacifist, inventor (crème brulée flavored stamps, Morse code jewelry) and Stephen Hawking enthusiast, who struggles with the death of his father. The novel spans three generations of the Schell family, through disaster and heartache, from the Dresden bombings that drove Oskar’s grandparents to the Unites States, to the September 11 attacks that took his father.
When Oskar finds a key in an envelope in his father’s closet, he’s determined to find that key’s owner, convinced that his father—who had a penchant for elaborate games and puzzles—had left it as a clue for Oskar. The key and the “Black” scrawled on the envelope sparks a journey through New York’s five boroughs (by foot—the 9/11 attacks have rendered the subways suspicious for Oskar) in an attempt to get closer to his father. This journey leads him to a slew of equally lonely individuals with a hunger to connect. An elderly man who hammers a nail every day onto his bedpost, until it will become magnetic, and ends up accompanying Oskar for part of his journey; a woman who shares Oskar’s love of elephants and lives in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s house; another woman who has turned her living room into a museum dedicated to her husband. All these characters’ experiences coalesce to create a shared experience of grief and loss, and they help assuage the wounds inflicted by the various tragedies in their lives. Their idiosyncrasies are a response to the harsh realism of the world, rather than a cloying cuteness on Foer’s part.
Interspersed throughout this central narrative are letters written by Oskar’s grandparents, which help add to this shared experience of pain. Oskar’s grandfather Thomas writes (unsent) letters to his son, explaining the horrific Dresden bombing and his reasons and apologies for leaving his wife and his then-unborn son. The bombing left Thomas so stricken with grief, that he loses his ability to speak, communicating through note cards and through his tattoos on his hands signifying “yes” or “no.” While grief causes Thomas to withdraw from the world, it causes Oskar’s grandmother to cling, first to her husband and then to her grandson. Her letters are addressed to Oskar. Both grandparents letters verge on the avant-garde, comprised of poetic fragments, pages of just numbers, and text placed on top of text rendering words illegible. Pages of Oskar’s scrapbook “Stuff That Happened to Me” comprise the rest of the novel, which amplify his preoccupation of life (animals copulating) and death (an image of a man falling off the World Trade Center).
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close continues with Foer’s interest in paternal history, road trips and tragedy as a means of healing explored in Everything Is Illuminated, and does so with a heightened sense of cohesiveness and experimentation with form. While at times verging a little too close to “precious,” Extremely Loud confirms Foer as a supremely talented writer who blends horror with whimsy to create a new humanism in literature.