10 Apr 2005
Jonathan Safran Foer became the literary whiz kid of 2002 with his debut novel “Everything Is Illuminated.” This ambitious book, in which Foer appears as a man traveling to Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis, was a widely praised best seller, earning the 25-year-old author an equal amount of envy and spite for his youth and precociousness.
His follow-up effort, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” traces the spiral of grief and shame felt by 9-year-old Oskar Schell, whose father died in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. It is partly a quest, a meditation on our response to random tragedy and a story of redemption. It also is, in turns, affecting and preposterous.
As a result of his father’s death, Oskar feels abandoned by his mother and guilty over failing to respond to his father’s increasingly frantic phone messages from the top of the tower.
Oskar turns his pain inward, creating fantastic inventions in his mind that could have saved his father, pinching himself until he bruises and suppressing his rage. When he finds a safety deposit box key hidden by his father in an envelope marked “Black,” he sets out on long walks across the five boroughs to locate the mysterious Black.
At the same time, Foer intermingles the story of Oskar’s grandfather, who’s equally traumatized when his pregnant girlfriend was killed in the World War II bombing of Dresden. His tale unfolds with a dreamlike quality. Losing the ability to speak, he writes in blank books and tattoos the words “no” and “yes” on his hands. In the shower, he sings by writing the words on his legs. “The ink would turn the water blue or red or green, and the music would run down my legs.”
He flees to the United States, where he meets and marries his girlfriend’s sister. Their apartment is ruled by rules and partitioned into Nothing Places “in which one could temporarily cease to exist.”
Although they agreed not to have children, she becomes pregnant with Oskar’s father. He abandons her and spends the next 40 years writing unsent letters to his son. If after reading all this, you find yourself annoyed by his behavior, well, you’re not alone.
To add a layer of post-modern complexity and tone, Foer plays with the book’s typography and design. Sentences appear one to a page, then are increasingly rammed together into unreadability over several pages, or translated into numbers on a telephone keypad.
Foer also includes, with varying effectiveness, photographs taken by Oskar in his wanderings around New York City or downloaded off the Internet and pasted into his scrapbook: doorknobs, buildings and Laurence Olivier in “Hamlet.” Some add little to the narrative, but an invented photo of a man falling from one of the World Trade towers is used several times to great effect, including a flip-book sequence at the end that reverses time, reflecting Oskar’s desire to rewind the past to when his father was alive.
Some reviewers have characterized the novel as an attempt to write about 9-11. It isn’t. Once the buildings fall, reverberations from the attack almost completely vanish from the narrative. The function of the terrorist attack was to serve as a random tragedy that traumatizes Oskar. For all that matters in the book, Oskar’s father could have died from a heart attack or been poisoned by ineptly prepared blowfish.
With its multitude of strands and sometimes obscure prose, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” is complicated and — when it comes to teasing apart the story’s threads — sometimes difficult to read. Foer’s expressive use of language makes Oskar’s pain palpable, but it’s also his sole note. Foer wants us to understand how we try and fail to communicate our innermost thoughts and love for one another, but after finishing the book, I realized that all his efforts could be summarized in five words:
“You wanna talk about it?”