Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

I really enjoyed this book; yet another offering from the previous tenant’s library. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was not as well received by critics as Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel Everything is Illuminated (published when he was just 25!), but I fell in love with it after the first page. I also loved Everything is Illuminated when I read it last year, but I found Extremely Loud to be less hard work. While Everything is Illuminated is dense with beautiful but often difficult passages of magical realism, Extremely Loud plays with language and the novelistic form in simpler but equally interesting ways.

Extremely Loud unfolds from the perspectives of three different characters: 9-year-old Oskar Schell, his grandmother, and his grandfather (Thomas Schell). Nine of the novel’s seventeen chapters come from Oskar’s point of view, and he is (in my opinion) the most engaging voice of the three. It is 2003, and Oskar is still dealing with the loss of his father in the events of September 11th, 2001. Oskar describes himself as having “heavy boots” when he is sad, gives himself bruises when things go wrong, and plays the tambourine because having a beat makes things feel a little better. He is constantly inventing things, like a birdseed shirt (so you could be flown away by nibbling birds in an emergency) and mencils (pencils for men) to distract his brain. He has trouble sleeping, and compares his overactive mind to the ever-growing teeth of beavers:

[I]f they didn’t constantly file them down by cutting through all of those trees, their teeth would start to grow into their own faces, which would kill them. That’s how my brain was.

The story begins when Oskar discovers a key in his father’s cupboard and decides to find out what it unlocks. Oskar is determined to solve the mystery, even if it takes years; perhaps especially if it does, since it will allow him to hold onto the memory of his father for longer.

The second voice belongs to Oskar’s grandfather, who is writing letters to Oskar’s (now deceased) father in an attempt to explain why he left. Thomas Schell escaped the firebombing of Dresden during the Second World War, and immigrated to America. He lost his pregnant fiancée Anna in the bombing, and has never been able to forget her. As a result his life is full of regret:

[T]he distance that wedged itself between me and my happiness wasn’t the world, it wasn’t the bombs and burning buildings, it was me, my thinking, the cancer of never letting go … I’ve thought myself out of happiness one million times, but never once into it.

Oskar’s grandmother is also writing a letter, but to her grandson. She explains her side of the story: her own memories of Dresden, of coming to America, of fitting in, and of trying to make a life with Thomas. Her letters are full of mysterious spaces.

In my last post I talked about how easily swayed I am by other people’s opinions, and how I don’t like to read reviews until I’ve had a chance to develop my own ideas. Most of the criticism of Extremely Loud focuses on the idea that Foer’s prose is often artificial. After reading some of the criticism I started to wonder if perhaps Extremely Loud is a little too surreal at times. Not that surrealism itself is bad – Everything is Illuminated dives headfirst into surreal ideas and images. The problem with Extremely Loud is perhaps that it doesn’t go far enough, and so some of the ideas in the novel come across as ridiculous alongside the more straightforward narrative. Oskar’s grandfather, for example, talks about how he has to start writing everything down in daybooks when he loses the ability to speak. This is a beautiful idea, but feels like it is pushed too far and loses its weight when Foer writes:

[I]nstead of singing in the shower I would write out the lyrics of my favourite songs, the ink would turn the water blue or red or green…

Overall, however, Extremely Loud is a beautiful book with a grand sweep, from World War II Germany to post 9/11 New York; from a 9-year-old boy to an elderly woman. I found this novel entertaining, beautifully written, and moving. Thanks again to whoever left it on the shelf.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was first published in 2005, when Foer was 28. A film version was released in 2011, starring Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, and Thomas Horn as Oskar (a quick look at the trailer, however, did not inspire me to watch it). Foer is perhaps most well known for his novel Everything is Illuminated, which won the National Jewish Book Award and the Guardian First Book Award.

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