Jonathan Safran Foer, author of the much acclaimed “Everything is Illuminated,” has written his second novel, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” His first novel won many awards, some of which include the Guardian First Book Award; The National Jewish Book Award; and the New York Public Library Young Lion’s Prize. Mr. Foer was one of Rolling Stone’s People of the Year and the film version to his first novel will be coming out in August of this year.
In “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” nine-year-old Oskar Schell is released from school early on September 11, 2001 and once home, finds five messages from his father, who was in a meeting in one of the buildings struck by the terrorists. Wanting to protect his mother, Oskar confiscates the machine, hides it away in his closet, and replays the messages in the privacy of his own room. After the funeral, Oskar finds a mysterious key in the back of his father’s closet. Believing it will give him important insight into his father’s life and armed with only one clue, Oskar searches all of New York City for the lock the key will open.
On the first page the reader is introduced to the wonderful, quirky, precocious Oskar, who spends his time after his father’s death in “heavy boots” inventing things to improve the lives around him:
“What about a teakettle? What if the spout opened and closed when the steam came out, so it would become a mouth, and it could whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare, or just crack up with me? I could invent a teakettle that reads in Dads voice, so I could fall asleep, or maybe a set of teakettles that sings the chorus of “Yellow Submarine,” which is a song by the Beatles, who I love, because entomology is one of my raisons d’etre, which is a French expression that I know.”
Foer is fearless in his attempt to portray the effect of the events of September 11. Yet, this book does not speak for New York as a whole, or the country as a whole or the world. It is a peek into the lives of one family. Foer has offered us a piece of the truth, and by doing this he has shown more effectively the enormity of the impact on the whole.
The book is a collage of images and stories. The horrors of the bombing on Dresden and the bomb on Hiroshima are included. The effect of this inclusion is that war is shown more as a global plague on humanity. Foer is clever in his use of visuals to move along the story. The result is a unique feeling of involvement by the reader. It is also a collage of grief. All of Foer’s characters have lost something or someone important to them: Oskar lost his father and sense of security; Oskar’s mother lost her husband; Oskar’s grandmother lost her own husband to ghosts of his past; in the bombing of Dresden, Oskar’s grandfather lost his first love, a child, and his voice. What is so striking is the dignity with which these people attempt to carry on after the weight of their grief threatens to do them in. Even one of the minor characters is a portrait of perseverance when she decides to live at the top of the Empire State Building because it reminds her of the hope she had when her husband was still alive.
There is a gorgeous honesty throughout this novel and in each of the characters. And Foer has designed a satisfying sense of closure. Oskar in his inventive imagination finds a way to close the “lid” on the mystery of his father. The end of the book reaches the height of poignancy as Oskar imagines the event of September 11 backward. For this reader, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” is one of the best books of the year.
- Originally from Vermont, I now live in North Carolina. My work can be found in recent issues of REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters, The Jabberwock Review, The Emerson Review, Storyglossia, The MacGuffin, Confrontation, Passages North, SmokeLong Quarterly, elimae, wigleaf, and Pank, among others, and forthcoming from Gargoyle #57 and REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters. One of my stories has been translated into Farsi by Asadollah Amraee, and many others by Jalil Jafari, two of which have been published in the Iranian journal, Golestaneh Magazine. For two years I worked as an assistant editor for Narrative Magazine. Currently, I serve as a mentor for Dzanc's Creative Writing Sessions. I'm working on two novels and a short story collection. In May, I was awarded the Carol Houck Smith Contributor Scholarship for the 2011 Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.