"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"
by Jonathan Safran Foer
Reviewed by Matt Koff
Jonathan Safran Foer's new novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, tells the story of a boy's struggle to cope with the death of his father, who was killed in the September 11th attacks. Sounds fun, doesn't it? Surprisingly, much of the book is fun. Because of the book's idiosyncratic, imaginative, outspoken narrator and protagonist, 9-year-old Oskar Schell, the book culminates in a fun, funny, tragic, moving, and often beautiful experience.
The story begins one night in the Schells' Manhattan apartment a year after September 11th; Oskar, still unwilling to let go, rummages through his father's closet only to discover an envelope marked with the word "black", which holds an unfamiliar key. Afflicted by a combination of curiosity and a longing for closeness with his father, Oskar makes his mind up not to rest until he has discovered the lock to which the key belongs. He begins making secret journeys to the home of every person in the five boroughs with the last name Black.
Foer is uncanny in his ability to recreate the world of a child's imagination. An aspiring inventor, Oskar incessantly comes up with ideas for advancements that protect him and his loved ones from potential hazards. One of his more memorable notions is that of a moving skyscraper in which the elevator stays on the ground and your desired floor comes to you instead. "...that could be extremely useful, because of you're on the ninety-fifth floor, and a plane hits below you, the building could take you to the ground, and everyone would be safe." With Oskar's inventions, Foer evokes a time in our youths when our boundless imaginations freed us from having to accept life's cruel reality (I'm still counting on a death vaccine to be out by the time I hit 70). Ironically, though, Oskar's imagination appears to be his most captive faculty. The bulk of his inventions are ones that could have prevented 9-11 from happening. Oskar cannot come to terms with the fact that it already did.
The story's reality itself seems it could be yet another one of Oskar's crazy inventions. Oskar befriends so many fantastically quirky characters, the reader sometimes wonders if this story really takes place in Manhattan, or a latter-day version of Oz. One of the first interviewees that Oskar meets is Albert Black, a 106-year-old ex-war reporter who has forgotten what the world looks and sounds like, because he has not left his apartment, or switched on his hearing aid, in years. Thus ensues an oddly beautiful scene where Oskar (in Dorothyesque fashion) frees Black from his isolation by helping him turn on his hearing aid, and inviting him to come along on his search. We also meet Ruth Black, an unsolicited Empire State Building tour guide, who lives in the building's observatory and has not left the building in decades, nor has ever been asked to leave. Seems rather unlikely, doesn't it? The book is filled with improbabilities like this one. It was here that I realized that Foer had no intention of representing post 9-11 New York City as it truly is. But why this heightened, fairy-tale like version instead?
In Oskar's inability to accept the same reality that killed his father, Foer creates a more skewed, more simplistic reality in which Oskar can survive. Foer expresses Oskar's deep pain not by forcing pathos down our throats, but by implying it through Oskar's brilliantly-realized kaleidoscopic vision. This is what makes Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close an unforgettable reading experience.
Of course, though Oskar's world is friendlier and more exotic than our own, we as readers know Oskar cannot reside in fantasyland forever. But that's what growing up is for.