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Book Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer


Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
(2005) is Foer’s second novel. After reading it I wasn’t surprised to learn that he teaches creative writing at New York University, or that the book has significantly divided critical opinion.

Oskar Schell, now nine, is still mourning the death of his father two years ago in the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers. Always a nerdy kid who knows, for example, that the Hall of Mirrors is in Versailles, ‘which is outside of Paris, which is in France, obviously’, and reads Hawking’s A Brief History of Time for recreation – he is finding it difficult to come to terms with the loss of his father, and suffers from insomnia, fear of elevators and Arabs, and a sense of being ‘in the middle of a huge black ocean.’ He takes his tambourine with him when he goes out so that he can play it and know ‘I was still me’, and he bruises himself in moments of stress. One day, picking through his father’s possessions, he finds a strangely shaped key in an envelope marked ‘Black’, and immediately embarks on a project to try and find the lock the key will open by visiting all the hundreds of people in New York named Black. This search makes up the body of Oskar’s story, which is told in the first person. Does his mother really let him wander about New York on his own, or sometimes in the company of an 102 year old man?

In addition to this plot strand, there are also the stories of Oskar’s grandmother, who lives across the street from him, and his grandfather, who left his grandmother some forty years earlier. Both of these stories are told through letters, though it is unclear which if any of them were ever sent. Oskar’s grandfather – about whom he knows nothing – writes initially to his unborn child, Oskar’s father, then to the son he only meets once. His letters have a ‘run on’, almost stream of consciousness style. Oskar’s grandmother writes to Oskar. Her letters have short, staccato sentences. These letters reveal fragments of their life in Germany, and their strange, unhappy marriage. I found some of the details a bit confusing, and was relieved to see that some of the reviews I read were confused too.

As well as the alternating of the three distinct voices of these characters, there are a number of visual aids – if that’s what they could be called – to the story. There are random photos – for example of door knobs, pages with only one line of print on them, blank pages, pages where the text gets smaller and smaller and becomes a black block, and, most commented on of all by reviewers, a series of pages that work as a flip book which show the reverse of reality – a body falling upwards towards one of the Twin Towers. Some of the photos are taken by Oskar. Some of these effects represent the communication of the grandfather, who is unable to speak, so writes down what he needs to say. (He has ‘yes’ and ‘no’ tattooed on the palms of his hands.)  The blank pages are the result of typing on a typewriter with no ribbon. I’m not sure whether these overly symbolic visual aids add anything, but I no doubt have an old fashioned view of the novel.

There seem to be two major criticisms. The first is related to problems with writing from a child’s point of view. Several of the reviewers I read pointed out that novels about coming of age from childhood used to be popular, whereas now, childhood itself is material for fiction for adults. The problem is the voice: how to make it juvenile, but not cute. Writing in the New Yorker, author and critic John Updike said that his ‘heart slightly sank when he realized that he was going to spend more than three hundred pages in the company of an unhappy, partially wised-up nine-year-old’, and I can’t help agreeing with him. Other reviewers have compared Oskar with another disturbed young New Yorker – Holden Caulfield, though his was arguably a coming of age story. No one can help sympathizing with Oskar’s unhappiness and his loss. But there are mixed reactions to Oskar; one comment on the back cover sees this as ‘a heartrending portrayal of a child coping with disaster’, whereas a critic in the New York Magazine says ‘Oskar resembles nothing so much as a plastic bag crammed with oddities’. The reviewer in the Guardian says ‘I would have preferred not to take sides. But, looking back at my jottings in the margins of Foer’s new book, I can’t deny how frequently and furiously I’ve scribbled “Aaaarrghh!”’. One reviewer talks of the ‘profundities’ in the text, ‘all of them dropping with the same ”plop”’. I think that some of the rather trite things Oskar says are meant to be wise. I think that is true for the grandparents too, but being enigmatic isn’t necessarily a sign of wisdom. ‘I do not want to hurt you, he said. ‘It hurts me when you do not want to hurt me,’ I told him,” and “I spent my life learning to feel less.”’ Really? It sounds to me furthermore as if Oskar’s voice is often that of Foer himself.

The second issue is the use of 9/11 in the story. Apparently the original draft didn’t have 9/11 in it, but once it had occurred, Foer changed the story to include it. He says that ‘If you’re in my position—a New Yorker who felt the event very deeply and a writer who wants to write about things he feels deeply about—I think it’s risky to avoid what’s right in front of you.’ The plot needs a bereaved child, though not one whose father necessarily died in the Twin Towers. His complete obliteration makes Oskar’s search for any semblance of him all the more poignant, and that is probably what some critics don’t like about the book: they think it veers into sentimentality. At least one reviewer considers the use of 9/11 to be completely inappropriate; Foer, he says, ‘snatches 9/11 to invest his conceit with gravitas, thus crossing the line that separates the risible from the villainous.’ The title of his review is ‘extremely cloying and incredibly false’. The inclusion of details of both the fire-bombing of Dresden and the atomic bomb explosion at Hiroshima are seen by reviewers as occasions for either additional courage and brilliance on Foer’s part, or further tawdry attempts to invest the story with seriousness.

As for the title, which is never explained in the book, Foer says ‘War is loud and close. As for the novel itself, I hope the reader feels it loudly and close.’ Some readers do, and some don’t, ‘obviously’, as Oskar would say. I’m genuinely torn. You can find out more about Foer and his work here. ELIC has been made into a film which got an Academy Award nomination, but mixed reviews. Surprise.

PS My book club considers that Oskar may be autistic. I’m not sure: there is evidence both ways. Is it reasonable for an author to assume that his readers would make such a connection?


3 comments

  1. Annie B

    While this book doesn’t sound exactly my cup of tea …. it does sounds interesting – just to read and find out what I might feel about it myself.

    Without having read the book, I dare to say that your observations about Oskars voice being that of Foer himself, is vindicated in the comment Foer makes ‘If you’re in my position—a New Yorker who felt the event very deeply and a writer who wants to write about things he feels deeply about—I think it’s risky to avoid what’s right in front of you.’

    Many writers, as you know, have a goodly portion of themselves and their lives interwoven into their novels.

    Good article Kay.

  2. helvityni

    Sorry to be off topic.

    I found one of Anne Tyler’s earlier books whilst rummaging in a second hand bookshop. It’s called The Amateur Marriage, beautifully observed, with sly humour ( says the back cover ). Her Tin Can Tree and If Morning Ever Comes are some of my all time favourites.

    I read this at bed time, and in the morning some of Hesse’s and Mann’s correspondence, a old paperback titled The Hesse/ Mann Letters.

  3. Alan S

    Lots of quotes from reviewers who didn’t like the book, but none from the many who thought it was wonderful, moving, etc. So what is the author of this article’s point? If she found some of the details “confusing” then I feel she is easily confused. If there is any travesty related to this book then it is the awful film they made of it. Personally speaking, this is my favourite novel of all time (and his other novel, “Everything is Illuminated” is also brilliant).

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