extremely loud and incredibly close

Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, has been on my radar pretty much since it came out, I think.  I knew it was a highly acclaimed book about a young boy’s experiences following the September 11 attacks, which is an intriguing enough premise, but in actuality something of a misleading one.  Though true enough as a basic description, Foer’s novel is not so much about the aftermath of a specific terrorist attack, but rather the heartbreak and humanity of love, loss, and tragedy.

Oskar Schell, our protagonist, does in fact lose his father in the World Trade Center attacks.  A quirky nine-year-old — a vegan pacifist who writes letters to Stephen Hawking — Oskar is at a total loss in how to deal with the death of his father.  Upon finding a key seemingly hidden in a vase in his father’s closet, he makes it his mission to journey throughout New York in search of the lock it opens.

It’s easy to assume going into this novel that the tragedy of September 11 is at the core of the story; in reality, though, it’s simply tragedy that is at the core.  Though Foer uses this particular event as the catalyst for the novel’s conflict, the story is really about the characters: who they are, how they react, what they’re searching for.  Foer treats the World Trade Center attacks movingly, and in doing so, establishes Oskar’s journey within a specific context; however, the journey itself – a journey much more about how a boy deals with the loss of a father, rather than how the loss occurred – is what makes the book so engrossing.  Well, the journey and the character — Oskar is a bizarre but endearing kid; his life is well defined by sets of rules he has established for himself, and his odd combination of intellect and innocence is striking.  With Oskar, Foer has somehow created a voice that seems both implausible and genuine.

But Oskar doesn’t get all of our attention.  Wound within his story is that of his grandparents; told through letters, we read about their own experiences with love and tragedy.  Though jarring at times, the transitions into these voices provide a larger context for Oskar’s story and weave a sadly beautiful tale of hurt and heartbreak.

All in all, Foer’s novel is much more about people than an event, and much more about resilience than loss.  I hope to read more from him; it’s rare to find such compelling characters with such sincere voices.

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~ by Molly on January 22, 2012.

One Response to “extremely loud and incredibly close”

  1. I went from not knowing this book existed to seeing it mentioned *everywhere*. I’m glad to hear it’s more than just a story about 9/11; I find it really hard to read about 9/11 for some reason. Thanks for the great review. I may actually read it now!

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