Extreme­ly Loud and Incred­i­bly Close

  • Review
By – October 25, 2011
Sec­ond nov­els, par­tic­u­lar­ly those that fol­low the kind of block­buster suc­cess 24-year old Jonathan Safran Foer enjoyed for Every­thing Is illu­mi­nat­ed, bear bur­dens, or, as the inven­tive cen­tral char­ac­ter in Foer’s new book Extreme­ly Loud and Incred­i­bly Close would say, heavy boots.” Foer’s new lin­guis­tic tour de force beau­ti­ful­ly sur­pass­es his debut nov­el, even as it tries a bit too hard to be dis­tinc­tive by adding illus­tra­tions (blur­ry pho­tos and graph­ic design) to a text that doesn’t need them. Extreme­ly imag­i­na­tive and incred­i­bly clever in weav­ing togeth­er the hor­ror of the World Trade Cen­ter with the dev­as­tat­ing bomb­ing of Dres­den, Foer’s new book, though not a Jew­ish sto­ry, mag­i­cal­ly res­onates with a Jew­ish sen­si­bil­i­ty. Extreme­ly Loud and Incred­i­bly Close unfolds like an urban folk tale, a nar­ra­tive of love and loss told essen­tial­ly through the eyes of ten-year old Oskar Schell, who lives on the Upper West Side, one of the most endear­ing young­sters to enter Amer­i­can fic­tion since Hold­en Cau­field, but much more charm­ing, com­pas­sion­ate and pre­co­cious. 

Foer mov­ing­ly cap­tures Oskar’s breathy sen­tence rhythms, the onrush of inde­pen­dent claus­es that fold in his favorite French phras­es (rai­son d’être), Amer­i­can slang (“weird,” jose,” as in no way … ), and euphemisms (“shi­take”), and his sud­den stopped con­ver­sa­tions (“what the”) that fol­low from con­fu­sion or com­ing too near painful truths, as he tries to ward off night­mares and extend fan­tasies that might reclaim some part of his father from death. At once hys­ter­i­cal­ly fun­ny as well as sad, and won­der­ful­ly evoca­tive of the world of a gift­ed child whose col­lec­tion of arcane facts amazes every­one he meets – Stephen Hawk­ing and Jane Goodall write to him — the nar­ra­tive moves in alter­nat­ing shifts of time and place – New York, Dres­den — that may at times prompt reread­ing but that ulti­mate­ly con­verge in unex­pect­ed and sat­is­fy­ing ways. 

Intu­itive­ly sen­si­tive to the dis­or­der and sor­rows of oth­ers, Oskar gets grownups to talk to him and par­tic­i­pate in his quest to find out about a key he has acci­den­tal­ly dis­cov­ered in an enve­lope marked Black” in his father’s clos­et. His secret search, con­duct­ed under the unknow­ing but watch­ful gaze of his car­ing moth­er and ador­ing pater­nal Grand­ma, who lives across the street, and whom he has set up with a walkie-talkie (their exchanges are down­right deli­cious), pro­ceeds along­side unsent let­ters to Oskar from Grand­ma, whose hus­band left her when she was preg­nant with Oskar’s father because, after Dres­den, he could no longer live and love — every­one and every­thing had gone up in flames in 1945, and he stopped talk­ing, lived with ani­mals, and began to com­mu­ni­cate only by writ­ing notes and turn­ing up tat­tooed hands, marked Yes and No. There are also let­ters from Grand­pa, which he nev­er sent, to his unborn child, Thomas, Oskar’s father, which explain his futile attempt in the New World to find a new life by mar­ry­ing Grand­ma, the younger sis­ter of his dead beloved, whom he met again by chance in a Columbian bak­ery on Broad­way. With amaz­ing grace, Foer adroit­ly brings togeth­er peo­ple, in a brief his­to­ry of time, who try ten­ta­tive­ly and ten­der­ly to be.

Joan Baum is a pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at The City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York and writes reg­u­lar­ly on schol­ar­ly and pop­u­lar top­ics for var­i­ous publications.

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