Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

December 22, 2007

a letter in your writing doesn’t mean you’re not deadWhen I got home for winter break after finishing my second-last term at law school, I was concerned that I would find it difficult getting back into reading fiction so soon, and thought maybe I should just give my brain a rest for a few weeks. However, nothing inspires copious amounts of reading like five hours waiting around an airport during the holidays. So here we are again. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is Jonathan Safran Foer’s sophomore novel after the apparently very impressive Everything is Illuminated, which I have as of yet failed to read or watch. I’ll have to put more effort into tracking it down after finishing Extremely Loud, because I really like it and it definitely lived up to the hype.

The main character of Extremely Loud is Oskar Schell, a nine-year-old boy travelling through the five boroughs of New York trying to solve a mystery left behind when his father died on September 11. To read his narration it’s clear that he’s both extremely smart and emotionally demolished, and this combination makes him one of the most interesting and moving voices I’ve read in a while. After 10 pages I was worried that Oskar would be tiresome to read, but by page 15 he had completely won me over. He reminded me throughout of Christopher Boone from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: although the characters are obviously quite different, the way an autistic savant and a traumatized genius describe their adventures has a real similarity. I especially love the way that both Mark Haddon there and Foer here are able to implicitly convey information to the reader via a narrator who doesn’t understand the situation he’s in. (Wikipedia tells me this is called dramatic irony, to which I reply: good to know.)

Actually, the best way to describe Oskar Schell is a cross between Christopher Boone and a Kurt Vonnegut protagonist. While he’s much more naive than most Vonnegut characters, there are some moments of sad brilliance which could be right out of Slapstick. Oskar spends most of the book coming up with inventions during his adventures, and like most parts of the story, they’re basically all related to September 11 in some way. One which especially struck me is an ambulance with a sign on the top that that can tell if you know the person inside. Based on what their condition is, as it drives the ambulance can flash messages from DON’T WORRY! DON’T WORRY! to IT’S MAJOR! IT’S MAJOR! To quote Oskar:

And maybe you could rate the people you knew by how much you loved them, so if the device of the person in the ambulance detected the device of the person he loved the most, or the person who loved him the most, and the person in the ambulance was really badly hurt, and might even die, the ambulance could flash


Parts like that sound even more like Vonnegut than most of Timequake did.

My only problem with Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close was with the parts of the book that did not feature Oskar. In between the chapters he narrates, there are letters from members of Oskar’s family, filling in some of the family’s history. These range in style from the straightforward to the poetic to the downright absurdist. I feel like I didn’t know enough about the characters described and their backstories until near the end of the book, at which point I started enjoying the non-Oskar letters. I don’t know if that was Foer’s intent or if I was just slow on the uptake, but I’m certain that I’ll like that element much more when I inevitably reread this one. Worth checking out for sure.


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