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Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
by Jonathan Safran-Foer
Houghton Mifflin, 2005

review by Stephen Kawalek

Knowing that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a book about the emotional aftermath of September 11, my first assumption about Jonathan Safran-Foer’s second novel was that its title described the shocking events of that day, in words not unlike those spoken to me by friends and family who were there. Delving into the book’s gripping narrative, however, it soon became clear that the plainspoken, emphatic tone of the two title phrases was purely evocative of the language of the story’s primary narrator.

Nine-year-old Oskar Schell weaves a touching, often gut-wrenching tale centered on his personal quest to discover the details of his father’s death at the World Trade Center. While Oskar sets the overall tone of the novel, other portions of the book are narrated by the boy’s ever-present grandmother and ever-absent grandfather, European survivors of World War II whose perspectives add depth and interest to the narrative at large. Beyond this, the text is peppered with notebook entries, photographs, copies of letters and pages arranged into flipbooks. These graphical and typographical devices will continue to make this book a challenge for printers, but a wonder for readers. What may sound gimmicky is in fact a powerful means of providing visceral connections to the characters’ emotional lives, played out through correspondence and mementos.

In the most basic analysis, however, the three narrators share an abiding sense of isolation in the face of unimaginable loss, whether as a result of allied bombings, Islamic terrorism, or anything in between. Oskar’s chapters, with titles like “What The?” and “Googolplex,” give the reader a fascinating and moving glimpse into the mind of an extremely clever young boy—at a formative stage—dealing with concepts and feelings for which he may not have been ready. Oskar’s inquisitive nature is largely a product of the elaborate detective games his father once devised to amuse him, and his actions throughout the novel are guided by his search for the facts.

The discovery of what Oskar believes to be a clue left behind by his father is the catalyst for Oskar’s adventure, which takes him from one end of New York City to the other, and into many situations which demand maturity and fortitude beyond his years. Ultimately, Oskar’s quest leaves him more or less where he started, still in the dark about the details of his father’s death, and still feeling unsafe in the world. But along the way he encounters many interesting people, sees many new places, and experiences things most 9-year-olds never would.

Through it all, Oskar relies on his relationships with adults to carry out his plans. His interactions with the strangers he meets in his travels can be sad, scary, touching or hilarious. Many of the grown-ups who look out for Oskar figure heavily into the arc of the story, while the boy’s grieving mother, content to let him search for closure in his own way, remains a secondary character. Oskar shares his strongest bond with his doting, if obsessive, grandmother, and ultimately with his grandfather, both of whom are, after all, blood relatives of his father. And the narrative provides insight into the minds of both older people.

The grandmother’s pieces, usually called “My Feelings,” reveal a stirring and beautiful inner life fraught with pain and frustration, marred by a doomed relationship, and seasoned with simmering passion. Written like narrative poetry, her beautiful turns of phrase show depth of feeling beyond any other character in the book. Those sections written by her ex-husband—an absentee father who stopped speaking after losing his lover and unborn child to the firebombing of Dresden—are powerful passages from the notebooks and letters of a man who spent 40 years in silence, communicating to the world and those he loved with only written words and crude sign language. With titles like “Why I’m Not Where You Are 5/21/63,” these chapters depict a man who has retreated both physically and emotionally from sources of pain, but whose isolation only heightens the anguish he already feels.

Overall, the grandparents’ stories provide a parallel to Oskar’s own suffering, making clear that pain and loss are nothing new. Yet Oskar’s ignorance of what his elders have suffered is a clue to the extent of his innocence in spite of everything he has been through. Even after forging a secret alliance with his grandfather—returned to New York after 9/11 only to find he has lost his son forever—Oskar is never fully cognizant of the depth of his grandfather’s—or his grandmother’s—pain. The grandparents’ own inability to communicate openly adds to the sense of disconnect among these close relatives.

Like many of their generation, Oskar’s grandparents have buried their grief inside themselves, with a spectacular lack of success. Oskar, in contrast, wears his sorrow on his sleeve, shamelessly describing therapy sessions and never shying away from telling perfect strangers about the circumstances of his father’s death. When Oskar and his grandfather decide to finish out Oskar’s quest together—embarking on a dangerous mission to literally bury the past—they achieve only the smallest measure of closure. Stuffing a lifetime of unsent letters into the empty coffin they toiled to exhume, Oskar and his grandfather are left feeling only slightly better after this ritual, still yearning for safety from unbearable hurt and unthinkable loss.

In the end, this deeply saddening book proved to be strangely cathartic, despite its characters’never finding inner peace. For ultimately the message is just this: existence is suffering, and while the search for solace might never end, life must go on. So while each of the characters finds his or her own way to cope, what eventually matters is not the nature of the paths they chose—healthy or harmful, spiritual or scientific—but the fact that they chose a path at all. Along the way, the details they encountered—a voice that is extremely loud, a face that is incredibly close—could be arbitrary, wonderful. For Oskar, these kinds of perceptions are tacit acknowledgements that he is alive, that there is life around him, and that even though the clock will never run backward—as his hero Stephen Hawking theorizes it can—just being alive is reason enough to endure.

Copyright ©2004 Stephen Kawalek

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
To purchase a copy of EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE, visit amazon.com. This link is provided as a service to explorefaith.org visitors and registered users.


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