Aug 7, 2007

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is the story of Oskar Schell, a very unique 9-year-old boy who lives in New York. In his business card, Oskar defines himself as:
inventor, jewelry designer, jewelry fabricator, amateur entomologist, francophile, vegan, origamist, pacifist, percussionist, amateur astronomer, computer consultant, amateur archaeologist, collector of: rare coins, butterflies that died natural deaths, miniature cacti, Beatles memorabilia, semiprecious stones, and other things.
Oskar’s father, Thomas Schell, was one of the victims of the 9/11 attacks. When his father was still alive, he and Oskar would sometimes play a game in which his father would leave Oskar clues and messages that’d send him on treasure-hunt like expeditions. When, a few months after his father’s death, Oskar finds a strange looking key inside an envelope hidden in a vase, he decides to go on one last treasure-hunt. His only clue is the word “Black” written outside the envelope. As a desperate attempt to remain close to his deceased father, Oskar starts visiting every person in New York whose last name is Black and asking them about his father and the key.

Oskar Schell is one of the most memorable fictional children I have ever come across. He is extremely intelligent, extremely imaginative and extremely likeable. He’s also in a lot of pain – he misses his father very much, and he hasn’t been able to cope with his death. Oskar’s search for the lock that the key will open is also a search for relief from his pain, for acceptance of what happened, for a way to get on with his life.

This book also tells the story of Oskar’s paternal grandparents. Both are survivors of the bombings of Dresden in World War II; both lost everything and everyone they held dear on the same tragic night. They meet again by chance in America, and there begins their love affair – a sad, pale, frightened attempt at closeness by two people who are too broken, too bruised to really be able to love. The two storylines are parallel, and it’s only towards the end of the book that they come together, complementing and enriching each other.

Jonathan Safran Foer tells this beautiful and moving story employing some unusual devices: other than the writing itself, there are pictures, blank pages, different type settings, an occasional disregard for punctuation, pages in which words and sentences are circled in red, and even a 12 page flip book at the very end of the story. Now, I confess that I am somewhat conservative when it comes to innovations of this type – I am only comfortable with them if I feel that they add to the story. In this case, though, I thought that they most certainly did. They are a part of the story, and their presence, initially puzzling, ends up making perfect sense.

This book consolidated Jonathan Safran Foer’s position among my favourite authors. He writes brilliantly – emotional passages especially. This story is tragic and moving and funny and endearing at the same time. I really love the way he deals with tragic events – September 11th and the Dresden bombings in this case, and the Holocaust in the brilliant Everything is Illuminated. And the reason why he does it so well is because he doesn’t write about tragedies in a vague or abstract sense. He makes them so personal - he writes about concrete people and their life stories, and these people become real to us as we read about them, thus also making the events they experienced more real in a way.

At some point in this book, Oskar shows his classmates a documentary about Hiroshima as part of a school project. In it, a woman tells the interviewer that after the bomb exploded, she held her daughter in her arms, watched as her skin melted away from her bones, heard her cry and scream in pain, hear her say again and again that she didn’t want to die, until she did die, 5 hours later. She says that if people could see what she saw for those 5 hours, there would be no more wars. We all know that it is usually easier to feel compassion for a single concrete person than for an abstract million. One could daydream that, though the people in them are fictional, if certain key figures read Jonathan Safran Foer’s stories, there would be no more wars.

To get a feel of what Jonathan Safran Foer's writing is like, try reading his short story "The Sixth Borough" online. This story was later incorporated into Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close - it's the bedtime story Oskar's father tells him the night before he dies.

Also available online is his story "A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease" - This is one of my favourite short stories, and it's both an example of how very moving his stories can be and of his innovative style.

Other Blog Reviews:
where troubles melt like lemon drops


  1. nice. Sounds like a book I might like. But I'm conservative too, hope the experimental way of writing won't put me off.

  2. This sounds really good and I am definately putting it on my list (the joy of finding uses for notebooks, especially if they involve making lists!). It sounds like the author uses an interesting way to get across the effect of war and bombings on families.

    Randomly my birthday is September 11th. I remember being in a tattoo parlour on my 22nd birthday when I heard about the events in America.

  3. Oooo! I loved Everything is Illuminated and have had this one on my shelf for awhile now. I will definitely be reading it next year for the TBR challenge. I really like the author's writing. He's different and tells a great story in the process.

    Wonderful review, Nymeth!

  4. Wow, that sounds like an incredible book with a lot of complex themes.

    This would be my first book that includes a fictionalized telling of the aftermath of 9/11, which is something that I've been meaning to pick up as I think we've got enough hindsight to see the larger effects of the tragedy now.

    Thanks for the review, I'm adding it to my list :)

  5. This one sounds really good, Nymeth. I had never heard of it, and when I looked it up I discovered that he also wrote Everything is Illuminated. Haven't read that one, either, but I loved the movie, so I'm definitely going to have to read his work!

  6. Valentina, you could always give the second of the short stories I mentioned a try. The style is very experimental, so if you like it despite it you would like his novels too.

    Rhinoa: It must be strange to have the day of your birthday associated to something like that. I remember that day very well too. I was working in a bookstore at the time, and people kept coming in and saying New York was under attack, and I couldn't leave the store in search of a TV to find out what was happening exactly.

    Literary Feline: Thank you! If you loved Everything is Illuminated I think you'll love this one too.

    Kim: This was actually one of the very first books to deal with 9/11. I think he handled it masterfully, and that is no easy task.

    Robin: If you loved the movie, I think you'll love the book even more! It's quite a complex book, so of course a lot had to be left out when it was turned into a movie. What they left out includes my very favourite part of the story. Other than the young man's search for Augustine, there is also the story of the village of Trachimbrod, since its formation until its destruction by the Nazis. The style in which that part is written reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez quite a bit. I think you'll love it!

  7. I've been MIA from the net the last few days so I am trying to catch up. LOL.

    BTW, have you read Stephenie Meyer's series? I'm going around asking because the third book just came out and I'm dying to see what people thought about it. LOL.

  8. I haven't read anything by this author but have heard of him. Based on your review, I think I would really enjoy this book so on the list it goes.

  9. Mailyn: Hi! I had wondered what'd happened to you :P Good to see you back. I haven't read the series, no, sorry!

    Framed: I hope you do enjoy it :)

  10. this sounds quite touching...

    very nice review!

  11. I bought this years ago, but haven't gotten around to it yet. I'm so glad to see your review! And now I don't have to go out and buy it!

  12. Jean Pierre: Thanks! It really is a very touching book.

    Bellezza: Do read it when you had the time. I actually had it waiting for me on the shelf for a very long time too. I'm glad I finally picked it up.

  13. I LOVED this book! Although I did like Oskar's story better than the grandparents. I really need to read Everything is Illuminated soon.

    I nominated you for a "Thoughtful Blogger" Award. Stop by and check it out!

  14. yay, I'm glad to find another fan of this book! I liked Oskar's story better too, but I also liked the grandparents', and I especially loved the way they complemented each other at the end. Like, becoming completely broken like his grandfather was the danger Oskar was facing.

    Thank you so much, Stephanie! I'll have to think about who I'll pass it on to.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.