Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

Right now I’m sick, which is really annoying in very many ways because I’m never sick and this is a particularly bad time for it to crop up. In the past I’ve enjoyed being sick, because I would really take any amount of suffering over being in school. This year, though, I have to do the work anyway, as most of my classes are online; so, suffering or not, the work must be done. On top of that, I can’t afford to miss Painting this week because we have a guest artist giving us a few lessons on book-arts, and I’m very, very excited for it.

Being sick also means missing out on PCS, which makes me unhappy. I went today, despite feeling crummy, and… well, it was a very long day. I was aching and tired and I’m still aching and now I’m throbbing. But not so much that I couldn’t read, or go to the library, actually. I knew I was going to finish this book today, and I like to have my next book when I finish my current book. Don’t get me wrong, I do have a pile of books over here, but they’re all foodie, and I want to put a little bit of space between my foodie reviews. I’ve even ordered a couple of books through inter-library loan, so I have a few lined up right now.

So I have a tumblr, and on that tumblr I follow quite a number of blogs all about books. And since I joined tumblr (it’s been a few months now, I guess), this book has been all over my dashboard. Photos of the book, photos of his other books, excerpts from the book, memorable quotes- I’ve been seeing a lot of this book, and I was convinced to read it pretty quickly. And then took a number of months to actually get my hands on a copy, despite the fact that it was available at my local library.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the story of a boy named Oskar Schell, who is nine years old, lives in New York, and lost his father in the 9/11 disaster two years ago. Now it’s just him, his mother, and his paternal grandmother, who lives across the street. Oskar is very intelligent, but also very naive, and his narration sounds very much like that of a nine year-old boy who’s hurt too much. One day, for the first time since “the worst day,” Oskar goes into his father’s closet and finds a vase on the top shelf. Inside the vase are two items- an envelope with the word “Black” written on the back, and a key inside of it. Oskar decides that he must find the lock to this key, so he searches the name “Black” in the phone book and decides to visit each and every Black in New York to see if they know about the key.

Oskar’s narration parallels those of two other characters, all closely linked, but telling different stories. With each chapter you hear another voice, and they’re all very distinctly written. Oskar’s most closely resembles a book, with proper sentence structure, punctuation, and paragraph structure. The second voice, that of a man who has lost the ability to talk and thus has to write out all of his conversations, who has “yes” and “no” tattooed on his hands, speaks in a dreamy run-on, seeing many commas, and a period every seven or eight lines. His chapters are sheer walls of text, which sounds tedious, but I was surprised that I hardly noticed. He uses quotation marks, but the dialogue all runs together. His chapters are actually letters to his son. The third and final narrator is an old woman who has loved and lost, who has lived a very strange life, who has crummy eyes. Her story is told like an extended poem- short lines, choppy sentences, no quotation marks at all. Her chapters are letters to Oskar.

And now…. now I have to tell you what I thought of this book. But I sit here stalling and trying to avoid answering. EL&IC was in parts sweet, more often sad, horrific, confusing, and provoking. The narrator Oskar was naive and wise- he didn’t know what he wanted, and at the same time he knew that he wanted more than any key could tell him. At the end, everything is resolved- the key gets found, the characters progress, they grow. They reach revelation, which is really, I think, the entire point of novels like this.

One thing to point out (which I showed to my 5th graders, and thrilled them) is that this book is very graphic- that is, it’s not just straight writing. Pages of text are interspersed with pictures, photos of doorknobs and houses. There’s one chapter, a letter from man to son, that’s completely defaced with red ink- the narrator has circled words and phrases, even just letters or suffixes, sometimes, and Foer just leaves you wondering why.

There are some places where the pages of the book are half of the man’s written conversations- one sentence, in the center of the page, and then you flip on. Usually this conversation has been explained in the narration, so you know what his partner has said. There’s one place where he talks about needing infinite pages and infinite time, and instead decides to write on top of his letters, and for the next few pages you can’t read a word- they’re all piled together.

This book is the sum total of all that I’ve said- it’s intriguing. Which is actually a very bland description, because interesting is what people say when you explain something to them and they don’t know what to say. “So, what do you think?” “Oh, that sounds interesting.” But in this case, that’s what it is- in intrigues, it draws you in. Sheer fascination draws you forward.

Fun fact: Jonathan Safran Foer is married to another writer I happen to greatly like- Nicole Krauss, who wrote The History of Love. I’ve now read exactly one of each of their books, and I do believe they’re perfect for each other.

Published in: on March 21, 2011 at 8:07 pm  Comments (7)