I just finished reading the most amazing book. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. It is a funny, heartbreaking, and inventive novel, told by a variety of narrators, but mainly by a nine-year-old boy, Oskar Schell, whose father, Thomas, died in the World Trade Center on September 11th. Two years after Thomas’ death, Oskar finds an envelope labeled “Black” with a key inside it, and begins a quest to discover the lock that fits the key, hoping to bring himself closer to his father, to unlock an aspect of him that he never knew before. Oskar’s voice is not that which one usually finds in literature, because he actually sounds like a child. He doesn’t speak in metaphors or seem like he’s actually an adult author trying to mimic a child’s voice while inserting insights that a child could not know. Foer never breaks character, so to speak. Many times, we have to read between the lines to grasp what Oskar is going through, and how extremely damaged he is. For example, he very matter of factly says he is afraid of bridges, subways, skyscrapers, etc. but he doesn’t psychoanalyze himself. We also know that he bruises himself, from indirect references scattered throughout his writings. But the book is not dour in the least. In fact, a great deal of Oskar’s narration is very funny, again, because he speaks and thinks like a child.
The structure of the novel is brilliant: the overlapping narrators each add different pieces to the puzzle of the story. Minor references or unexplained mysteries from early in the book reappear from another character’s perspective later. In most cases, however, the reader ends up discovering more about these connections than the characters themselves ever do. Foer ingeniously, however, follows up on every single thread, even one in particular from very early on that I had been trying to discover the significance of. When he finally revealed the answer, I actually gasped. Another fascinating aspect of the book is how Foer uses photographs throughout the book to comment on the story. In the context of the story, these are pictures that Oskar is collecting in a scrapbook, but I have not read a novel since Jack Finney’s Time and Again that used such a device so well, and it is even more impressive here, as the photos add even more depth than before. The final pages of the novel, in fact, are a flip book which took my breath away. This is a very visual novel, on the whole. There are many places where seeing how the text is set on the page is just as important as the text itself, which is why I could not imagine this working nearly as well on audiobook. For example, one supposedly “typewritten” chapter is filled with misspelled words, with red circles around each typo, as if these were someone’s corrections. This is the rare “postmodern” book where the form adds to the theme, and not in a pretentiously meta way or in the form of an academic exercise. The disjointed form of this novel actually adds character, depth, and emotion.
And, yes, this is an incredibly emotional book. But it is never manipulative. It does not intend to force tears out of you about September 11th. One of the reasons it is so extremely powerful is because of the simplicity of the prose (which belies its immense depth and complexity…it reads quickly but resonates deeply). Reading about Oskar discuss his father, the reader feels pain because it reminds one of our own pain surrounding this overwhelming, recent tragedy. It opens up wounds. It also rests squarely in the vast tradition of quest novels in which a hero tries to grasp a father he did not know, or in this case, wants to know better. This is not a hard book to read. At the same time, though, it is a very hard book to read, because of its subject matter. But it is so, so worth it. I cannot stress that enough. I hate the phrase, “This should be required reading…” because that makes it sound like it’s unenjoyable. And it’s anything but. It’s compelling, it’s brilliant, and, as I said before, I promise, despite the sadness, it is also very, very funny. But everyone really should read it. It actually feels good in a way to not forget this tragedy, and, at the end, to embrace the process of moving on. I’ve read many, many books this year so far, and this was, hands down, the best. This is Pulitzer Prize-level material (I also highly recommend his first book, Everything Is Illuminated).
If it were only about 9/11, it wouldn’t be nearly as resonant a novel. But it is not only specifically about this tragedy, but tragedy in general (one major portion of the novel parallels this disaster with the bombing of Dresden, for example). And more importantly, recovery from tragedy, whether your family died in the World Trade Center, or in a car crash. It is also about discovering (or not discovering) aspects of other people you never knew–what people reveal to others and what they keep hidden to themselves.
And it’s about love.