Jonathan Safran Foer: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (review)

‘/…/ one hundred ceilings had become one hundred floors, which had become nothing.’ (p. 272).

I loved this novel all the way through. It was incredible. I do not have words to really express how great this book was. The writing was so amazing. Jonathan Safran Foer painted such incredible pictures with his words and I was just blown away by it. I don’t think I can do it justice but I’m going to try to write something that can recommend this novel to others so you too can be blown away by this fantastic novel.

This is the story of young Oscar Schell, a nine-year-old boy who lost his father in the 9-11 attack. Oscar and his father used to play all kinds of games so when Oscar finds a key in an envelope labeled Black in a blue vase in his father’s closet, he thinks it’s one last treasure hunt. Oscar decides to find the lock this key fits into and he goes about this by visiting every person named Black in the phone book. He starts going to them one by one and has lots of interesting encounters but doesn’t seem to have any luck with finding the right Black.

Oscar’s voice is spot on. I love how he sometimes just rambles on and on about things he knows – and even sometimes about things he wishes he didn’t know.

Since his father’s death, Oscar has been living with his mother and with his grandmother living across the street. A huge part of this novel is about this grandmother – and about his grandfather. They both grew up in Dresden and experienced the fire bombing in WWII. Thomas Schell, Oscar’s grandfather, was in love with his grandmother’s sister who disappeared in the bombing, while pregnant with his child. Thomas Schell lost the ability to speak, has the words yes and no put on his hands and carried notebooks everywhere to be able to speak with other people. ‘/…/ instead of singing in the shower I would write out the lyrics of my favorite songs, the ink would turn the water blue or red or green, and the music would run down my legs /…/’ (p. 18).

Oscar’s grandparents tried to make it work between them by making a lot of rules but never really talked to each other about how they felt. His grandfather finally left when he found out she was pregnant with Oscar’s father and never met his son – although he wrote him letter after letter, none of them ever mailed.

I loved this tragic story of Oscar’s grandparents – how they had been through so much but wasn’t really able to connect with each other and help each other through it. I think Oscar’s grandmother’s life story is a perfect example of this. She sits in a room, writes and writes and writes, and when she finally show it to his grandfather, there’s nothing on the pages. He feels so bad since he now remembers having taken the ribbon out of the type writer and thinks that she’s not able to see that she hasn’t written anything because of her crummy eyes. He pretends to be able to read it even though there’s nothing on the pages. But in reality, she is just pretending to write and is just hitting the space bar again and again. ‘My life story was spaces.’ (p. 176). It’s so beautiful. And tragic.

This is a book about love and grief and how we deal with it. I think it’s more about these universal feelings that we all experience than it’s about 9-11. 9-11 is the setting for this story about a boy trying to come to term with loosing his dad, a dad who lost his father too. It’s about the terrible feeling when we have our parents or children ripped from us and how we try to cope, to survive and to protect the ones around us who have suffered too. It’s about people loosing their loved ones because of actions of other people, other countries’ governments or terrorists. And it’s an amazing feat.

I think Jonathan Safran Foer puts the 9-11 terror attack into context of other terrible events in human history like the bombing of Dresden in WWII and the  dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oscar’s grandfather tells about his experiences in the bombing of Dresden, how he ended up going around in Dresden Zoo and killing all the animals as well as what he experienced on the streets. ‘/…/ I saw a woman whose blond hair and green dress were on fire, running with a silent baby in her arms /…/ through the sounds of collapsing buildings I heard the roar of that baby’s silence.’ (p. 211-213). A mother describes how her daughter died in her arms in Hiroshima. As terrible as 9-11 was, this was not the first time that civilians suffered. I think that Foer’s argument is weakened a bit by these two others being in wars because I think that the loss of civilian life is equally important, no matter what the context. But I think the people attacking 9-11 could be said to have thought they were being in a war and therefore, their action was as justified as the other two. Or rather – as little justified. Still – doesn’t more parties than one have to recognize something to be a war for it actually to be a war? And how awful it is to try and win a war by killing innocent civilians. How people suffer because of this.

Jonathan Safran Foer is an interesting author to me. He has written three novels – Everything Is Illuminated (which is on the 1001 books list), Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and Tree of Codes (an experimental novel written by carving out words from Foer’s favorite book) – as well as one non-fiction book – Eating Animals (Foer’s beliefs about our eating habits). I own Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and Eating Animals and I need to get my fingers on the two other books. They all sound so fascinating and I can’t wait to see what more he comes up with.

To me, this challenges the idea of what a novel is and what it can be – somewhat like The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall did. Hall used the words in the text to create images of this shark that attacks the narrator – it’s an extremely clever novel. In this, Jonathan Safran Foer’s second novel, he also uses the text as well as images put into the text to underline parts of his story. He has pages with only one sentence on them, he has pages of people testing pens and colors, he has pages where the writing is corrected with red ink, pages where the letters run into each other and becomes unreadable – and more. I was so fascinated by all this and when on top of this, the story was so engaging and beautiful that it was impossible to put down, it makes for an extremely great novel.

On the cover of my edition of this book, there are three words selected from three reviews from three newspapers – the words are dazzlingheartbreaking and beautiful. This is one of the few novels where I actually agree with the words put on the cover. This novel truly is all three.

  • Title: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
  • Author: Jonathan Safran Foer
  • Publisher: Penguin 
  • Year: 2005
  • Pages: 326 pages
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars: 5 stars out of 5

5 thoughts on “Jonathan Safran Foer: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (review)

    • I haven’t read Everything is Illuminated so I don’t know if the writing style in this is similar. I really loved the way he wrote this and how well he was able to write the different voices, be it 9 year old boy or grandfather.

  1. Wow, this is such a great in-depth review. I really enjoyed reading it and found it so interesting. I have read a lot of reviews on the internet which just focus purely on 9/11 and don’t stop to consider why Foer has chose to incorporate Dresden attacks into the narrative and why he has opted to have such an unusual technique.
    I studied this book as part of my dissertation so I find it fascinating. For me, by drawing on Dresden was a particularly clever as it is seen as an attack which can be seen as a terror attack on many accounts.

    I’ve wrote my own review on this and I’d love to know what you think:
    http://pauldurkin.wordpress.com/2012/10/19/extremely-loud-incredibly-close-destry-the-film/

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