I should start by saying that my experience with novels is slim. This has its pros and cons. On the plus side, I can go into these works with an open mind with little anticipation or expectation. On the other hand, my naivete makes me ill-equipped to either assert strong praise or criticism (more on this later). With all that said, I found Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to be, on the whole, an honest and moving account of tragedy and renewal….
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close offers a glimpse into the life of Oskar Schell, an emotional, thoughtful and impossibly intelligent nine-year-old from the Upper West Side. We discover that Oskar has recently lost his father, Thomas Schell, in the September 11th attacks. During one of his frequent retreats into his father’s closet (which has remained unaltered since “the worst day”), Oskar discovers a key and a note from a mysterious individual named “Black”. Convinced that the key will help him come to terms with his father’s death (Oskar’s only lapse in logic during the whole book), Oskar embarks upon the impossible quest of hunting down every “Black” in the city of New York.
Oskar’s journey, while always entertaining and interesting, does not seem as “human” as author Jonathan Safran Foer intends. Each of the more important supporting characters feel like caricatures of your average human being. For example, Oskar befriends a 103-year-old ex-war correspondent who hasn’t left his apartment for 24 consecutive years. After Mr. Black agrees to aimlessly wander with Oskar, they come in contact with a Mrs. Black who essentially squats in the Empire State Building in an effort to preserve the memory of her deceased husband. The dialogue that accompanies most of these interactions also feels a bit cheap at times. While Foer is clearly a master with words, it becomes distracting when his main character has a similar talent in seemingly every context. Whether reflecting, “inventing”, or conversing with adults multiple times his age, he continually exhibits the sharpness, wit and insight more akin to a disaffected grad student with ADHD than a gifted nine-year-old. In the end, it is interesting to travel alongside Oskar, but it is hard to see how much wisdom is transferred to the young protagonist.
Oskar’s travels through the six boroughs of New York are separated by what you could call relevant tangents, each of which add to the story in their own unique way. These forays provide a glimpse into the past of Oskar’s relatives, each of whom were confronted with unique challenges of tragedy and renewal. Some of these asides are deeply profound and moving; others seem superfluous; others are just downright odd. The character who mysteriously loses his speech and must learn to communicate via makeshift hand signals and/or a pen and a large pad of paper all seems a bit extravagant. It is also unclear how such a condition really adds to the story as a whole; it sometimes feels as if Foer made sure his characters were extra-strange just so he could include more full-page images and notes rather than more conventional (and descriptive) narrative.
This all sounds incredibly critical on a second read. The truth of the matter is that I didn’t fully understand this novel. There is certainly a great deal of nuance in Foer’s work, and I will be the first to admit that I was not able to put the puzzle completely together. This was a book that, as a whole, was less than the sum of its parts. Each chapter was intriguing, thought-provoking, funny, and interesting. But I have a hard time doling out the same compliments for the entire piece. The ending felt flat, incomplete, and unresolved. The strings connecting the different narratives are thin and stretched. I see many intriguing moments and worthwhile conversations. But the purpose eludes me.
So what is the verdict? Perhaps it is not a great novel. Perhaps it is. But I think it is certainly a book that requires both critical reading AND discussion to truly understand (perfect for a book club). It is a book that likely takes multiple eyes to reach its darkest corners. To borrow terminology from the novel, I feel as though I am lost in a “nothing” space, and I am in need some help navigating the house that Foer has built in order to land upon the “something” places that hold more clear meaning. Do share, if you have the time.