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Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

Though it deals with the aftermath of 9/11 and the firebombing of Dresden during World War II, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close captures the wonder, joy, and randomness of life. That’s not to say that Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel is devoid of depression and anger, but it refuses to allow those emotions to exclusively dominate the narrative. Foer has crafted an unconventional masterpiece that constantly reminds the reader, through its beautifully realized characters, what it means to be truly alive.
Foer, the author of 2002’s Everything is Illuminated, which won the National Jewish Book Award, has never been conventional in style. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, his second novel, continues the Brooklyn resident and Princeton graduate’s journey to the limits of what can be considered a novel. His forays into multimedia in the book include pictures of doorknobs, entire pages containing only a single phrase, pages covered with colors and names written in various types of ink, blank pages, and a flipbook on the final pages. Although these stylistic oddities sound random and distracting, Foer crafts them into the book in a way that makes them flow and enhances the story of Oskar Schell’s journey through New York.
Oskar is the main character and narrator of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and is perhaps the most amazingly realized and unique young character since Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye. Oskar is the nine year old son of a jewelry maker who died on 9/11, and from the moment he begins to speak, it becomes very apparent that this kid, who claims to enjoy the Beatles “because entomology is one of his raisons d’être (Fr. reasons for being),” is one-of-a-kind (Foer, 1). His stream-of-consciousness-like narration sometimes seems random, but even his unusual “inventions,” such as a birdseed shirt to allow someone to fly (perhaps out of a collapsing building), tie back into his feelings about his father’s death.
Oskar’s unique grandfather and grandmother, who experienced their own tragedy when their home Dresden was bombed by Allied Forces during World War II, also narrate several chapters through their letters. After losing a loved one, Oskar’s grandfather slowly lost the ability to speak and “started carrying around blank books” so he could communicate by writing (Foer, 17). His sense of loss is always apparent in his writing, which includes a great deal of distinctive, poetic imagery, such as his version of trying to sing in the shower when he “would write out the lyrics of [his] favorite songs… and the music would run down [his] legs” (Foer, 18).
These characters’ stories intertwine when Oskar finds a mysterious key labeled “Black” in a vase in his late father’s closet and subsequently sets off on a journey through the boroughs of New York to find what the key opens. On his journey Oskar meets an incredible number of unique and memorable characters, including A.R. Black, a man who “lived every day of the twentieth century” and reported on most of the major events up through the 1970’s (Foer, 152). Though the net of the plot seems to expand impossibly outward, Foer manages to contain what could easily become chaos and slowly reel in an emotionally satisfying conclusion. A warning, though: if you are the type of person who needs every detail to be stated explicitly in the conclusion, you will be left disappointed. Foer does not end with details, but instead with an emotional journey and a flipbook. Really, it would be breaking his style to end in any other way.
Foer keeps the book exciting through unexpected twists and sometimes unreliable narration. A book that could easily have fallen apart in a postmodern mess, comes together to become a complex, yet beautiful, spider web of various art forms. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a must-read for anyone with a stomach for experimental approaches to literature and the desire to read a great book full of amazingly memorable and unique, if not quite realistic, characters.



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