I wanted to be able to say: I don’t know how I could have tried harder.
Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is nothing short of a literary revelation.
Revelation, because you’d realize that up until you’ve read this book, you’ve never really read. Or at least, that’s how it feels like.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close takes us into the mind of a young Oskar Schell, nine years of age and still grieving a year after he lost his father, Thomas Schell, in the events of 9/11. He one day finds a blue vase in his father’s untouched closet, wherein there is a key in an envelope, written “Black”. He then goes on for months to find what the key unlocks, hoping to find something of his father’s. He will have to check all the locks in New York and all the Blacks he could find–and all the months necessary to find them.
But that’s what most people think the story will be about.
I want two rolls.
Don’t get me wrong, it is. But there’s more to it.
Oskar will narrate the story of the search for the most part, but the reader will encounter a series of letters from two very fundamental people. At the first reading, you will not know who they are from and who they were addressed to, but later on in the recent-day narrative of Oskar himself, it hits you all at once. I’ve said this before about Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. It feels like dying–all your memories flash before your very eyes at some point when everything’s about to end.
By the end of the novel, you would have felt the pain of loss some five or six times.
I know this review comes off as overly enthusiastic, but I have some defense for this novel. While writing this review, I’ve come across other reviews, mostly bad ones.
But they were all written in 2005. By Americans.
I get them.
Foer felt like a hack, trying to sell a 9/11 story, taking advantage of a recent happening and riding the bandwagon of so many writers trying to evoke the emotion in readers. By 2005, Americans would have been trying very hard to get over what happened four years ago. It feels like they’ve been cheated, betrayed even, that sometime in their grief, a novelist would use that to make money.
But I’m not American, and it’s 2012. And this book deserves to be read.
ME. Alas, poor Hamlet [I take JIMMY SNYDER's face into my hand]; I knew him, Horatio!
JIMMY SNYDER. But Yorick . . . you’re only . . . a skull.
I am not an American, I didn’t lose anyone in 9/11. And if EL&IC was meant to take advantage of the emotions of 9/11 victims, then why was I so moved? Foer is doing something–and a lot of that something–right, and through this book, he has managed to put feeling where most people are numb.
And, mind you, our little hero suffers from some sort of autism.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close isn’t about 9/11. It’s about losing someone and finding yourself. It’s about a father who lost his son, and a son who lost his father, and a mother who lost her son, and a mother who is afraid of losing her son, and a boy afraid of losing a friend, and the people afraid of losing their memories of the people they’ve lost–and a woman who keeps all the memories of a husband who is still alive and well. It is a story of desperate love and love in the time of despair.
It’s about trying to make sense of the senseless.
The novel puts us through three different wars: Nazi Germany, the 9/11 terrorist attack, and the war that every person fights with himself, trying to hold on and let go.
Writing Technique & Analysis
Foer’s writing makes use of various typographical tricks and strays away from common fiction writing. It doesn’t take much time to realize who’s writing what, and the language is incredibly natural. The narration has its own character, and it never loses it. You can feel the nine-year-old, socially awkward child still trying to learn his bigger words, and wrongly, if not unnaturally, using the idioms his grandmother tried learning when she first came to America. “Jose!“, “Heavy boots” and “a hundred dollars” are just some of them, and you will see them everywhere. It uses language uniquely, but effectively. To some extent, even, humorously. The use of images, and red pen, and all the letters dated from 1963 to 2002–everything that Jonathan Safran Foer has poured into this novel makes for a very engaging, very compelling, very creative storytelling experience.
If Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a gimmick, then it was a very effective gimmick, and I’d like more of it.
I’d hate to admit it, but it is a perfect hipster novel.
Hipster being the new genre of things that are popular but feel like they’re indie and/or artistic.
Or artistic things that become popular.
The original first print of the book from Penguin had the image of a child chasing birds. The next reprint is a red hand with the title and author written all over it using the similar typeface of the first print. This version stayed on til the reprint of the novel for the movie of the same title, featuring the face of Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) covered with his hands, title, cast and author written in the same typeface. The movie version was designed by Anne Chalmers, using the Janson Text typeface.
The writing on the hands concept was more lasting because of it pertaining to a more major character in the book and the film–in fact, in the book, he is one of the three narrators. It represents the frustrating struggle of all three of the narrators trying to say something, and the confused use of language. Whether it was a child learning big words, a foreigner trying to learn new expressions and a man losing his ways of communication altogether–the cover perfectly fits the story’s attempt to say the things when you’re running out of paper, but the words just keep on coming. It’s about not knowing for yourself how much you love someone, and never knowing how much that person loved you.
The child chasing birds concept comes from one of the chapters, showing a point where a man starts to live his life again when he can. It’s the return of sight in a time of extended grief. It was a point of finally overcoming life to begin living it. You’ll get me when you read it.
The two covers represent two of the greatest concepts the book was trying to portray, (birds more subtle than writing on fingers) so I can’t really say which one I prefer, or which one sums up the book better. But the one that gets potential readers to come over and pick up a copy would unarguably be the writing on fingers concept.
Conclusion & Rating
Jonathan Safran Foer deserves any and all praise and awards he’s been given for this novel, including Best Book of the Year. This novel isn’t overrated; it’s misunderstood–not meant to be a piece of fiction but a piece of art. The book itself is like a gallery of thought. It is highly creative, effectively moving, intensely artistic, and there’s just nothing quite like it.
Easily on the top of the shelf for favorite books and have-to-recommends.
I’d give it a rating of nine-over-eleven.
Harsh, misplaced pun.
Giving it a ten.