I had written off Jonathan Safran Foer after reading an interview he gave to promote his book about vegetarianism, Eating Animals. Diet is a personal choice, and I don’t begrudge anyone their cauliflower, but Mr. Foer seemed incredibly hostile to the large majority of the population that consumes meat. He also struck me as incredibly pretentious, twee, and insufferable, which are not usually traits I am looking for in a novelist.
But whether or not I have done a disservice to Mr. Foer himself, I was wrong to pre-judge his fiction. His 2005 novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, is a masterful novel which does a tremendous job of capturing the voice and consciousness of its narrator and protagonist, a brilliant child grieving the loss of his father in the attacks on the World Trade Center.
Oskar Schell, whose business cards list his many interests including jewelry-making and astrophysics but not his home phone number, is a curious and imaginative young boy. In his spare moments he “invents” things, meaning only that he thinks them up. Unsurprisingly, many of these inventions are things that would keep people safe in the event of a building collapse, like a shirt made out of birdseed so that people who jump off tall building could be rescued by birds.
Oskar tells the reader about the games he and his father used to play, such as finding grammatical errors in the New York Times and finding clues to an unsolvable mystery in Central Park. This sets the stage for the quest that will be the heart of Oskar’s story. One day almost two years after what Oskar calls “the worst day” he finds a key in an envelope hidden in a vase in his father’s office. The only clue is in the name Black, written in red ink. Oskar sets out to ask every Black in the phonebook if the key belongs to them.
It’s the kind of premise that might make you think the book is going to wrap up with some nauseatingly life-affirming, mystery of the universe style ending, but Foer is way too smart for anything like that. Oskar’s quest manages to reach an unlikely, but satisfying, partial resolution.
The novel also follows the story of Oskar’s paternal grandparents and their shared experiences of terror and loss. They first knew each other in Dresden, where he was her sister’s lover. The firebombing of Dresden during WWII killed their families. Years later they meet in the U.S. but he has lost the ability or willingness to speak. To facilitate communication he has tattooed Yes and No on the palms of his hands and carries daybooks with him wherever he goes.
For many readers I suspect this will be a quirk too far, but even when Foer has the grandpa devolve into typing numbers into a payphone to try to communicate, the connection to real and plausible emotion is strong enough to make reading about the character a visceral experience.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a book I would strongly recommend to anyone. It is everything a first-person narration should be and more. It is inventive, witty, honest and moving. The lesson here is that you shouldn’t judge a book by the author, no matter how hipstery his glasses.