Book Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

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This is a book for a very particular time. That time is the years after the planes crashed into the Twin Towers in New York. Published in 2005, the backdrop of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is 911. The story spans the course of a year as nine-year-old Oskar Schell finds a key in his father’s wardrobe and then spends another year looking for the lock it belongs to.

Unfortunately, more than ten years since it was released, the fact of 911 isn’t enough to make it “heartbreaking”, “tragic” and “intensely moving”. The fact of 911 has faded into recent history (as all events do), but history nonetheless, and so we must look at the story and the writing itself for whether the book will stand the test of time. I have doubts.

It is actually two stories interwoven, two stories that had very little to do with each other, two stories that could be separated without the other story losing much at all. The first story is Oskar’s. He’s distraught after the death of his father who was in the first Twin Tower that collapsed and looking for ways to keep him alive. He’s clearly on the autism spectrum (this will be the last book I read with a main character on the autism spectrum for a while – it’s so common it’s almost a genre in itself now). When he finds the key in an envelope marked “Black”, he looks up everyone named Black in the phone directory, all 400+ of them, and then visits them one by one to ask if they know anything about the key.

The second story is his grandparents’. Victims of the bombing of Dresden during World War II, they move to America separately and reconnect in a New York bakery. He was her sister Anna’s lover but her sister (and his unborn child) died in the attack. He marries her instead. There appears to be little love in the marriage – really, all either of them are doing is trying to hold on to Anna. So when she falls pregnant, he can’t cope and he leaves. He never meets his son who is, of course, Oskar’s father.

The blurb on the back of the book talks about how Oskar “inches ever nearer to the heart of a family mystery that stretches back fifty years”. Except Oskar never gets anywhere near finding out the story of his grandparents. And it’s irrelevant anyway. Nothing to do with the key or the lock he is looking for. Nothing really to do with his father because he never knew the story either.

The structure of the novel is not straight prose. Oskar’s sections are, but they also include letters he writes to famous people, the responses he receives, pictures he collects, business cards (his and those of people he meets), transcripts of telephone messages, things he imagines, things he invents (nonsensical things that keep him calm while he is trying to fall asleep). Oskar’s grandfather’s section is written in long, long, grammatically incorrect sentences with lots of commas and not enough full stops that make you read it in long, breathless, uninterrupted, tiring bursts. Oskar’s grandmother’s section is written in short sentences with extra spaces breaking them up, perhaps to make up for the lack of space in her husband’s section, although she never sees what he has written.

When you consider it rationally, with the distance of time allowing a separation from the events of 911 that impacted everyone who lived through it, even those of us who lived through it from the other side of the world, the plot is actually a little convoluted, a little nonsensical. There are moments in it that are wonderful, in both positive and negative ways. But then there are other moments that rely on misdirection and misunderstanding and the belligerence of a nine-year-old child and the puerile revenge of an ex-wife that are ultimately frustrating.

I think this book is more important as a snapshot of a particular moment in history than it is as a piece of literature. It’s a fine piece of literature but I suspect many people reading it confused why they thought it was a fine piece of literature, thinking it was for the second reason when a later reading like I have done might have them reassessing and realising it was the first.

I suppose all books and the way we feel about them are influenced by where we are in our lives and any given point in history. Perhaps I’m just unlucky not to have read this when it was first released, when the spectre of 911 still loomed so large over everything and would have made this book seem more important than I think it is now. What a shame.

3 stars

*First published on Goodreads 30 January 2016

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