Title: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Author: Jonathan Safran Foer
Genre: Contemporary, Historical Fiction
Morse code bracelets. Edible microphones that magnify everybody’s heartbeats. Special drains embedded in pillows that channel the sadness of New Yorkers into the Reservoir of Tears. Ambulances with flashing signs on their roofs that indicate the condition of their occupant. Body paints that change in color in accordance with the moods of their wearer.
These are the fanciful inventions you’ll find in the corners of Oskar Schell’s nine-year-old mind. Precocious as he is, the fuel that truly pushed his imagination to weave these whimsicalities is the untimely demise of his father in the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11. Even if he doesn’t admit it, he’s utterly devastated. One day, he stumbles upon a key that he believes belonged to his father. Thinking that it’s just like one of the clues in their “Reconnaissance Expeditions,” he embarks on a secret journey across the five (or six?) boroughs of New York to find the mysterious lock, hoping that if he finally gets his hands on it, his grief will also come to an end.
This is Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: a healing tale about loss, sorrow, forgiveness, heartaches, and new beginnings.
Pre-reading, I have this thought that Foer just hitched a ride with the 9/11 gravy train—and succeeded in gaining overwhelming support. We all know that the tragedy did not only leave a lot of people grieving, it also scattered a flurry of opportunities in the pop-culture landscape. Foer was still reeling from the success of his debut novel Everything is Illuminated at that time, and in hindsight everyone who enjoyed his first baby will readily pick up the next thing he cooks up. Needless to say, I didn’t harbor high expectations for this novel despite everyone’s rave reviews. I guess that’s always a good thing; I was caught off guard by how Extremely Beautiful and Incredibly Poignant this gem really is.
Oskar is unlike the clichéd versions of “genius” kid-narrators populating most of today’s coming-of-age literature. While he is indeed intelligent (I believe he has Asperger’s), he doesn’t sound like an adult trapped in a child’s body. His thought processes are flawed and clumsy like an ordinary boy’s, and even if he doesn’t talk about his despair in an ultra-deep level, it tinges his every thought. The way he manages to sandwich humorous nuggets of ideas between the distressing ones—the same way Foer inserts funny scenes between the heartbreaking ones—makes for an unforgettable rollercoaster of a reading experience.
Foer’s prose is quirkily poetic, especially when he leaves Oskar’s voice for a while to speak through the mouths of the boy’s grandparents. Epistles addressed to Oskar and his dad are interspersed throughout the book, chronicling separate experiences of the old couple from the Dresden bombings in WWII up to the present. Anyone who enjoys poetry will revel in the beauty of these letters, what with their underlying meaning more magnificently arresting than their superficial definitions. These emotional flashbacks don’t propel the plot forward, but they help in fleshing out the rather two-dimensional characters that are their owners and in adding extra “emotional baggage,” if you know what I mean. The noticeable differences of the three voices just show how good Foer is in juggling POVs.
I love how the striking photographs (from Oskar’s scrapbook Stuff that Happened to Me) and the unconventional typography (words typed over each other until they’re just a wall of scribbled blackness) helped in adding extra emotional impact. I know some people who literally tore up while reading this.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the kind of book that best fits the adage “it’s about the journey, not the destination.” Both content and form are [WARNING: SPOILER] wild sheep chases of sorts. There are no big epiphanies or shocking twists plot-wise, and Foer has a habit of turning several parts of the story into loose threads. Yet, by the end of the novel, you know you’ve gotten something precious from it—maybe realizations, maybe the threefold footprints the story left in your heart, or maybe just those feelings that swaddle you when you stop journeying with a hero because you know from that moment on, he’ll be okay on his own.
For me, this is an enjoyable, one of a kind read. I’ll be watching out for more of Foer’s works. :)