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'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close': Everything Is Included

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By Walter Kirn

  • April 3, 2005

EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE By Jonathan Safran Foer. Illustrated. 326pp. Houghton Mifflin Company. $24.95.

ITS title is "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," but it will also be known, inevitably, perhaps primarily, and surely intentionally, as that new Sept. 11 novel whose last pages include a little flip-book of video stills arranged in reverse order to create a fleeting, blurry movie of an actual human being careering upward through the sky toward the top of the fiery doomed tower from which (softheaded moralists will note, to the bafflement of hardened aesthetes) the fresh-and-blood person on the film was - in undoctored, forward-rushing fact-jumping or falling to his death.

Does a novel with such a high-concept visual kicker (and sensational book-club conversation starter) even need a title at all?

Does it even need text?

Besides containing a wealth of other photographs and attention-grabbing graphic elements, Jonathan Safran Foer's second novel (his first was "Everything Is Illuminated") positively teems with text -- most, but not all, of which takes the form of prose. There's a distinction, of course, and Foer is just the sort of brainy, playful young writer, his critical faculties honed by the academy and his multimedia sensibilities shaped by the Internet and heaven knows what else, for whom this arcane distinction is second nature and a perfect excuse for fun and games. To Foer and his peers (who can't really be called experimental, since their signature high jinks, distortions and addenda first came to market many decades back and now represent a popular mode that's no more controversial than pre-ripped bluejeans), a novel is an object composed of pages tattooable with an infinite variety of nonsentence-like signs and signifiers. As Foer's new book demonstrates, some pages can even be left blank.

Oskar Schell is the 9-year-old New Yorker whose motormouth drives Foer's story. He's a cross between J. D. Salinger's precocious, morbid, psychiatry-proof child philosophers and all those daunting city kids from children's books whose restless high spirits and social confidence get them into funny predicaments while their preoccupied but loving parents conduct their mysterious offstage grown-up business -- business that they'll come home from just in time to save their offspring from real trouble.

Which is pretty much how things go in Foer's novel. A conscious homage to the Gotham wise-child genre, the book features several beloved stock characters, down to the nice doorman and other service folk who help their upper-middle-class young wards get around the urban jungle safely. Foer chose this quaint template for an ingenious reason: it evokes, at a primal cultural level, the benevolent, innocent New York that was vaporized, even as a fantasy, when the towers were toppled. Not all the victims, Foer knows, were real, live people. Eloise and Stuart Little died, too.+

So did Oskar's father, Thomas, we learn, though not before he left a series of telephone messages that haunt his cerebral, hyperverbal son (who feels his grief as if "in heavy boots" and compulsively soothes himself by dreaming up whimsical inventions like an electronic sign for ambulances that flashes news of their occupants' conditions) and also impel his booklong quest to locate the lock that fits a key he finds while snooping in the murdered father's closet. This scavenger hunt recalls the plots of countless children's books as well as the puzzles that Oskar's wonderful father, a retail jeweler and armchair intellectual brimming with erudite fun facts, invented to educate his gifted boy about science, art and history. The last of the father's "Reconnaissance Expeditions" was ominously different, though. Oskar was steered to Central Park to dig for a nameless treasure, and given no clues.

"Unless," Oskar wonders, "nothing was a clue." This paradoxical would-be koan is a clue for the reader: profundities ahead, possibly a lot of them, and all of them dropping with the same "plop." And so it begins, and doesn't ever stop -- a rain of truisms, aphorisms, nuggets of wisdom and deep thoughts tossed off by Oskar and the other characters as if they were trying to corner a market in ironic existentialist greeting cards. "It's better to lose than never to have had." "You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness." "Everything that's born has to die, which means our lives are like skyscrapers. The smoke rises at different speeds, but they're all on fire, and we're all trapped."

Kids, we're told, will say the darnedest things, but kids like Oskar -- authorial surrogates with their darling whimsicalities and cute "have you ever noticed?" observations and disarming "what if?" descriptions of talking anuses, underground skyscrapers and a body paint that changes color with its wearers' moods -- drive adults to the bar for a stiff drink. In theory, there's nothing wrong with a narrator like this, especially when he's a cunning combination of other narrators from the kind of books that his author wants to conjure with, but there are neurological limits to some readers' ability to tolerate a wee one who says whatever springs to mind at roughly the same speed it springs to mind and keeps circling to the clue of cluelessness and other riddling Oriental insights.

"I spread the map out on the dining room table, and I held down the corners with cans of V8. The dots from where I'd found things looked like the stars in the universe. I connected them, like an astrologer, and if you squinted your eyes like a Chinese person, it kind of looked like the word 'fragile.' Fragile. What was fragile? Was Central Park fragile? Was nature fragile? Were the things I found fragile? A thumbtack isn't fragile. Is a bent spoon fragile? I erased, and connected the dots in a different way, to make 'door.' Fragile? Door? Then I thought of porte, which is French for door, obviously. I erased and connected the dots to make 'porte.' I had the revelation that I could connect the dots to make 'cyborg,' and 'platypus,' and 'boobs,' and even 'Oskar,' if you were extremely Chinese. I could connect them to make almost anything I wanted, which meant I wasn't getting closer to anything."

This hyperactive impersonation of Holden Caulfield, who dreamed of catching suicidal children as he trod the same sidewalks that Oskar does and tried to shake off a funk that also traced back to a family tragedy, connects with the photographs of the terrorist victim in a nifty, Rubik's cube sort of way that gives a chilly intellectual thrill but doesn't penetrate the bosom. This accords with what appears to be the novel's quite difficult grand ambition: to take on the most explosive subject available while showing no passion, giving no offense, adopting no point of view and venturing no sentiment more hazardous than that history is sad and brutal and wouldn't it be nicer if it weren't.

The novel's two supporting stories -- told in the form of long letters to posterity from Oskar's German immigrant grandparents, and pivoting on the firebombing of Dresden, because Foer loves to play his aces in pairs -- link up with each other just as neatly. Both letters are styled as high-art prose poems. The grandmother's letter is one long pregnant pause chopped up into a thousand or so full stops ("I didn't eat lunch. Seconds passed. The afternoon left. The evening came. I didn't eat dinner. Years were passing through the spaces between moments") that make it sound like a Buddhist affidavit. The grandfather's letter is dense, oblique and manic, its web of minutiae and oracularities Velcroed together with zillions of hook-shaped commas ("I walked with my head bowed, my broad-brimmed cap pushed low, when you hide your face from the world, you can't see the world").

THE grandparents' stories converge with Oskar's lock-quest -- in the course of whose shaggy-dog meanderings he befriends a quirky elderly shut-in, who, like the grandfather, is obsessed with language, and scribbles away as if to save his life -- and the result is a blizzard of epiphanies that buries New York and brings traffic to a halt. The reader (he'll have his hand raised at this point and be bursting with mock-profound answers of his own) learns that "sometimes you have to do something bad to do something good" and, furthermore, that this "extremely complicated" yet "incredibly simple" life we lead makes it "always necessary" to tell one's loved ones that one loves them before they die in some very bad explosion like 9/11 or Dresden or Hiroshima (which is also thrown in). And as for the various quests we set out on in hopes of finding the locks that fit our keys or the questions that fit our answers, or whatever, little Oskar wakes up and realizes what matters most is the searching, not the finding, as Jonathan Livingston Seagull might have told him had he visited the docks. A full-page photo of starry infinite space is provided as a meditation aid.

Once they've cracked open this overstuffed fortune cookie and pondered the symmetries, allusions and truths on the tightly coiled strip of paper, it will dawn on some readers that today's neo-experimental novels are not necessarily any better suited to get inside, or around, today's realities than your average Hardy Boys mystery. The avant-garde tool kit, developed way back when to disassemble established attitudes and cut through rusty sentiments, has now become the best means, it seems, for restoring them and propping them up. No traditional story could put forward the tritenesses that Foer reshuffles, folds, cuts into strips, seals in seven separate envelopes and then, astonishingly, makes whole, causing the audience to ooh and aah over notions that used to make it groan.

One final example. What if, Oskar muses at the conclusion of this triumph of human cuteness over human suffering, time could somehow run backward as in a movie and dead people could hop up and not be dead? This is when the novel's ideal reader is meant to riffle through the flip-book, while Oskar riffles through it in the story, and let himself, for one Peter Pan-ish moment, imagine how incredible that would be. Sept. 11 would never have happened! Even cooler and weirder, the pages of this novel, starting with the last, would all turn blank (except for the pages that are blank on purpose to teach us that some extremes of pain and loss can be signified only by the text of no text)!

And then, perhaps, if we wished upon a star, the miraculous undeconstructions would continue until all the Holden Caulfields who aren't Holden were back inside J. D. Salinger's manual typewriter and "we would have been safe," just as Oskar wouldn't have said.

Walter Kirn, whose most recent novel is "Up in the Air," is a regular contributor to the Book Review.

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Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

A tower of babble

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer 356pp, Hamish Hamilton, £14.99

Just as the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center instantly epitomised the clash between Islamic fundamentalism and capitalist hubris, the writing of Jonathan Safran Foer has divided readers into vehemently opposed factions. One side has given him a rapturous reception: confetti-showers of praise, numerous prizes including the Guardian First Book award (for Everything Is Illuminated, published when he was only 25) and, for this new novel, a fervent endorsement from Salman Rushdie ("ambitious, pyrotechnic, riddling, and above all ... extremely moving"). In the opposite camp, Foer's fiction triggers violently allergic reactions. Dissenters dismiss him as an adolescent chatterbox, all artifice and no substance, all cuteness and no grit. I would have preferred not to take sides. But, looking back at my jottings in the margins of Foer's new book, I can't deny how frequently and furiously I've scribbled "Aaaarrghh!"

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is principally narrated by nine-year-old Oskar Schell, a tambourine-playing, jewellery-making, butterfly-collecting, Shakespeare-quoting little nerd who ceaselessly conceives impossible inventions (such as "incredibly long ambulances that connect every building to a hospital") in a desperate attempt to cope with the grief (or, as Oskar puts it, "heavy boots") of losing his father in the twin towers disaster. Haunted by messages left on the answer-phone while his dad was being incinerated, Oskar embarks on a quest to solve the mystery of a key found in a vase, armed only with pubescent pluck and the imperative "to do something, like sharks, who die if they don't swim, which I know about". If this brief synopsis already makes you feel somewhat queasy, the entire book is likely to make you very ill indeed.

Seen from a different perspective, however, EL&IC is phenomenally energetic and bold. It tackles the bombing of Dresden (Oskar's grandparents are survivors), it takes us on a grand tour of New York (Oskar attempts to interview every New Yorker named Black, following a cryptic clue), it addresses the myriad ways people try to negotiate some sort of peace with non-negotiable tragedies. Typical of the book's confidence is the scene where Oskar, as part of a school project, plays his class a recording of Kinue Tomoyasu's heart-rending reminiscence of the Hiroshima bombing. Tomoyasu's real-life account of her daughter's death is incomparably more powerful, in my opinion, than anything Foer concocts, and yet, in the context of the novel, it is used to audaciously comic effect, highlighting the way historical enormities always end up jostling for space with mundane concerns. Thus a painfully serious topic is given a whimsical spin in order to make a painfully serious point: Foer's whole enterprise in a nutshell.

In Everything Is Illuminated, the horrors of Nazi persecution were filtered through an endless array of literary prisms, most notably the mangled English of the novel's preposterously incompetent "translator". In EL&IC, a similar distance between pain and its causes is imposed by Oskar's hyperactive intellect. "Everything that's been born has died," he philosophises, "which means our lives are like skyscrapers. The smoke rises at different speeds, but they're all on fire, and we're all trapped." Heavy stuff from a little kid, even one who has spent half his short lifetime trawling the internet for educational purposes. And, despite exposure to porn, he retains an infant's innocence: "I know a lot about birds and bees, but I don't know very much about the birds and the bees."

On the face of it, the best defence of Oskar as a character is to compare him (as some American critics have done) with other precocious juvenile narrators in literature, such as Holden Caulfield and Huckleberry Finn. Aren't we accustomed to suspending disbelief for an unnaturally articulate pre-adult voice? Is there anything truly contentious about logorrhoea from the mouths of babes? Perhaps not, but Holden and Huck exist in a narrative universe that's intended, overall, to be convincing; indeed, it's their human authority that allows us to forgive them their authorial blow-outs. Foer's characters exist on a different plane. They are constructed not from fleshly materials but from embroidered scraps of language, poetic notions, allegorical conceits.

In Everything Is Illuminated, Foer invented a vanished Ukrainian shtetl peopled by wondrous eccentrics. Similarly in EL&IC, he serves up a smorgasbord of symbolic oddities. Oskar's grandfather mysteriously loses the power of speech and communicates only on notepads; his wife goes blind and types hundreds of pages of her life story onto a ribbonless typewriter. The 101-year-old journalist upstairs is deaf, and reduces all 20th-century history to single-word filing cards. And so on and so on. This book is a linguistically sophisticated fable, and 9/11 is a smokescreen obscuring its true nature.

The real question, then, is how good EL&IC is on these terms. As good as A Clockwork Orange? As good as Bruno Schulz's The Street of Crocodiles, or Günter Grass's The Tin Drum? It's difficult to judge, given the strong emotions still swirling around the twin towers catastrophe and still echoing from Dresden and Hiroshima. For many readers, these events are so potent that any fiction dealing with them automatically swells with poignancy. Other readers take offence, insisting that authors must earn the "right" to appropriate these subjects. Foer, a fresh-faced youngster, is an easy target for such purists, but it should be remembered that WG Sebald, lauded for his deep insight into the second world war, likewise experienced none of the atrocities he chronicled. Inauthentic though Foer's creations may seem, they are suffused with a profound sadness for things lost, a yearning to reconstitute a shattered past, to retrieve the irretrievable, repair the irreparable, express the inexpressible. In this he is as sincere and committed as he needs to be.

There's no doubt, however, that Foer was more in his element in Everything Is Illuminated - a reinvention of a much older calamity. The Shoah, refracted through countless fictions during its slow fade into history, has become almost mythical, which suited Foer's highly romantic way of dealing with it. EL&IC is, in spirit, similarly chimerical, but is weighed down by Foer's self-conscious decision to engage with current affairs. In interviews, he has spoken of this 9/11 novel as a sort of obligation, a challenge to him as a New Yorker and an artist. "I think it's risky to avoid what's right in front of you." Ironically, this is exactly what the book does. It is a triumph of evasion, enhanced with dozens of otiose photographs, rainbow colours and typographical devices, whose net effect is to distract the reader (and Foer) from harsh truths. It promises to take you to Ground Zero, but helplessly detours towards the Land of Oz, spending most of its time journeying through the Neverlands in between.

But then, Foer was never meant to be at the centre of controversy; seldom has an author been so besotted with "pure" art. Like one of Oskar's brainwaves, the "edible tsunami", EL&IC contrives to make something beautiful out of other people's suffering, and hopes to be judged on its beauty alone. Just as it's pointless to question the credibility of the scene in Everything Is Illuminated where a husband collects his wife's teardrops in a thimble, there's no use groaning when Oskar invents a special drainage system underneath every pillow in New York, to collect the tears of people who cry themselves to sleep. This book is aimed at readers who find such images deeply touching.

As indeed they can be, in the right context. Fairytales have great power, notwithstanding their artificiality. Everything Is Illuminated contained bits of lovely writing and moments of eerie pathos. Parts of EL& IC are haunting too, such as the episode when Oskar's grandfather stumbles around in the aftermath of Dresden, putting zoo animals out of their misery, or the grandmother's backwards-motion dream in which "people apologised for things that were about to happen, and lit candles by inhaling" and "lovers pulled up each other's underwear, buttoned each other's shirts, and dressed and dressed and dressed". Supporting this fantasy of turning the clock back ("tock-tick, tock-tick") is a photographic flick-book at the end of the novel, allowing the reader to make a man's falling body fly up, up, up towards the top of a World Trade Center tower, defying the gravity of real life. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, in its attempt to fuse the aesthetics of fairyland with the unresolved trauma of Bush's America, may well be the ultimate test of how much gravity each individual reader requires.

  • Jonathan Safran Foer

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Review: extremely loud and incredibly close.

I’ve got a 9/11 book to talk about today. I like to keep an ebook going in the background so that I can read when I don’t have a physical book (which is rare but it happens) and because there are different things available to me in that format. But as a background book, Jonathan Safran Foer’s YA historical/contemporary fiction novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close took me months to finish and I only recently pushed myself to give it more focus as the anniversary of the 2001 attack approached.


“Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all of the lives I’m not living.”

I want to start by acknowledging that I would probably have had a better experience and more to say about this book if I had read a physical copy (my preferred reading method) in a reasonable time frame; as it was, I liked the story a lot but it’s a difficult novel to be stopping and starting in small chunks and that using method absolutely shaped my experience of the book.

“…the distance that wedged itself between me and my happiness wasn’t the world, it wasn’t the bombs and burning buildings, it was me, my thinking, the cancer of never letting go, is ignorance bliss, I don’t know, but it’s so painful to think, and tell me, what did thinking ever do for me, to what great place did thinking ever bring me? I think and think and think, I’ve thought myself out of happiness one million times, but never once into it.”

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close  is narrated with stream-of-consciousness; though there are a few main perspectives it follows, all are presented with the same style and voice despite the differences in their stories. There are very few “chapters,” paragraphs and even sentences go on and on, and there are pictures dispersed throughout that correspond to the characters’ stories. I’d be curious to pick up a physical copy and see what it’s like on the page, because on screen it seemed a bit chaotic and it was consistently hard to find a good place to pause reading. I think this would be an excellent book to binge-read, and I regret that I didn’t take that route.

But back to the story. This is a book about 9/11, but also it’s not about 9/11. It’s about Oskar’s attempts to cope after the attack, but it’s also about other, older grief that Oskar doesn’t even know he is a part of. It’s about his journey for the lock that corresponds to his father’s mysterious key. Oskar’s and Thomas’s stories are the central focus of the novel, and they are both characters left behind after the attack. There is no perspective for Oskar’s father, who dies in the attack. Though he remains on the outskirts of the narration, Oskar’s father is the link that connects all of the rest of the characters, all of whom have stories that are part of a larger whole.

Oskar shows some signs of being on the Autism spectrum, though this is never discussed in the text of the book. Personally, I like the theory that he is. There are times when the events of this book and some of the characters’ interactions felt a little unbelievable, or at least implausible, and I think some of this is smoothed by the possibility of Oskar’s autism– though I don’t think as many people in real life would respond as kindly and patiently to Oskar as they do in this novel. Also, Oskar is unusually intelligent and philosophical for a nine year-old.

“You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness.”

And on the topic of grief, this is a book that leaves the reader grieving right along with the characters. It isn’t the sort of sad that hits you all at once and makes you cry (at least it wasn’t for me, but then again I didn’t read the book all at once either); there is some  hope as well, but there are a lot of painful little details that pile up. It’s a lot of little cuts, not one fatal stab. For Oskar, and for Thomas, the world is abrasive. Thomas is so devastated that he has not spoken in decades. There is definitely some morbidity to the commentary throughout the book, but it comes from a place of deep loss and is so utterly human. I couldn’t resist.

“That secret was a hole in the middle of me that every happy thing fell into.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’m not always a fan of stream-of-consciousness narration and there were a few places in this book where it started to wear on me. It’s also not an ideal style to be reading in small pieces over a long period of time. And I really do think the physical copy would be the way to go with this title because the format is so interesting. But despite those downsides, I loved reading this book. I want to pick up another Jonathan Safran Foer book (possibly Here I   Am ) to see whether I’ll like his work as well in another story and format, or if this one was a perfect storm.

Further recommendations:

  • If you like reading about characters who may or may not be on the spectrum, try Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine . Though this book features a grown woman rather than a young child, Eleanor is also dealing with a separation from a parent and is an incredibly endearing (sometimes sad and sometimes funny) character with a wonderful story to share.

Are there any novels about 9/11 or other specific events in US history that you love?

The Literary Elephant

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6 thoughts on “review: extremely loud and incredibly close”.

I really love the excerpts that you use in your reviews. I feel like they’re very well-chosen and do justice to the books you choose. Thanks for another great review!

Like Liked by 1 person

Thanks! Fitting in the excerpts is probably my favorite part of writing reviews, to be honest. Giving the author/characters a voice is a good way to remind myself that there’s more to the book than my own opinion. There were a ton of great quotes to choose from with this book, so I’m glad the ones I used were a good fit. Thank you for reading!

I really want to read this!

I definitely recommend picking it up! Hope you enjoy. 🙂

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Terror Comes to Tiny Town

book reviews extremely loud and incredibly close

If Jonathan Safran Foer ever tells his readers what he thinks and feels, he tells it slant. Half of his celebrated debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated , consisted of tiresome magic-realist yarns about a Ukrainian shtetl, written by a quasi-fictional Jonathan Safran Foer. The other half was a brilliant yet tender satire of life in postcommunist Eastern Europe told by the young guide who escorts “Foer” to the village’s ruins. The real Foer’s second and latest novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close , shows that he hasn’t lost his taste for naïve or otherwise unreliable narrators. It looks at September 11 through the eyes of Oskar Schell, a weird, precocious 9-year-old whose father died in the World Trade Center collapse.

In a novel about the Holocaust, this kind of oblique, even playful, strategy worked, partly because the subject has already been so exhaustively and earnestly explored. But September 11, that spectacular monstrosity plopped into the middle of an ordinary Tuesday in downtown Manhattan, is another matter. We’re still not entirely sure what it signifies, or even if, philosophically speaking (and this is the hardest possibility to contemplate), it might signify nothing at all. It may just be too early to get cute in writing about September 11; on the other hand, there’s never a good time to get as cute as Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close gets.

This novel, like Everything Is Illuminated , is a braided story, with the main strand told by Oskar. The book’s slender plot hangs on a key Oskar finds among his father’s things and the boy’s quest to find the lock that fits it. The other strands come in the form of letters and diaries written by his paternal grandparents, middle-class Germans whose psyches were irrevocably maimed by the Allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945.

What attracts Foer to these tragedies isn’t so much their historical resonance as their emotional power: They opened up great, weeping maws of grief and loss. He’s drawn to pathos, but being a smart and self-conscious young writer, he’s also painfully aware of the perils of sentimentality. With a child narrator like Oskar, you can finesse the problem; he can’t be expected to realize his own poignancy, let alone be accused of wallowing in it. The distance makes Foer think—incorrectly—that he can get away with whimsies like having Oskar imagine a “special drain that would be underneath every pillow in New York,” collecting the tears of people who cry themselves to sleep and funneling them into the Central Park reservoir.

Perhaps Foer could have pulled this off if Oskar felt alive. Instead, Oskar resembles nothing so much as a plastic bag crammed with oddities. For every eccentricity that makes psychological sense—fear of public transportation or an overly clinical interest in the bombing of Hiroshima, for example—there’s another that’s just piled on. We never learn why Oskar insists on wearing only white or plays the tambourine incessantly. He’s an alien, but you can’t quite figure out how he got that way. If he learned about sex from the Internet, as he claims, how come he knows that “hump” is a slang term for intercourse, but not that “pussy” can refer to something other than a cat?

A 9-year-old can be an unpredictable mix of child and adult, but when not making fart jokes, Oskar is prone to reflections beyond the emotional sophistication of any kid, however brainy. It’s possible to believe that he spends his days writing letters to famous people, but not that, noticing he’s used his valuable stamp collection for postage, he could wonder “if what I was really doing was trying to get rid of things.” Oskar isn’t the only character prone to drifting out of focus and becoming a device serving the author’s purposes rather than a fully imagined human being. How else could Oskar’s grandmother, a nice, seventysomething, bourgeois German woman, in a letter to her grandson, describe the loss of her virginity in such poetic detail? The photographs and typographically unconventional pages strewn throughout the book are a particularly precious touch.

Despite this elaborate presentation, there’s a miscalculation at the heart of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close : The death of a beloved parent will always be cataclysmic to a child, but the attacks of September 11 were also cataclysmic in another way, a way that can only be understood with the perspective and context that comes from an adult’s experience. Choosing a child narrator gives Foer access to extravagant emotions and quirky imaginings that would seem cloying or self-indulgent in a grown-up, but at the cost of allowing the central trauma its due. September 11 was a surreal intrusion of the spectacular and malevolent into the banal and safe. But for a kid like Oskar, reality has yet to be fully established, so surreality is impossible. How and why his father was lost matters little next to the raw fact of his disappearance.

At times, you can detect Foer trying to adjust for this mistake, but he doesn’t succeed at the one thing that might have transcended it: conviction in his characters. When Oskar’s grandfather returns after a 40-year absence, he’s more like an old appliance pulled out of the closet than a person who’s been living a life elsewhere in the intervening decades. If their creator can’t quite manage to believe in these people, how can we?

  Jonathan Safran Foer’s second novel started out as a very different book—one completely unrelated to September 11. In 2002, Foer told reporters he’d completed a novel called The Zelnik Museum , which was set in a New York museum dedicated to a famous diarist and had an 11-year-old narrator named Jonathan Safran Foer . “The more I write,” he explained, “the funnier it becomes.” Now the finished product is considerably more solemn. Nicole Aragi , his agent, says, “The novel began life as Zelnik, told from the point of view of an old man looking back through relics relating to a lost love.”  

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close By Jonathan Safran Foer. Houghton Mifflin. 368 pages. $24.95.

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book reviews extremely loud and incredibly close

  • Literature & Fiction
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Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

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Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close Paperback – May 1, 2010

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So begins a quest that takes Oskar - inventor, letter-writer and amateur detective - across New York's five boroughs and into the jumbled lives of friends, relatives and complete strangers. He gets heavy boots, he gives himself little bruises and he inches ever nearer to the heart of a family mystery that stretches back fifty years. But will it take him any closer to, or even further from, his lost father?

  • Print length 326 pages
  • Language English
  • Publisher Penguin Books, Limited (UK)
  • Publication date May 1, 2010
  • Reading age 14 - 18 years
  • Dimensions 5.08 x 0.76 x 7.8 inches
  • ISBN-10 9780141012698
  • ISBN-13 978-0141012698
  • Lexile measure 800L
  • See all details

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  • ASIN ‏ : ‎ 0141012692
  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Penguin Books, Limited (UK); First Paperback Edition (May 1, 2010)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 326 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9780141012698
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0141012698
  • Reading age ‏ : ‎ 14 - 18 years
  • Lexile measure ‏ : ‎ 800L
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 11.3 ounces
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 5.08 x 0.76 x 7.8 inches
  • #9,723 in American Literature (Books)
  • #10,894 in Literary Fiction (Books)

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About the author

Jonathan safran foer.

Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of the bestseller Everything Is Illuminated, named Book of the Year by the Los Angeles Times and the winner of numerous awards, including the Guardian First Book Prize, the National Jewish Book Award, and the New York Public Library Young Lions Prize. Foer was one of Rolling Stone's "People of the Year" and Esquire's "Best and Brightest." Foreign rights to his new novel have already been sold in ten countries. The film of Everything Is Illuminated, directed by Liev Schreiber and starring Elijah Wood, will be released in August 2005. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has been optioned for film by Scott Rudin Productions in conjunction with Warner Brothers and Paramount Pictures. Foer lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Book Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close follows a nine-year-old boy named Oscar coming to terms with life after his father's death on 9/11. When looking through his dad's things, Oscar breaks a vase and finds a key and a mysterious envelope labeled "Black". He decides to embark on a mission to find every person named Black in New York City in an attempt to find the one Black who knew his father. Along the way, he meets new friends and discovers more about those he already knew. This book is written from the alternating perspectives of Oscar, his grandmother, and his mute grandfather whom Oscar has never met. This adds an interesting layer to the story, as Oscar lost a parent in 9/11 and his grandparents, both children at the time, lost their families in the bombing of Dresden. This shows a theme throughout this book that grief from war and terror is universal. This book's overall commentary on the human experience and grief, both individual and collectively experienced by a nation, shows the skill and thoughtfulness of the author. On a personal level, I did not find the characters particularly enticing and had a hard time following the plot at times, but I would still recommend the book, especially to someone with an interest in 9/11 or the world wars.

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Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Common sense media reviewers.

book reviews extremely loud and incredibly close

Moving tale of young boy grieving loss of dad on 9/11.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Poster Image

A Lot or a Little?

What you will—and won't—find in this book.

The precocious, 9-year-old main character, Oskar,

The biggest and hardest lesson of Extremely Loud a

Oskar's greatest role model is his father. Thomas

The events of 9/11 are related in a range of ways,

Oskar's grandmother describes making love with Tho

One of the first things we learn about 9-year-old

Oskar drinks Juicy Juice boxes.

A character shows an old cigarette case from when

Parents need to know that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close , by Jonathan Safran Foer ( Everything Is Illuminated ), describes the grieving process of a family that's lost a loved one in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Most especially, this is the story of Oskar Schell, a precocious 9-year-old…

Educational Value

The precocious, 9-year-old main character, Oskar, and his adult friends at times barrage the reader with random-seeming information. Readers will learn a little about the life of a war correspondent, Shakespeare's Hamlet, the bombing of Dresden during World War II, elephant behavior, the design and construction of the Empire State Building, the events of 9/11, and more.

Positive Messages

The biggest and hardest lesson of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is that not everything happens for a reason.

Positive Role Models

Oskar's greatest role model is his father. Thomas Schell was a thoughtful husband and father, who encouraged his son's penchant for scientific discovery and always knew charming, inventive ways to keep Oskar calm and engaged.

Violence & Scariness

The events of 9/11 are related in a range of ways, as Oskar remembers what he experienced on the "worst day" and imagines ways his father might have died. Oskar's pent-up anger prompts him to imagine committing violent acts: bludgeoning a school bully with a skull, with blood spraying all directions, or attacking his psychologist in a similar way. These are fantasies, but they are described graphically. Oscar also pinches his own skin to bruise himself. The bombing of Dresden is remembered, and Thomas Sr. and Oskar's grandma recall seeing the dead and injured. The book also includes passages from an interview that fascinates Oskar, where a father graphically recalls the death of his daughter after the bombing of Hiroshima.

Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Violence & Scariness in your kid's entertainment guide.

Sex, Romance & Nudity

Oskar's grandmother describes making love with Thomas Sr. in some detail, and Thomas Sr. remembers making love with Anna, his first love. These events are described in some detail but not in a highly sensual way. There's some kid talk among elementary students about "blow jobs," "hand jobs," and private body parts. Oskar's friend Mr. Black equates Marilyn Monroe with sex. Oskar asks a couple of grown women he finds attractive if he can kiss them (but they don't kiss). A young teenage girl poses naked for a sculpture made by her older sister’s boyfriend, then has sex with the boy.

Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Sex, Romance & Nudity in your kid's entertainment guide.

One of the first things we learn about 9-year-old Oskar is that he's not allowed to curse, so he's invented creative ways to say curse words without saying them: He says he mustn't say "s--t," so he says "shiitake." Or whole sentences like "Succotash my Balzac, dipshiitake." There are also a few actual curse words in the novel, including three uses of "f—k," one "sons of bitches," and a scene where some boys try to make Oskar say his mother is a whore.

Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Language in your kid's entertainment guide.

Products & Purchases

Drinking, drugs & smoking.

A character shows an old cigarette case from when her husband "used to smoke." Another person mentions bottles of wine "we never drank."

Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Drinking, Drugs & Smoking in your kid's entertainment guide.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close , by Jonathan Safran Foer ( Everything Is Illuminated ), describes the grieving process of a family that's lost a loved one in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Most especially, this is the story of Oskar Schell, a precocious 9-year-old with highly advanced scientific curiosity but a child's limited ability to process loss. Oskar is a social misfit who exhibits repetitive behaviors that have led some readers to think he's on the autism spectrum. In fact, in the film adaptation of the novel, Oskar tells another character that he was tested for Asperger's syndrome but nothing "definitive" was determined. Though most of the novel focuses on Oskar's quest for a lock he thinks will reveal hidden details about his beloved father, the book also digs into various characters' memories of 9/11, as well as the Dresden bombing during World War II, which shaped the lives of Oskar's grandparents. There are also passages from an interview with a man who watched his daughter die after the bombing of Hiroshima. These accounts of violence are graphic and sorrowful. Oskar also has violent fantasies of hurting people who make him feel small and misunderstood. The novel includes rare cursing (a few uses of "f—k," one "sons of bitches") and some sexual content, including children's playground talk about "blow jobs," "hand jobs," and private parts, and more adult scenes where a young couple, and then an older couple, make love. It's best suited for mature teens. However, it's worth noting that the novel has more humorous and lighthearted moments than the movie version does.

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Community reviews.

  • Parents say (1)

Based on 1 parent review

What's the Story?

EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE follows a nonlinear path to reveal a young boy's experience of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and history that shaped his family. Oskar Schell exhibits unusual behavior and strong curiosity. He's struggling painfully to cope with the grief of losing his dad, and he begins a quest to find an object that he believes will reveal hidden secrets and help him make sense of what happened. Along the way, Oscar meets a fascinating cast of characters, including his delightful 103-year-old neighbor, Mr. Black, a former war correspondent with a surprisingly bright outlook, and "the renter," a mysterious character who shares an apartment with Oskar's grandma.

Is It Any Good?

This is meaningful book deals with loss, war, and terrorism, and mature readers who take it on will be rewarded with original characters and an engaging quest. Author Jonathan Safran Foer has a marvelous ability to express emotions and tell stories from different points of view: those of a 9-year-old boy who may be on the autism spectrum, an elderly grandmother who survived the bombing of Dresden, a Japanese man who lost his daughter in Hiroshima, and more. These characters are well-drawn and relatable, and sometimes funny to observe.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is grim but not relentlessly so -- except when it should be. The events are painful, and it's particularly sad to experience young Oskar's grief and confusion. Written for adults but sometimes assigned in high school, this novel is best for older teens ready for a serious read.

Talk to Your Kids About ...

Families can talk about the events of 9/11 and other attacks described in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. What's the connection between the 9/11 attacks and the Dresden and Hiroshima bombings?

What do you think of the graphic descriptions of violence? Are they necessary to convey the consequences of war and bombings? What about the fantasy violence Oskar imagines against a bully? Is violence easier to take when it's fantasy rather than reality or actual history?

What do you think of how grief is portrayed in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close ? Does it seem realistic? Have you ever lost someone close to you or seen relatives grieving for someone who died? I this what grief can look like?

Book Details

  • Author : Jonathan Safran Foer
  • Genre : Contemporary Fiction
  • Topics : Friendship , History
  • Book type : Fiction
  • Publisher : Mariner Books
  • Publication date : October 18, 2018
  • Publisher's recommended age(s) : 0 - 0
  • Number of pages : 368
  • Available on : Paperback, Nook, Audiobook (unabridged), Hardback, iBooks, Kindle
  • Award : ALA Best and Notable Books
  • Last updated : October 17, 2018

Did we miss something on diversity?

Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.

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    Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a story of a nine-year-old boy named Oskar Schell whose father dies in the World Trade Center during the 9/11 terrorist

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    For older teens who have no knowledge of 9/11, this is a great book to teach them about the emotions around it at the time. It only includes