Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is just that — it gets in your face, makes you think about it, and, most importantly, burrows its way close to your heart. Of all the books to come out in recent years, this is the only one that has brought me to my literary knees with the beauty of its writing style. The plot is heartwarming and meaningful in and of itself, but the way Foer portrays his characters and story is what really makes the book a must-read.
Foer debuted with his first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, in 2002. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close came out three years later, at the same time as the movie version of Everything Is Illuminated. Whether by poor marketing or by fate, most people who have heard anything about Foer have heard about his first novel (or movie), but not the second. In my opinion though, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close far outstrips Everything Is Illuminated.
On the surface, the book follows the story of nine-year-old Oskar Schell, whose father died on September 11th. While going through his father’s things he discovers and unusual key marked, simply, “Black.” Determined to find out what his father might have left behind, Oskar makes it his mission to go through every Black in the phonebook until he finds the key, taking him through all the boroughs of New York and introducing the reader to an unusual cast of characters.
Among that cast are his grandmother and grandfather, who get their own chapters to tell their stories. Both lives are full of loss: of each other, of other loves, and, finally, of a son. His grandfather, who “loses his words” one by one after the death of his first love, communicates only in journals. His chapters are full of letters to his son, but interspersed are the messages he writes to people around him in order to be in touch with the outside world. Though seemingly trivial at the time, these messages often reappear, as his grandmother, who is writing a letter to Oskar, reveals the circumstances around them.
The characters’ voices are extremely loud in this book, in a way that makes them both believable and meaningful. Not only what they say, but the way they say it reveals why they are bothering to narrate this story to the reader. Oskar uses enormous words in the way that only a nine-year-old whose hero is Stephen Hawking; his grandmother writes fragmented sentences about a life spent searching for a place where everything can matter; and his grandfather writes in a long stream of consciousness as he tries to recall the past in order to replace the present he is missing.
Readers may have encountered Foer’s unique writing in Everything Is Illuminated, but in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close the style is woven so seamlessly into the themes that every word becomes significant. The book speaks of the emptiness his characters endure, both through the arrangement of words and visually. Foer uses the full extent of his artistic license, and his book —- somewhat surprisingly —- comes out the better for it. Riddled with pictures and white space, every image and every sentence connects the characters and the reader deeper to the emotions that come with loss.
If you have ever wanted something, lost someone, thought, felt, or breathed, read this book. Listen to the audiobook. Download the Kindle version. You will not be disappointed.