Friday, November 6, 2009

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Jonathan Safran Foer)

I've heard really good things about Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, so when I received a request to take a look at his second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I put it at the top of my list. Of course, the fact that the request came from my girlfriend might've contributed to that as well. Luckily for me, I'm dating a lovely girl with exceptional taste in literature—this book kicks so much ass.


Oscar Schell is a nine-year-old boy living in Manhattan. He's extremely intelligent, but quirky and strangely neurotic. He has anxiety issues, most of which stem from trauma over the death of his father on September 11. One afternoon, while looking through some of his father's old things, Oscar finds a small key in a tiny envelope marked "Black." He tries the key in every lock in the Schells' apartment, but none of them match. He decides that the only way to discover this last secret of his father's life is by trying the key in every lock in New York, starting with everyone in the phone book with the last name "Black." With nothing more than a list of names and this mysterious key, Oscar sets off to a different address each Saturday, hoping to find some clue that will bring him closer to his deceased father.

That's what happens, but that doesn't really tell you anything about the book itself. I have never encountered another novel like this, it's incredible. It's completely original, even innovative, to the point where it's almost hard to explain. Foer supplements the main narrative of Oscar's journey with letters from his grandmother and grandfather at different points in their lives. At times the story goes back to Germany in World War II and the bombing of Dresden. It jumps to their lives together before Oscar's father was born. Oscar's grandfather can't speak, so he writes in little daybooks that he carries around with him. Foer often adopts this method of communicating in the novel, writing only one line per page in the grandfather's "voice." Foer also includes photos of people Oscar meets throughout his journey, or of places he visits and items he picks up along the way. It's fascinating how many conventions this novel breaks without thinking twice. It's bold, creative, and has one of the most compelling styles I've ever seen.

I really can't say enough about this novel. I hate being so emphatic and emotional about this when Im trying to describe its qualities and merits objectively, but I can't help it. A lot of the events that take place seem fantastic and outlandish, but the characters and the tone make everything believable. If Oscar jumped off a bridge and flew to New Jersey on page 200, I would believe it. Foer does a spectacular job of making everything and everyone in this novel stand out. Oscar exists. His grandmother exists. His grandfather exists. The limo driver that takes Oscar and his mother to Oscar's father's funeral exists. All of these characters live and experience grief and frustration over the aspects of their lives they can't control. And it's consistent. Foer develops all these little neuroses in Oscar that stick, even the things that are never explained, or aren't explained until halfway through the book. Nothing is left out or forgotten. This book is more real than any memoir; I highly recommend it to absolutely everyone.


Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
by Jonathan Safran Foer

I can't imagine improving on this novel at all. The only reason why the story doesn't get a 10 is because I'm selfish and wanted more. I wanted to find out what happens to the characters after the story ended. I still have questions I want answered, but I guess life's that way, too.

It's original, but in a way that works. I'm so impressed by the risks that this novel takes, and how well those risks are rewarded. I would not change a thing about the way this story is told.

Read this book. If you buy it and somehow don't like it, I'll give you your money back myself and give it to someone else. If you've ever had any kind of tragedy in your life, if you've ever felt sad or happy or alone or anything, if you've lived at all, you'll enjoy this book.


I wish I could read this book with you. This isn't some kind of guilty pleasure, or a novel that just happens to strike the right chords with certain people. This is the pinnacle of great literature. Seriously, read this book.

P.S. Next week I'm going to have a surprise for everyone. In honor of a certain detective film that's being released Christmas Day, I'm going to begin a weekly supplement reviewing all the works that the film is based on. I'm sure you can deduce what film I'm talking about from these elementary clues. Until then, keep reading, Watson! I mean, Genoshans!


  1. Wow, you don't give those kind of scores lightly. I guess I have to read it.

  2. Okay, so I just finished this book, and I'm curious to get your thoughts on a few things. 1. I would have to drop the Story rating to at least a 9 for the sin of not ever revealing the mystery that the whole plot of the story is based on (I don't want to give anything away to anyone who hasn't read it, so I'll assume you know what I'm talking about). 2. Style - you're right that it's great, truely unique and awesome, but I felt like there were a few devices, particularly at the end, that were reused by different characters. The very end, for instance, would have been stronger if the grandmother hadn't just wrapped up her story in that way (by gettin gjiggy with the timeline), or if perhaps the grandfather and mother did the same thing. It was weird to have just two of the characters use it. Also, as much as I agree that the characters are real, there are moments I had trouble with - ex: why would a grandparent tell her grandson about her sexual experiences with such great detail? 3. In General, I think you're right, it was a very powerful book. The thing I most respected was the handling of 9/11. I've never read anything that so thoughtfully, so painfully explored it without sensationalizing. Really beautiful.
    Anyhow - just thought I'd share. Back to work now.


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