Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, as the title suggests, has a style I’d describe as relentless and exhausting. I was afraid to read this book because I didn’t want to feel wrung out afterwards. On this day, I think we all feel that way, at least a little bit. But like many great works of art, the ones we must see are also the most difficult to face. I’m sure many folks like me get stomach knots to see September 11, 2001 reflected in any work of art or literature. But as we’ve said here before: some books are hard to read, and that’s why we have to read them.
Our main character, a young boy named Oskar, has lost his father in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Some time later, he finds a key in his father’s bedroom. Oskar decides to locate the lock for the key in hopes of re-connecting with his father…perhaps his dad meant for Oskar to find something meaningful with this key. His quest leads him to many people across New York City. During his search, Oskar obsesses over what may have happened to his dad on 9/11, what he knew, and what he heard. The other people in his life also deal with the trauma and the aftershocks. Oskar’s mom has a new friend who may or may not be a romantic interest. His grandmother lives across the street and has her share of the first-person narrative voice, taking us from NYC to Dresden, Germany in the days of World War II. Even Oskar’s mysterious grandfather has a narrative voice, speaking through his hands and written words, but never using his own voice.
The relentless barrage of photos, typefaces, lists, settings and jumbled thoughts contained in the novel are exhausting. The novel reflects many scattered and seemingly disjointed thoughts about war, terror, fear, loss, longing, and searching. I guess it could be summarized as containing every thought and feeling I’ve had about 9/11 ever since 9/11. All the questions, fears and sad stories; all the times we will forever hear someone else’s experience on that day for the first time. This book proves again to me that we will never cease weeping over what happened that day. But if we do, we better remind ourselves that we haven’t heard everyone’s story yet so we better brace ourselves.
Reading this book is exhausting, frustrating, confusing and terrifying. I put it down in frustration and anger many times. When I came back to it, I took a breath and reminded myself that some books are supposed to be difficult. I got angry as the narrative moved from person to person and from present day to the past. I wasn’t sure I understood where this story was going, or why Foer was moving us from past to present. (Yes, I’m an impatient reader.) But I’m confident the experience of reading was worth the effort. I hope you’ll feel the same way.
This day and date belong to everyone in the world, and we recall it with our own degrees of every human emotion. For me, I believe Oskar’s key symbolizes a tool to seek solace from the chaotic memories, which I hope will one day be very quiet and far away.
Meet Oskar Schell, an inventor, Francophile, tambourine player, Shakespearean actor, jeweler, pacifist, correspondent with Stephen Hawking and Ringo Starr. He is nine years old. And he is on an urgent, secret search through the five boroughs of New York. His mission is to find the lock that fits a mysterious key belonging to his father, who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11.