Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is Jonathan Safran Foer’s (Author of Everything is Illuminated, you may have seen the film, and Eating Animals) 2005 New York Times bestseller, which was recently made into a movie. The book is written in first person from the perspective of Oskar, a nine year old boy as well as through letters to Oskar from his grandmother and letters that his grandfather wrote. Oskar is extremely unique, and possibly autistic, but because the book begins after Oskar’s father has died, it is possible that Oskar’s oddness, such as the refusal to wear clothing that is not white, is merely his intriguing personality coupled with his curious coping methods.
Oskar’s dad, Thomas, died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Oskar deals with this grief through a variety of means, one of which is inventing things like birdseed shirts that enable a person to fly, or buildings that move like elevators
“Sometimes I think it would be weird if there were a skyscraper that moved up and down while its elevator stayed in place. So if you wanted to go to the ninety-fifth floor, you’d just press the 95 button and the ninety-fifth floor would come to you. Also, that could be extremely useful, because if you’re on the ninety-fifth floor, and a plane hits below you, the building could take you to the ground, and everyone could be safe.”
Oskar is a boy with many talents and interests. According to his business card Oskar is an
“inventor, jewelry designer, jewelry fabricator, amateur entomologist, francophile, vegan, origamist, pacifist, percussionist, amateur astronomer, computer consultant, amateur archaeologist, collector of : rare coins, butterflies that died natural deaths, miniature cacti, Beatles memorabilia, semiprecious stones, and other things.”
The death of Oskar’s father gives Oskar “heavy boots” and in addition to his talents and interests Oskar finds two other way’s of coping. When Thomas was alive he would tell Oskar elaborate stories and make for him equally involved treasure hunts, called Renaissance Expeditions. After Thomas death, Oskar discovers, in Thomas closet, a key in a blue vase, inside an envelope with the word Black on it. Oskar believes this to be his father’s last Renaissance Expedition and sets out to find the person with the last name Black that the envelope refers too. Much of the book revoles around Oskar traveling around New York visiting different people with the last name Black, he makes friends, conquers his fear of tall buildings and public transportation, and fills his elementary schools performance of Hamlet all with people of the same last name. Working on the Renaissance Expedition enables Oskar to feel close to his father, even though it pulls him away from his mother.
The more negative way that Oskar copes is through giving himself bruises. Oskar is in therapy, but it is not going very well. Perhaps because his therapist, Dr. Fein, is under the impression that Oskar should be hospitalized. Though for Oskar recovery does not happen while speaking to Dr. Fein, but rather while he is out wandering the streets of New York, playing his tambourine, and looking for the owner of the key.
“On Tuesday afternoon I had to go to Dr. Fein. I didn’t understand why I needed help, because it seemed to me that you should wear heavy boots when your dad dies, and if you aren’t wearing heavy boots, then you need help. But I went anyway, because the raise in my allowance depended on it….[Dr. Fein asks Oskar] “Do you thing any good can come from your father’s death? I kicked over my chair, threw his papers across the floor, and hollered ‘No of course not, you [expletives].’ That is what I wanted to do. instead I just shrugged my shoulders.”
While Oskar may not be able to see or realize it something good is coming out of his father’s death, in addition to befriending many New yorkers with the last name Black, Oskar also unwittingly befriends his grandfather.
Oskar is not the only one in his family to survive a tragedy as both his grandmother and grandfather lived through the 1945 firebombing of Dresden during WWII. The both lost everything as their families and entire towns were destroyed. Oskar’s grandfather, also named Thomas, was a young man at the time of the bombing and was in love with Oskar’s grandmother’s sister, Anna, who was pregnant with his child. When he reconnects with a childhood friend, the woman who would be come his wife, the sister of his first love, Thomas is mute. He slowly lost his ability to speak words after the bombing. Later, writing a letter to his son, Thomas Sr. writes
“When your mother found me in the bakery on Broadway, I wanted to tell her everything, maybe if I’d been able to, we could have lived differently, maybe I’d be there with you now instead of here. Maybe if I had said, ‘I lost a baby,’ if I’d said ‘I’m so afraid of losing something I love that I refuse to love anything,’ maybe that would have made the impossible possible. Maybe, but I couldn’t do it, I had buried too much too deeply inside of me. And here I am, instead of there. I’m sitting in this library, thousands of miles from my life, writing another letter I know I won’t be able to send, no matter how hard I try and how much I want to” (216).
Oskar’s grandfather never meets his son, he leaves just before Thomas Jr. is born and only returns after his death. But he does come when his grandson is in need, feeling the same weight of heavy boots, burying the same feelings and words of greif.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is much more a novel about how humans cope after tragedy, than one about 9/11. 9/11 is only keep in the foreground because it is how Oskar lost his father, in many ways the Dresden bombing acts as a more powerful force in the novel. The novel asks if loss will turn into bitterness, the inability to love or move on. Or through grief, tambourine playing and knocking on dozens of stranger’s doors, like Oskar, can an individual open themselves up to love someone they never knew existed. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is one of the saddest books I have ever read, but also one of the most hopeful and hilarious.