I’m a sentimental, emotional, man. I’m sensitive. I feel. I feel big. And Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close made me cry and cry and weep and weep and shudder into a cathartic mess oozing across the floor. Urgh.
It is a novel about Oskar Schell, an eight-year-old (I think*) boy who discovers a key inside a vase located in his late father’s closet. The story begins a little over a year after the father’s death, which happened during the infamous 9/11 terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Center. Rather than focus on this attack as a potent symbol of unique victimisation, Safran Foer instead chooses to place it within the tradition of unexpected violence resulting in huge loss of civilian life, incorporating the horrors of the 1945 Dresden bombing in quite some detail, as well as a personal and unpleasant (though brief) account of Hiroshima.
Yes, the novel includes big, famous, events, and is about grief and grieving and death and childhood and innocence and regret and shame and loneliness and selfishness and all manner of buzz word lit subjects… But it is engaging, it is often very, very funny. Yes, its emotionality may come from a rather predictable place, and the plot may reveal itself in a relaxed manner (almost as if the initial shock of the terrorist act has shattered the nerves of a potential reader), but its use of photography, cartoon, flipbook, altering font size-spacing-colouring, marks it out as an interesting, though not necessarily innovative, book. Stylistically.
So, yes, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is very much a novel that tugs self-consciously at the tearducts through overwrought sentimentality… But I forgive it, because sometimes it’s nice to cry. And the book is intelligently written and the tertiary points it touches on regarding memory and the urge to record life are powerful and much more potent that the potentially heavy-handed bits about sadness and loss. One character, who narrates occasional passages, can only communicate through the written word, he has, a la Tommy, been struck “dumb” (can one still say that?) following horrors he has witnessed. As his emotions rise, as he is swept up in the growing explosion of the novel’s main plot, he loses the (literal) space, but retains the urge, to write. He wishes for “an infinitely long blank book and the rest of time.”
A beautiful notion.
A life, life, cannot be expressed only through the written word. Safran Foer’s metafictional point, easy to ignore if a reader just wants to cry about a sad little rich boy, intellectually undermines the novel as a form. Justifying his use of pictures and photos in this volume, but also perhaps explaining why he hasn’t finished another proper novel in the almost decade since…
Not as good as Everything Is Illuminated (see my glowing review HERE), but certainly good enough to get me looking up Tree of Codes. (Once I’ve read Street of Crocodiles. I’m not a philistine.)
*Wikipedia tells me he was nine. I think that’s wrong, though Oskar does lie a lot about his age.