It takes considerable nerve for a young novelist to write a book in which a precocious boy named Oskar roams his catastrophe-stricken native...
“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”
by Jonathan Safran Foer
Houghton Mifflin, 355 pp., $24.95
It takes considerable nerve for a young novelist to write a book in which a precocious boy named Oskar roams his catastrophe-stricken native city, taking his tambourine with him everywhere he goes.
One instantly thinks of Oskar Matzerath and his toy drum in Günter Grass’ classic “The Tin Drum.” But as one reads Jonathan Safran Foer’s second novel, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” the comparison doesn’t serve Foer well.
Foer burst onto the scene a few years ago with a debut novel, “Everything Is Illuminated,” that was met with extraordinary praise. That tale, narrated partly in an amusingly broken English by a young Ukrainian, focused on Nazi atrocities in Jewish shtetls during World War II. It also, between the lines, suggested Foer’s artistic credo: “Humorous is the only truthful way to tell a sad story.”
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Substitute “whimsical” for “humorous,” and you’ve got the operating credo of “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.”
Oskar Schell is a 9-year-old, jewelry-making vegan-percussionist-inventor living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. As we meet him his mind is teeming with innovative ideas, including one for “a skyscraper that moved up and down while its elevator stayed in place … 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’s father, you see, was killed in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, and Oskar — in his idiosyncratic way — is reeling from the loss. There are secrets about his dad’s death that he’s keeping from his mom. There is also a secret in his dad’s life, held by a key Oskar discovers.
He found it in his father’s closet, in an envelope marked “Black.” Oskar is certain it unlocks something of significance, and for the bulk of the novel he roams all five boroughs of New York City, sometimes with his 103-year-old upstairs neighbor, interrogating anyone he can find named Black.
Jonathan Safran Foer
The author of “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” will read at 4 p.m. Thursday, at Seattle’s Richard Hugo House, 1634 11th Ave. Foer will also appear on a triple bill with writer Charles D’Ambrosio and musical group Awesome at 8 p.m. Thursday, at Chop Suey, 1325 E. Madison St., Seattle; free (ages 21 and over); doors open at 7 p.m.; for more information on both events, contact the Elliott Bay Book Company at 206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
Foer is going for some kind of magic realism here, but he’s failed to register that magic realism works best when it cuts to the quick of a hard reality. When Gabriel García Márquez has his Latin American dictator sell the sea to the Americans in “The Autumn of the Patriarch,” for instance, we’re taken to the heart of Latin American political dysfunction.
In Foer, however, the outlandish touches are simply difficult to buy. Oskar can play “Flight of the Bumblebee” on his tambourine? Fat chance. Oskar’s caring mother lets her son roam the farthest reaches of New York City on his own? Seems unlikely.
Oskar isn’t the book’s only narrator. His grandmother and estranged grandfather (who ditched his pregnant wife and went mute before Oskar’s father was born) also have a say. Both came from Dresden, where they lost everything in the fire-bombing of the city. Foer, as if he weren’t already overloading his novel with this Dresden material, uses odd typographical designs for the grandparents’ narrations, the main effect of which is to make his paragraphing unclear.
Another move — Oskar giving a brutally graphic schoolroom presentation on the 1945 Hiroshima bombing — brings the novel perilously close to atrocity-hopping. All through the book, as if to temper the effect of the horrors he mentions, Foer throws in illustrations and typographical tricks (red-ink circlings of deliberate typos, a gradual reduction of text-leading until the page is solid black). The result, too often, is reader bafflement and indifference.
Despite all this, some passages work. Oskar’s struggles over whether to bury or be open about his grief are affecting. And his grandmother’s straightforward account of watching Sept. 11 news coverage has real power.
Still, the general impression one gets here is of a young writer who wants desperately to have something important to say, and wants to say it in the most unusual way possible. What Foer needs is more discipline in establishing narrative tone, and a surer sense of which of his technical gimmicks has any purpose.