Five months ago, I fell in love with a nine-year-old boy. His name was Oskar Schell, and he was cheeky, and he was perceptive, and he was caring, and he wrote to Steven Hawking thinking he would get a personal response, and he was a pacifist, and he was in an incredible amount of pain. I knew I loved him when he said, “Sometimes I think it would be weird if there were a skyscraper that moved up and down while its elevator stayed in place…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 would be safe…” Little did I know that it would be very easy to fall out of love with Oskar Schell by the time he turned ten.
Five months ago, after Jonathan Safran Foer came to read from an advanced copy of his new book, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I couldn’t wait for the entire story of his protagonist, Oskar Schell, to unfold. Here was an inconsolable little boy, prone to adventure, whose father had been killed on September 11. Here was a writer, heralded as the next big thing, who seemed to deftly broach a topic even Aaron Sorkin couldn’t master. Unfortunately, there isn’t much that is deft after the first chapter.
One could classify Extremely Loud as an amalgam of Slaughterhouse Five and City of Glass: part remembrance of Dresden, part Manhattan scavenger hunt. On the one hand, there is Oskar, who, after discovering a mysterious key amongst his beloved father’s things, seeks to find the owner of the corresponding lock as a way of clinging to his father and coping with his depression. On the other hand, there is Oskar’s absent grandfather, who abandoned his grandmother when she was pregnant with Oskar’s father. All that appears to remain of this grandfather are his letters to his unborn son, explaining how he stopped speaking after the love of his life – Oskar’s great-aunt – was killed in the Dresden bombings. While these appear to be two interesting, interlocking, and inexplicably mysterious storylines, they do not, in fact, properly coalesce. The ending revelations (I will not reveal them here, though it wouldn’t matter if I did) that they bring about are unsatisfying and anticlimactic. Though the novel is meant to be unresolved, it need not feel incomplete, nor should it feel simultaneously incomplete and much too long. But it does.
The problem with much of Foer’s second work is that it feels contrived. After a while, Oskar does not feel precociously intelligent, but trying, cloying, too earnest; a nine-year-old would never speak the way he does. Nor would any mother, no matter how distant, allow her nine-year-old son to wander so freely the streets of New York. Oskar’s descriptions of feeling sad as having “heavy boots” and feeling happy as having “one hundred dollars” do not feel like kid-speak; they are bad metaphors repeated much too often for dramatic effect. Amidst the overwrought prose, Foer includes pictures and stylized fonts, but none of it fulfills a purpose except to up the page count. The worst of it comes with the grandfather’s storyline, which at best feels extraneous and at worst feels obnoxious and selfish for all of its high-concept style and plot that includes the ‘nothing spaces’ and ‘rules of loving’ that existed between Oskar’s grandparents. Furthermore, much of the current of true hurt that runs throughout is diminished by maudlin lines like “we looked at each other until it felt like everything would burst into flames, it was the silence of my life.”
But, after all of that, I still wanted to like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. To Foer’s credit, he can still deliver some heartbreaking lines like “How could anything less deserve to be destroyed?” or “We cracked up together, which was necessary, because she loved me again.” No matter the unfortunate qualities of this work, Foer is an author to trust. He produces a kind of sinewy, addictive, and redeeming storytelling that still has the capacity to leave you dazed and wounded amidst some clunky phrases and questionable character motivations. Here, he had a solid concept and an intriguing protagonist, but he went to the extreme and it became an incredible mess.