Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close Oskar is a young boy trying to come to terms with the death of his father in the 9/11 crash. His mother and grandmother are his only family now, or so he thinks. When Oskar finds a key in a vase in his father’s closet, he thinks it’s a thread whose end will bring about a much sought after answer. Whose key is it and what does it open? Will finding the lock bring something of his father back? Was he meant to find it? His only clue gives him an idea of where to start, although it’s a pretty wobbly start and there are months of puzzles ahead, waiting to be solved.

I wasn’t taken with the book at first. I thought it was trying too hard to do something clever, and then I realized I was trying too hard not to like it. Oskar seemed like a smart boy – inquisitive, always searching, but burrowing his pain deep inside, letting it out only for the briefest of moments in conversations with his mother and grandmother. Their interactions range from silly to heart-breaking seriousness in the blink of an eye, the words warm and comforting then sharp, leaving invisible wounds.

Somewhere halfway the story my perception changed – what seemed at first a jumble of events began to have a shape – of what, I did not know but at least then I began to feel confident things were going somewhere. I became fascinated with the apparent ramblings of a young boy and the letters sprinkled throughout the book, letters from his grandmother or grandfather and other people I couldn’t keep track of. But at some point it didn’t matter who wrote them but what was in them. Ramblings turned to life stories, turned to feelings, turned to tears in me.
The black and white photographs (ordinary things most of them, until the end of the book where some of them become so much more); the jumbled writing (I gave up on that, who wouldn’t, I wonder), the pages of numbers, crossed out words – all this make the book an interesting experience, almost as if the writer wanted to give the reader as complete an experience as possible. There’s Oskar’s cat, Buckminster, leaping in the air, two hands tattooed with the words YES and NO, and other pictures whose meaning I didn’t understand but accepted nevertheless. I loved how the whole book is a mix of locks, keys, doors, conversations that open you raw, light, shadows, handwritten letters, relationships and feelings, feelings, feelings.

Oskar’s quest does have an ending – dissatisfying as I thought it was, but some sort of closure. This book I felt, was not so much about him making peace with the death of his father as much as the reader being given the reason why things happened the way they did. Because in trying to have a look at Oskar’s father meant going deeper into the family history and having a look at Oskar’s grandfather, a man scarred so badly by war and a long lost love that he gave up a future because he couldn’t let go of his past. It’s as much a story about loss as it is about love and looking at it all through the eyes of a child.

Some of my favorite passages:

To my child: I’m writing this from where your mother’s father’s shed used to stand, the shed is no longer here, no carpets cover no floors, no windows in no walls, everything has been replaced. This is a library now, that would have made your grandfather happy, as if all of his buried books were seeds, from each book came one hundred.

It’s hard to say goodbye to the place you’ve lived. It can be as hard as saying goodbye to a person. We moved in after we were married. It had more room than his apartment. We needed it. We needed room for all of the animals, and we needed room between us.

The walls of the hallway were Nothing, even pictures need to disappear, especially pictures, but the hallway itself was Something, the bathtub was Nothing, the bathwater was Something, the hair on our bodies was Nothing, of course, but once it collected around the drain it was Something, we were trying to make our lives easier, trying, with all of our rules, to make life effortless.

She died in my arms, saying, “I don’t want to die.” That is what death is like. It doesn’t matter what uniforms the soldiers are wearing. It doesn’t matter how good the weapons are. I thought if everyone could see what I saw, we would never have war anymore.

My rating: 4/5 stars
Read in March 2015

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14 Responses to Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer

  1. Priya says:

    I have seen this book just about everywhere, but I never really looked into what it was about. This sounds emotional and powerful. I love your review, I’ll add the book to my wishlist. Those are some wonderful passages you’ve quoted, how lovely is this – “as if all of his buried books were seeds, from each book came one hundred.” The final lines really pique my curiosity.

    • Delia says:

      I really liked this book, Priya, even if it confused me at times. It also reminded me of The Book Thief – children as the main protagonists, war, loss, very emotional passages, beautiful writing, and the way the author experimented with the layout of the book. There are some pages with only a few words on them.
      I loved that passage about books, it’s so beautiful, isn’t it? I just stared at the page, reading those lines over and over again.
      I hope you get to read it.

  2. Lovely, lovely review, Delia. Adding the book to my TBR right away. Thank you for sharing your wonderful thoughts. I particularly liked what you mentioned about ramblings. “Ramblings turned to life stories, turned to feelings, turned to tears in me.” So beautiful!

    And, did you like Buckminster too? 🙂

    • Delia says:

      Hi Deepika,
      I’m glad you want to read it. I look forward to your review.
      Buckminster was lovely. There’s a passage in the book, something about him doing something when the boy had nightmares, it warmed my heart to read it. I’ll post it if I find it again. I love books with animals, although here the cat is barely mentioned.
      Thanks for the nice words.

  3. Caroline says:

    I bought it when it came out but never read it. I suddenly had the feeling it would be gimmicky and pretending to be more than it was. You make me want to read it after all.
    Some of it sounds quite similar to Nicole Krauss’ books, which I also haven’t read yet. Maybe because they are a couple they write about similar themes? There’s a similarity in the writing of Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt too. Only I like her far better.

    • Delia says:

      Hi Caroline,
      I had the same feeling in the beginning, but the writing is great. I was in two minds about Oskar, but I loved the letters. They are Something. 🙂
      I haven’t read any of Nicole Krauss’ books, she’s on my TBR list, as is Paul Auster. I haven’t heard of Siri Hustvedt, I will have to investigate.
      I’m really curious to see what you make of this book. I’ll keep an eye out for your review.

  4. Deb Atwood says:

    Glad to see your review. I had read reviews that said the book was over-wrought, trying too hard as you said at first.

    I haven’t read the book, but I saw the movie and loved it. Interesting range of take-aways though–I found the story uplifting and hopeful, but my husband and daughter found it depressing.

    Based on your comments, it sounds like the book can do things the movie can’t–usually the case, right?

    • Delia says:

      Hi Deb,
      It’s good I haven’t read any reviews then and so I had no idea of what to expect. Strange thing, as I got to the end it felt like I’ve read the book before.
      I will have to look for the movie, I’d like to watch it. Thanks for telling me about it.
      This is definitely a sad story, not sure if I would say hopeful.

  5. Brian Joseph says:

    Great commentary on this book Delia.

    I had heard good things about this one.

    In terms of the experimental and unconventional writing, sometimes I like that only because it is nice to read something different once in while. Some if what you describe sounds very interesting.

    It is also interesting that based on your commentary, Jonathan Safran Foer has managed to put all that together to make something emotionally powerful.

    • Delia says:

      Hi Brian,
      I’m beginning to appreciate these kinds of books – Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, The Book Thief and now this one – they bring something different to mind (although so far The Book Thief is the winner – have you read it? Now that’s a book that will tug at your heartstrings.).
      I’m glad I read this, I would love to read more by this author. I would be very curious to see what you think about this book, I hope you’ll give it a try.

  6. Vishy says:

    Beautiful review, Delia! I read this book for book club when it came out. I don’t remember much of the book now except for the experimental nature of it and the author playing with the form, but I remember liking it but not loving it. So glad to know that you liked the book and after the initial reservations about its potentially gimmicky nature, it is really beautiful. I loved all the passages you quoted, especially the sentence – “if all of his buried books were seeds, from each book came one hundred.”

    • Delia says:

      I’m glad to see you’ve read the book, Vishy. It looks like we have similar opinions about it. For some reason I kept comparing it with The Book Thief, although I know I shouldn’t. But they had quite a few elements in common so it was hard not to.
      I loved that last sentence too, imagine what would happen if we could do that – from one book reap one hundred. Magic! 🙂

  7. Athira says:

    I have this book on my shelf but have not yet gotten to it. Somehow, the tag of 9/11 attached to it makes me not want to pick it, though it’s only an incidental setting not the core of the story. But your review has made me want to pick it.

    • Delia says:

      Hi Athira,
      You should give it a try. It’s not so much about the 9/11 crash as it is about loss and coming to terms with a beloved parent’s death. The writing is beautiful and there’s a bit of humor here and there among all that sadness. I for one I’m glad I read it.

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