Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
|Author||Jonathan Safran Foer|
|Cover artist||Jon Gray|
|1 April 2005 (1st edition)|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Pages||368 pp (hardback & paperback editions)|
|ISBN||0-618-32970-6 (hardback edition)|
|LC Class||PS3606.O38 E97 2005|
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a 2005 novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. The book's narrator is a nine-year-old boy named Oskar Schell. In the story, Oskar discovers a key in a vase that belonged to his father that inspires him to search all around New York for information about the key.
Oskar Schell is a nine-year-old boy whose father, Thomas Schell, died in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The novel begins after the tragedy, with Oskar narrating. Since his fathers' death, Oskar struggles with insomnia, panic attacks, and depression. He often describes the feeling of depression as wearing heavy boots, and deals with this by giving himself bruises.
One day, in his father's closet, Oskar finds a key in a small envelope inside a vase that he accidentally broke; on the outside of the envelope the word "Black" is written in the top left corner. Curious, Oskar sets out on a mission to contact every person in New York City with the last name Black, in alphabetical order, in the hope of finding the lock that belongs to the key his father left behind. One of the first people Oskar meets in his search for the key's origin is a 48-year-old woman named Abby Black. Oskar and Abby become friends instantly, but she has no information on the key. Oskar continues to search the city, towards the end of his journey Oskar meets an old man he calls "the renter" because until the point of meeting, Oskar had only heard of the old man's existence from his Grandmother who referred to him as the new tenant in her apartment. (We learn towards the end of the book that "The renter" is actually Oskar's grandfather.)
The book spans many months of Oskar's journey, some of which he was accompanied by his elderly neighbour, Mr. A. Black. Eight months after Oskar initially met Abby, he finds a message from her on the answering machine. Oskar had not touched that phone since his father died because his father's last words had been on an identical answering machine which Oskar had kept hidden from his mother. Oskar finds out that Abby called him directly after his visit, saying she wasn't completely honest with him and might be able to help. Oskar returns to Abby's apartment after listening to this message, and Abby directs him to her ex-husband, William Black.
When Oskar talks to William Black, he learns that the key once belonged to William's father. In his will, William's father left William a key to a safe-deposit box, but William had already sold the vase at the estate sale to Thomas Schell. Then, Oskar tells William something that he "never told anyone" – the story of the last answering machine message Oskar received from his father, during the attack of 9/11. Oskar then gives William Black the key. Disappointed that the key does not belong to him, Oskar goes home angry and sad, not interested in the contents of the box. After Oskar destroys everything that had to do with the search for the lost key, Oskar discovered that his mother knew about his activities the entire time and was contacting everyone with the name Black in New York City. After the first few visits she called every Black that he would meet and informed them that Oskar was going to visit and why. In response, the people Oskar met knew ahead of time why he was coming and usually treated him in a friendly manner.
The novel has a parallel narrative that eventually converges with the main story. This narrative is portrayed through a series of letters written by Oskar's grandfather to Oskar's father Thomas, and by Oskar's grandmother to Oskar himself. The letters written by Oskar’s grandfather explain his past in World War II, his first love, and his marriage to Oskar’s grandmother. The letters written by Oskar’s grandmother explain her past in meeting Oskar’s grandfather, the trouble in their relationship, and how important Oskar is to her.
Oskar Schell is the nine-year-old protagonist of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. He is an eccentric, intelligent, and clever young boy who self-identifies as a number of things including inventor, amateur entomologist, origamist, and amateur archaeologist. He often contemplates deeper topics and shows great empathy beyond what the average 9-year-old might have. His thoughts have a tendency to trail off into far-flung ideas, such as ambulances that alert passerby to the severity of their passengers' conditions and plantlike skyscrapers, and he has several assorted hobbies and collections. He is very trusting of strangers and makes friends easily, though he does not have many friends his own age.
Oskar's mother, Linda Schell, referred to as "Mom" by Oskar in the book, cares for her family greatly. After Thomas's death, Linda tells Oskar "I won't fall in love again." Though it is implied that she knows Oskar is running around the city meeting strangers, she nevertheless allows him to do so in order to discover more about his father.
Oskar's grandmother is a kind woman who is very protective of Oskar. She calls out to him often, and Oskar always responds with "I'm okay" out of habit. When she arrived in the United States, she read as many magazines as she could to integrate herself into the culture and language. As Anna’s (Oskar’s grandfather’s first love) younger sister, she enters into a tumultuous marriage with Oskar's grandfather, and the couple breaks up before the events of the novel.
Mr A. Black is an elderly man of questionable age (he claimed to have lived every day of the twentieth century,) who lives in the same apartment building as Oskar, and joins him for some of his journey. Prior to meeting Oskar, Mr. Black had not left his apartment in twenty-four years, after having had a rather adventurous life.
Oskar's grandfather, Thomas Schell Sr. (also referred to as "the renter") is an important character in the story, even though he does not physically meet Oskar until the book's end. After the death of his first love, Anna, Oskar's grandfather loses his voice completely and consequently tattoos the words "yes" and "no" on his hands. He carries around a "daybook" where he writes phrases he cannot speak aloud. He marries Anna's younger sister, Oskar's grandmother.
Anna is an absent character. She is Oskar's grandfather's first love. Oskar's grandfather falls in love with her instantly. She dies in the Dresden firebombings of World War II after telling Oskar's grandfather of her pregnancy. She is Oskar’s grandmother’s sister.
Abby Black is William Black's ex-wife. She is forty-eight years old and lives by herself. She is friendly and welcoming to Oskar when he arrives at her house, though she does decline Oskar's offer of a kiss.
Oskar's father, Thomas Schell, dies before the events of the book begin. Oskar remembers him as caring, smelling of aftershave and always humming the song "I Am the Walrus" by The Beatles. Thomas Schell organizes several expeditions for Oskar, such as a game to find an object from every decade of the past century. These adventures with his father are one of the reasons Oskar begins his journey about the key.
Stan is the doorman in the building Oskar lives in.
Buckminster is Oskar's cat.
Jonathan Safran Foer's inspiration for his main character came when having difficulty with another project. In an interview, Foer stated, "I was working on another story and I just started to feel the drag of it. And so, as a side project, I got interested in the voice of this kid. I thought maybe it could be a story; maybe it would be nothing. I found myself spending more and more time on it and wanting to work on that". On the challenges of writing a novel in a child's voice, Foer responded, "It's not the voice of a child exactly," adding that "in order to create this thing that feels most real, it's usually not by actually giving the most accurate presentation of it."
Foer combined the character he had been developing with the 9/11-centered plot. He created the story line from his personal experiences and reactions regarding the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Foer was sleeping off jet lag after returning to New York City from a trip to Spain, when he was woken by a phone call from a friend: "He said, 'You have to turn on the TV, a plane has crashed into the World Trade Center.' And then he said, 'I think it's going to be a very strange day.'" In another interview, Foer said, "I think it's a greater risk not to write about [9/11]. If you're in my position—a New Yorker who felt the event very deeply and a writer who wants to write about things he feels deeply about—I think it's risky to avoid what's right in front of you."
Major themes of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close include trauma, mourning, family, and the struggle between self-destruction and self-preservation. Sien Uytterschout and Kristiaan Versluys have examined the specific types of trauma and recuperative measures that Oskar's grandmother and grandfather go through after the Dresden bombings and that Oskar goes through after the loss of his father. They argue that Oskar has a simultaneous death wish and extreme need for self-preservation: This theme is echoed in Thomas Schell, Sr.'s pronounced survivor guilt and Oskar's grandmother's well-disguised inability to cope with her trauma. They also argue that though Oskar's journey to "find" his father does not help him get over his traumatic experience, it does allow him to grow closer to his mother. Foer provides a parallel between WWII and the 9/11 attacks to not only show the timelessness of trauma and tragedy – how it affects people unbiasedly, but also how coping with trauma also means to revisit the trauma.
It is also important to note the impact of the child narrator on the effectiveness of the theme of trauma. In the novel, Oskar never directly addresses through his narration the trauma he faced. Only through his journey through the city and through his grandparents' letters does he mimic the journey one must take when coping with trauma.
Authors began producing 9/11 novels as early as 2002 as a way of recognizing the tragedy. Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel was one of many that confronted the aftermath of the attacks through the eyes of a New Yorker. However, 9/11 fiction is not only a new subgenre, but a new struggle for many authors. Richard Gray stated in his book on 9/11 literature After The Fall, “If there was one thing writers agreed about in response to 9/11, it was the failure of language; the terrorist attacks made the tools of their trade seem absurd.” There was a desire to write about the experience, to recognize the individual impact, as well as the greater social impact, while appreciating the mourning of the country, but many authors found it difficult to do so.
Foer utilizes the child narrator in an attempt to connect with that struggle. The struggle of the child to understand the trauma is reflective of the struggle many faced after the trauma of the 9/11 attacks.
Foer’s novel was one of the most popular and widely read novels of this post 9/11 fiction subgenre. Because of its great popularity, its message had a greater impact than many novels of its kind. Apart from the terrorist attacks of September 11, the novel also sheds light on the experience of terrible tragedy. Rebecca Miller of the Library Journal claims “Foer nimbly explores the misunderstandings that compound when grief silences its victims.” The novel makes sense of and provides a way of moving on from the grief of the specific catastrophe. “[F]ew works of literature have succeeded in drawing lasting meaning, whole or fragmentary, from modernity's string of catastrophes…” but Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is one of them, providing a tool to create understanding of grief and loss.
John Updike, writing for The New Yorker, found the novel to be "thinner, overextended, and sentimentally watery," compared to Foer's first novel. He stated, "the book's hyperactive visual surface covers up a certain hollow monotony in its verbal drama." In a New York Times review Michiko Kakutani said, "While it contains moments of shattering emotion and stunning virtuosity that attest to Mr. Foer's myriad gifts as a writer, the novel as a whole feels simultaneously contrived and improvisatory, schematic and haphazard." Kakutani also stated the book was "cloying" and identified the unsympathetic main character as a major issue. The topic of the child narrator is a contentious one. Many critics found the child narrator to be unbelievable and not relatable. Anis Shivani said similarly in a Huffington Post article entitled "The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers," claiming Foer "Rode the 9/11-novel gravy train with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, giving us a nine-year-old with the brain of a twenty-eight-year-old Jonathan Safran Foer."
Despite several unfavorable reviews, the novel was viewed positively by several critics. Foer’s child narrator was featured in a critical article titled “Ten of the Best Child Narrators” by John Mullan of The Guardian in 2009. The Spectator stated that "Safran Foer is describing a suffering that spreads across continents and generations" and that the "book is a heartbreaker: tragic, funny, intensely moving". "Foer's excellent second novel vibrates with the details of a current tragedy but successfully explores the universal questions that trauma brings on its floodtide.... It's hard to believe that such an inherently sad story could be so entertaining, but Foer's writing lightens the load." Sam Munson, in a review of two novels on catastrophe claimed, “Foer has a natural gift for choosing subjects of great import and then pitching his distinctive voice sharply enough to be heard above their historical din.”
Awards and honors
- New York Public Library's "Books to Remember" list
- International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award Shortlist (2007)
- The Morning News Tournament of Books (Quarterfinalist, 2006)
- New York Times Bestseller (Fiction, 2005)
- Libraires du Québec (Lauréat Roman hors Québéc, 2007)
- ALA Outstanding Books for the College Bound (Literature & Language Arts, 2009)
- ALA Notable Books for Adults (2006)
- Village Voice 25 Favorite Books (2005)
- V&A Illustration Award (2005)
A film adaptation of the novel was released on January 20, 2012. The script was written by Eric Roth, and Stephen Daldry directed. Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, John Goodman, Viola Davis, Max von Sydow and Jeffrey Wright starred, alongside 2010 Jeopardy! Kids Week winner Thomas Horn, 12, as Oskar Schell. The film was produced by Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros.
- Foer, Jonathan Safran (2005). Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 978-0-618-71165-9.
- Vanderwees, Chris. “Photographs of Falling Bodies and the Ethics of Vulnerability in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” Canadian Review of American Studies. 45.2 (2015): 171–94.
- Safran Foer, Jonathan. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. pp. 237–368. ISBN 9780618711659.
- Safran Foer, Jonathan (2005). Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. pp. 288–368. ISBN 9780618711659.
- Shenk, Joshua Wolf. "Jonathan Safran Foer: living to tell the tale". Mother Jones. 30 (3). Retrieved March 15, 2012.
- Sien Uytterschout, Kristaan Versluys (May 15, 2008). "Melancholy and Mourning in Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close". Orbis Litterarum. Blackwell Publishing. 63 (3): 216–236. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0730.2008.00927.x. Retrieved March 15, 2012.
- Gray, Richard (2011). After the Fall. John Wiley & Sons. p. 1.
- Miller, Rebecca (March 1, 2005). "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close". Library Journal. 130 (4): 78.
- Munson, Sam (May 2005). "In the Aftermath". Commentary. 119 (5): 80–85.
- Updike, John. "Mixed Messages" The New Yorker, March 14, 2005.
- Kakutani, Michiko. "A Boy's Epic Quest, Borough by Borough", The New York Times March 22, 2005.
- Shivani, Anis. "The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers." The Huffington Post August 7, 2010.
- Mullan, John (2009-12-19). "Review: Ten of the Best Child Narrators". The Guardian (London.
- Olivia Glazebrook, "Wearing heavy boots lightly", Spectator June 11, 2005.
- "Miller, Rebecca (March 1, 2005). "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.". Library Journal. Media Source, Inc. 130 (4): 78. Retrieved March 15, 2012.
- Munson, Sam (May 2005). "In the Aftermath". Commentary. 119 (5): 80–85.
- Kit, Borys. "Stephen Daldry to direct 'Extremely Loud': Project based on a Sept. 11-themed novel", The Hollywood Reporter, April 1, 2010
- "Hanks and Bullock Getting Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close", ComingSoon.net, August 23, 2010
- Fleming, Mike. "'Jeopardy!' Wiz Kid Lands Lead in WB Movie", Deadline.com, December 15, 2010