I’m still not entirely sure how I came across Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and I’m even less sure why I decided it was something I might want to read. Nonetheless, it was certainly insightful, even if I have to agree with an oft-shared view that the novel’s sentimentality is overdone to the extreme that I felt Foer was trying to drag an emotion out of me, rather than let it naturally occur.
Myself, I’m too young to properly remember 9/11, per se, so the conversation I have with myself about this event is doubtless very different to that of older reviewers. However, I’ve grown up in a world that has been moulded by its fallout in every possible way: from the seemingly endless conflict in countries that seem so far away, to the suspicion in which we view foreign culture both on the street and in media, to the sheer weight which politicians across the world attach to it in accordance with their rhetoric.
Foer’s novel is set in this context, in New York in 2003, two years after “the worst day”, as nine-year-old Oskar Schell refers to it throughout. The impact of 9/11 is never lost on Oskar, and through his eyes we see the sheer unfairness of the attacks. Oskar’s relationship with his father, Thomas Schell, is seen only in glimpses, but these parts bring out the best of Foer’s writing. But at the same time, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is about the impact and effect of the loss, and not the moment of the loss itself. The narrative flashes back to 9/11 and the subsequent days, but doesn’t linger with it. And so I struggle to call Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close a true 9/11 novel (not that I’ve read in this genre), as it’s about Oskar, not the circumstances he faces.
What the setting does offer, though, is a clear comparison between the internal and external circumstances that surround Oskar’s character. Oskar, a budding explorer, scientist, and sporadic French-language afficionado, is naturally curious: he’s the child who tugs on your hand and asks why? Why? Why? But the genius of this novel is that there is no why, and we know this from the start. I had no illusions that Oskar’s search for one of New York’s 162 million locks would end in some sort of miraculous realisation on the part of his character that resolves his crisis. Yet by showing us the world through the eyes of a nine-year old narrator without that foresight, we do get the sense that maybe, just maybe, there could be something at the end of the road. There won’t be, but there could be. But by plying that line of childish wonder and by taking advantage of our cynicism at the same time, Foer tugs at the heart.
The only thing is, he tugs too hard. I always got the sense that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close wanted to make me cry, and that’s probably the reason why it never made me do that. It’s definitely an affecting novel, but its attempts at emotionality, particularly in the secondary stories, feel a bit tired. By the time I’d untangled the threads of Oskar’s grandmother and grandfather’s narratives, I just didn’t feel the ‘right’ emotions. It doesn’t help that Foer’s use of form and language during these sections is incredibly unnatural. The author is a lecturer on Creative Writing at New York University, and much of his work speaks in testament to that, only not in a good way: instead of coming across as natural, it’s more of a matter of:
Look at me, I can write a silent protagonist.
Look at me, I can write in a weird excessively paragraphed style.
Look at me, I can write about Nothings and Somethings and Nouns.
I think the main reason the ‘secondary’ parts of the novel failed is because his protagonists here aren’t as interesting as Oskar. I’ve heard critiques that Oskar Schell is just Jonathan Safran Foer in a nine-year-old’s body. There’s definitely some validity to this claim – Oskar is far more eccentric than the most eccentric kids, and the complete lack of adult supervision in his life is staggering and at times off-putting – but at the same time, I think it was meant to be like this. All art is self-reflection. What’s the point of writing for other people if you can’t write for yourself at the same time?
So, yes, the unrealities are excusable. Because when you think about, the world of New York in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close isn’t real, and it isn’t supposed to be. It’s a sort of Van Gogh dreamworld fantasy, and as such, Oskar, eccentric, eclectic, is the perfect person to turn up here. Stream-of-consciousness is one of my favourite styles of writing, and while Foer is relatively obedient to the narrative compared to some other writers, a ‘tethered’ Oskar wouldn’t be at all interesting. ‘Interesting’ is quite a generic word to describe the character, and with adjectives failing me, I’ll say “I love him in the book. If I met him in real life I’d probably want to smack him.”
The other characters in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – the near-endless stream of people named Black, in particular – also smack of this eccentricity, even the ‘most normal’ of them. But it seems likely to me that this is because we saw them through Oskar’s eyes, and not because they are infinitely interesting in themselves.
Regardless of the problems that puncture the story just enough to make it distractingly imperfect, the ending of the book is one of the best endings I’ve ever read. As I’ve mentioned earlier, we’re expected to know that Oskar’s quest will be ultimately unsuccessful in the way that he wants it to be. And, in what is definitely an interesting literary choice, the narrative climax of the story – the digging up of Thomas Schell’s grave – is skipped over in favour of propelling us on to the denouement.
Except in this ending, Oskar doesn’t find closure. Rather, he finds the opposite, that the world is open before him, and there’s no meaning to it, at all.
But we should have known that from the beginning. From the open-ended title – does it refer to the birds outside Mr. Black’s apartment? Or to the beating of a child’s heart? Or to the relationship between the three main protagonists? Or to a United Airlines flight with hijackers on board? What about a teakettle? – to the mystery we know is impossible to solve adequately, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is always a novel about unanswerable questions. With 9/11, there is no why – we can explain the planes and the smoke and the things that come after, but we can never explain the people or the way that fate dances this way and that. Whatever order Oskar Schell once knew in his life is gone. To quote the title of Seamus Heaney’s poem on the similar subject, “Anything Can Happen” in life, and in a way, that is what makes it beautiful.
This novel isn’t world-changing in a literary sense. I might even go so far as to say it fails in trying to make its literary point, which means that, in places, it comes across as extremely pretentious. But the emotionality of it makes up for its failings, once it steers clear of the initial manipulation. There are creative choices in this novel that I think only Foer can understand, and for me, the final pages were one of these. And then those last lines of text, those final reflections of a boy who always had to know why, but eventually realised that knowing why was impossible, were genuinely heartwrenching.