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February 27, 2012 / Rachel Bednarski

Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer

I first picked up this book in the summer. I was in Oxfam Books and it was one of those Oxfam Books that you find in affluent, desirable-postcode towns which means there is actually lots and lots of literature and lots of Booker Prize nominees and such – this one even had a poetry section, which is unheard of in the small town I’m from. So I was in this Oxfam Books, overwhelmed with good quality titles and only 2 pounds in change. There were two Foer novels in the F section, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Everything is Illuminated. I had read lots of good things about Foer and about both of these titles so I eeny meeny miney mo-ed and ended up going home with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

I read the first page and resigned it to the bookcase, cursing myself for having chosen another precosiously-narrated, child-perspective narrative over a Julian Barnes or Margaret Atwood.

Then, just after Christmas I heard tell that the film version of Foer’s novel was being released in February. It had Tom Hanks in it and Sandra Bullock and, even though it had a paltry rating of 46 on Metacritic, and Metacritic is the oracle, I really, really wanted to see it. Which meant I would have to read the book first. So I picked it back up again that very day and went to Cafe Nero with it and read and read and read and drank mocha after mocha until I’d finished it a day and a half later. I am so so glad I went back to it.

What about a teakettle? What if the spout opened and closed when the steam came out, so it would become a mouth, and it could whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare, or just crack up with me? I could invent a teakettle that reads in Dad’s voice, so I could fall asleep, or maybe a set of kettles that sings the chorus of ‘Yellow Submarine’.

The novel follows precocious, autistic, 9 year old Oskar Schell after the death of his father in the 9/11 terrorist attacks and his attempts to make sense of the events and losing his dad. Finding a key in an envelope amongst his dad’s things leads Oskar to become an apprentice flaneur of New York city, trailing the streets to visit every address occupied by someone of the name ‘Black’, the name written on the envelope, in the hope of finding the lock the key fits. As Oskar invades the lives of the Blacks upon whose doors he knocks he is offered an insight into the delicacy of human existence and the miscellany of life outside of his own insular world, inadvertently leading Oskar into achieving the  worldliness to counteract his constant stream of existentialist philosophy that his dad spent his life trying to teach him.

Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living.


Yes, autism has been tackled before in literature, and in a similar way (insert The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time comparison here), yet Oskar’s Aspergers is never the main focus of the storyline. In his portrayal of his protagonist Foer transcends literary triteness in his visually absorbing effort and achieves a truly original and beautiful portrait of the mind of a child with apparent Aspergers.

With Foer’s use of photographs, multi-narratives and postmodern graphological acrobatics which dominate the narrative, a strange thing of beauty comes bursting out of all the loss and suffering. It shows its reader what it’s like to love and to suffer and to lose and to hurt, and in this way the novel is alive and active – despite its commentary on death and suffering, it’s living and breathing and reminds the reader that they too are living and breathing, despite all the heart-ache and loneliness that exists in the world. Such devices create a feeling of desperation and angst – an urging to communicate grief and loneliness — that permeates throughout the novel and lingers long after the book has been read.

It has been suggested that art which commentates on 9/11 cannot truly have any real meaning or make any real sense unless it was produced after a certain (indefinable) amount of time after the event. As Extremely Loud was published a mere 4 years after the attacks on the World Trade Centre this perhaps explains some of the negative criticism Foer received to counter his otherwise great acclaim. Yet Foer utilises this apparent lack of perspective which comes with his novel having been written so soon after, in approaching 9/11 from the viewpoint of an innocent, brooding and lost child who – as the novel’s title suggests, has no perspective on the events either, which leaves the reader able to identify with the suffering and sudden loss that attempts to suffocate him.

The novel does, at times, wander into the arena of cloying sentimentality yet it is never quite exaggerated enough to achieve anything other than an immensley strong voice in its protagonist. When a novel is dripping with such topical pathos it is difficult not to identify with its characters, despite any overplayed emotion.

I like to see people reunited, I like to see people run to each other, I like the kissing and the crying, I like the impatience, the stories that the mouth can’t tell fast enough, the ears that aren’t big enough, the eyes that can’t take in all of the change, I like the hugging, the bringing together, the end of missing someone.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a devastating and often hilarious portrait of loss, loneliness, people and the way we live. Through Foer’s rich prose and characterisation emerges a sense of the acute hollowness of life.

I’m interested to see how the visuals of the novel, which rely so heavily on text and the space of the page will translate into film…



Leave a Comment
  1. maudlin / Mar 9 2012 11:21 am

    I think this is the best review I’ve read of this book. You said everything I felt but didn’t manage to verbalize for myself.

    “a strange thing of beauty comes bursting out of all the loss and suffering.” So true.

  2. Jen Thompson / Feb 28 2012 1:02 pm

    Lovely review….. I’m looking forward to reading this at some point when I get time and also seeing the film… 🙂

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