#5: EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE, Jonathan Safran Foer
For the next few weeks, I’ll be thinking back through the books I read in 2010 and ranking my favorites in a top 10 list. Today, I’ll be sharing some brief thoughts about Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
I am not very well-versed in contemporary literature and so, as a proper literary snob, I always approach modern novels with trepidation. This novel was no different. It’s not exactly fresh or new to be into Jonathan Safran Foer and rave about him on your Tumblr, but I’d never read anything he’d written, so I decided back in February to figure out what the hype was all about.
The hype is about a novelist who keeps one finger on the pulse of the 21st-century reader and the other on the voice of his swift and witty self.
The story of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is clearly designed to pluck your postmodern heartstrings. Oskar Schell is 9 years old. His beloved father, Thomas, was killed when the World Trade Towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001. Oskar goes on a personal quest to discover the details of his father’s last moments on Earth. He scours New York City, following a trail of obscure clues and joining with a team of randomly encountered strangers. Oskar is probably the most precocious child you’ve ever met in a novel (perhaps excepting Charles Wallace) and it’s often a bit difficult to swallow the fact that this kid is supposed to be only 9 years old. However, we enjoy his adventures and his emotional odyssey through New York and through this powerful, collective memory of the tragedy of 9/11. In the end, we are not exactly sure if Oskar has found what he has been looking for, but he is content. And so we are as well.
Much of what makes Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close interesting is the book layout itself. Foer is not shy with graphic gimmicks–the book contains a number of full-page photographs, typographical absurdities (in one section, the words begin to run into each other until they completely overlap, creating an almost entirely black page of unreadable text), even several sections with red-lined edits included. Essentially, the book is a publishing designer’s nightmare–or greatest challenge. At first, I wasn’t sure what I thought about this. It seemed on par with an amateur magician’s tricks to keep a waning audience interested. But the more I read, the more Foer convinced me that he knew what he was doing.
Even though I was quite affected by Anis Shivani’s scathing critique of 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”), it’s been a long time since I read a book that made me cry. Somehow, it was good to find one that could accomplish that. Foer probably is guilty of “gimmick after gimmick,” as Shivani says he is. But, Shivani, I’m giving him #5 on my list because he made tears fall from my eyes and because it was pretty beautiful. Whether that makes him a circus-like panderer to the masses, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll let you decide.