You’ve probably heard Jonathan Safran Foer’s name before. His book Everything is Illuminated was a huge hit and the book I’m reviewing in this post, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, was made into a movie in 2011. The writing in this book is pretty good and the protagonist is lovable, but it doesn’t quite live up to the hype.
The novel focuses on three generations of men in the Schell family – Oskar, his father Thomas, and his grandfather Thomas Schell Sr. Before the beginning of the story, Oskar’s father has died in the attack on the World Trade Center. The book opens with Oskar ranting humorously about his hobbies and then moves to a scene of him sitting in a limo on the way to his father’s funeral with his mother and his grandmother. Oskar is extremely sensitive (you could probably guess that from the title), profound, and often funny. He addresses the limo driver in a mock Steven Hawking voice: “What. Is. Your. Designation… Oskar’s CPU is a neural-net processor. A learning computer. The more contact he has with humans, the more he learns.” He’s pretty awkward, but the limo driver isn’t flustered.
In fact, nobody is ever that weirded out by Oskar, which in itself is kind of weird because most of the book is Oskar knocking on the doors of anyone in New York with the last name Black, because it was written on a vase containing a mysterious key that he found in his father’s room. He wants to find the lock because he believes when he does he will learn a secret about his father. All of the Blacks that he goes to comply with answering his questions, and the only people that make fun of him are the kids at school, who he has revenge fantasies about while he’s playing Yorik’s skull in the school play (I feel that – playing an inanimate object = no bueno… “There’s no such thing as small parts, only small people” just adds insult to injury).
Oskar has a number of unique traits and hobbies. He likes to play the tambourine, make vegan cupcakes, learn French, and make inventions in his mind. He invents the idea for a shower that paints you a color corresponding to your mood. It would make it easier for people to know how to approach you, and also allow you to know exactly what you are feeling. I’ll let him explain that part:
“Another reason it would be a good invention is that there are so many times when you know you’re feeling a lot of something, but you don’t know what the something is. Am I frustrated? Am I actually just panicky? And that confusion changes your mood, it becomes your mood, and you become a confused, gray person. But with the special water, you could look at your orange hands and think, I’m happy! That whole time I was actually happy! What a relief!”
His inventions are whimsical and it’s fun to see what he thinks up. He’s not a bad character, but he does sometimes stretch believability. His parents won’t let him watch tv, but they’ll let him run around New York alone. It’s never explained why he’s interested in studying French, or playing tambourine, which means that they’re basically trinkets Foer added onto the character to make him seem more unique and appealing… but still, I like quirky protagonists, even if their quirkiness is a little contrived.
There’s also a lot of pictures in this book interspersed with the text. Most of them are simply black and white photographs illustrating objects in the story. I’m not sure that they add anything, so if you get the Kindle edition and can’t make out the pictures, you’re probably not missing very much. The fact that it has pictures points to the thing that confuses me the most about this book – is it aimed towards adults or children? It has the genius child protagonist common to a lot of fiction for young people, but it has very adult content (sex, terrorism, war, death, existentialism). It’s probably not appropriate for children under ten, at least.
The other major character is Oskar’s grandfather, Thomas Schell Sr. He survived the bombing of Dresden and came to America, where he married the sister of the girl he’d been in love with in Germany. His relationship with his wife is kind of sweet but mostly pathetic, since he’s really still in love with her sister and not her. The two have a strange system of what they call “nothing places” in their house, where they pretend nothing can exist. Things that enter the nothing places are lost forever, and when someone is in a nothing place they can’t be bothered. This is probably to give them space to deal with their past trauma.
Oskar’s grandfather can’t speak (he gradually lost words), so he keeps a notebook and writes down everything he wants to say to show to people. And he writes down EVERYTHING. NOTHING ESCAPES HIS PEN. Which makes for extremely boring chapters when you have pages and pages of this:
I understand the character wants to make the most of the limited quantity of paper he has left in his notebook, but couldn’t he have chosen to record less instead of dispensing with paragraph breaks? Reading pages like this is like reading a textbook, but without the gratifying sense of getting something accomplished. Thomas Schell Sr. records every little thing that happened to him and every thought that crosses his mind at the moment he’s recording, including repeatedly asking passerby for the time, impressions that remind him of the old country, and so on. It was on these pages that I considered dropping the book, but I wanted to see what would happen with the key…
Speaking of that key, the ending of the book is (highlight for spoiler text): extremely anti-climactic. It turns out the key goes to a lock that went to a security box that belonged to the first Black’s father, and Thomas Schell simply bought the vase the key was in at a garage sale, so the key had nothing to do with Oskar’s father at all. You feel about as betrayed as Oskar at that point because you were expecting something worthy of all that searching and mystery. I’m not sure, but the book might be trying to make Oskar mature by realizing that not everything is about him. He also finds out that his mother hadn’t forgotten about his father by dating another man, the guy Oskar thought she was dating was a friend she met in a support group for grieving people (he had lost his family in a car accident). The man Oskar’s father bought the key from was also grieving for his dad who had recently died.
There is a ton of grieving in this book… I don’t think there’s any character that’s not grieving for somebody. It gets a little dark after a while, since it’s the same theme and feeling over and over and over…
All in all, even though I loved the character Oskar Schell, the ending left me cold, and for that this gets a solid “average” rating.