The best books make you laugh, cry, think and hope. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, one of my favorite novels, does all this and more.
The central plot, at first, seems evident: a 9-year-old boy, Oskar Schell, discovers a key and a note in the room of his father, whom he has lost recently in 9/11. He decides to go to apartments all over New York in search of ‘clues’ to find the message he thinks his father has left him. However, as the storyline progresses, the problems and complexities of the narrative unfold beautifully. We learn how a silent grandfather, a bombing in Dresden, a grandmother’s secrets and a limo driver are connected to Oskar and his father. The tragedies and losses in the book are heart-wrenching, but the effects on the survivors and their relationships show the delicate, even if fallible, nature of human beings.
“I feel too much. That’s what’s going on.’ ‘Do you think one can feel too much? Or just feel in the wrong ways?’ ‘My insides don’t match up with my outsides.’”
There are many twists and turns in this book, and it is propelled by a number of interlocking mysteries. However, at its core it is a study of people, exemplified by the hundreds of strangers Oskar meets on his ‘quest’. Through the eyes of a young boy, everything is both strange and yet perfectly acceptable, and this novel confronts our strange human rituals and relationships through honest eyes. Further, the characters are all devastatingly at fault and have often made grand mistakes in their lives, such as Oskar’s grandfather and Oskar himself. But rather than demonize them, Foer shows the complicated situations that have led the characters to their behaviors and thoughts, and the kernels of goodness in the face of tragedy. I think we can all relate to such complications; very often, it takes incredible strength to see the good, but it is there.
Finally, the book is experimental in its use of pictures (that sometimes have only a faint connection to the plot) and exploration of how language contributes to meaning. The different voices have different ways of communicating:by stories, in the case of Oskar, by typewriter, in the case of his grandmother, and by not speaking at all, like his grandfather. To top it off, the book is peppered with bits of humor and Oskar’s piercing insights.
“What about little microphones? What if everyone swallowed them, and they played the sounds of our hearts through little speakers, which could be in the pouches of our overalls? When you skateboarded down the street at night you could hear everyone’s heartbeat, and they could hear yours, sort of like sonar. One weird thing is, I wonder if everyone’s hearts would start to beat at the same time, like how women who live together have their menstrual periods at the same time, which I know about, but don’t really want to know about. That would be so weird, except that the place in the hospital where babies are born would sound like a crystal chandelier in a houseboat, because the babies wouldn’t have had time to match up their heartbeats yet. And at the finish line at the end of the New York City Marathon it would sound like war.”
You know that a book is good when it starts affecting how you act in real life—I felt extremely dramatic and sad for a couple days, but also thoughtful. I think everyone, from the philosophy enthusiast to the college student, should read this book, both for a good smile and provocative ideas.
“I felt, that night, on that stage, under that skull, incredibly close to everything in the universe, but also extremely alone. I wondered, for the first time in my life, if life was worth all the work it took to live. What exactly made it worth it? What’s so horrible about being dead forever, and not feeling anything, and not even dreaming? What’s so great about feeling and dreaming?”