Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer. Houghton Mifflin, 326 pages, $24.95.
Well-he’s brave. Or maybe just foolhardy. Jonathan Safran Foer has attacked head-on the problem of how to follow up on the best-selling Everything Is Illuminated (2002), his quirky, endearing, Holocaust-haunted debut. He’s now aimed his wit, charm and considerable pomo savvy at two horrific tragedies, the fire-bombing of Dresden and 9/11. He tries to make us see terror through fresh eyes, to make us feel, up close and personal, terror’s lingering consequence. Bold and worthy ambition. But to realize his ambition, Mr. Foer trades on his cleverness. You can’t exactly call Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close a sophomore slump; it’s more like a callow kid’s catastrophe.
Speaking of kids, Mr. Foer bets the farm on a 9-year-old narrator, Oskar Schell, who’s clearly meant to be a honey trap for the reader’s sympathies: He’s precocious, needy and badly scarred by an incomprehensible disaster, his father’s death at Ground Zero on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 (a total fluke-he was at a breakfast meeting at Windows on the World). If, when you meet Oskar, you immediately want to take him home with you, then Mr. Foer has another big hit on his hands. If you think Oskar’s not a flesh-and-blood kid but rather a literary device, a clever but unconvincing gimmick, then Houghton Mifflin may soon regret having paid out a $1 million advance for a 28-year-old wunderkind’s second book.
In his first book, Mr. Foer introduced the reader to a Ukrainian youth who mangled the English language in memorably hilarious ways. The hook hooked me (and most other critics, too), and I put up with the novel’s cartoon shtetl and various non-fatal flaws (the author was 24 at the time), mostly out of gratitude for the good laughs.
Oskar is less a hook than a prod: His verbal tics work overtime to remind you that Mr. Foer is ingenious and eager to please. When he’s sad, he says he has “heavy boots”; when he’s happy, he says he feels “like one hundred dollars”; when he’s surprised he says, ” What the?”; when he’s aware of his own precocity, he says, “… which I know about.” He sprinkles his conversation with phrases in French such as ” raison d’être.” He claims to have taught himself to play Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Flight of the Bumblebee” on the tambourine. He dresses only in white. And he gives himself bruises.
He lives at the intersection of cute and tragic. The self-inflicted bruises are related to his “secret”: On the morning of Sept. 11, his father phoned from the burning tower and left five messages. Oskar came home shortly after 10 o’clock-“we were let out early because of what happened”-and listened to the messages on the answering machine, the last of which came at 10:04. “And then the phone rang. I looked at my watch. It was 10:22:27.” It’s his father. He’s never told anybody about that final phone call: “That secret was a hole in the middle of me that every happy thing fell into.”
“I knew I could never let Mom hear the messages,” Oskar explains, “because protecting her is one of my most important raisons d’etre.” Instead, he embarks on a quest: He wants to find the lock that fits a key he found in his father’s closet, a lock he thinks might belong to a person named Black-and so he’s decided to pay a visit to every Black in the New York phone book. (Oskar’s mother, a busy trial lawyer, has apparently decided to give him the run of the city.) Does this secret search seem like a symptom of a little boy’s grief, or more like a literary conceit: a child hero’s quest narrative, salted with mini-adventures? To me, Oskar seems a willed invention; all his eccentricities add up to a shtick, a wearying routine stretched out so the author can hang a novel on it.
A second story, even more dismal, is about Oskar’s paternal grandparents, both of whom survived Dresden. The grandfather, Thomas, was in love with Annie, the grandmother’s older sister. (I’m sorry to say that the metaphor repeatedly used to describe their passion is appallingly trite and obvious: “[W]e looked at each other until it felt like everything would burst into flames.”) Annie was incinerated in the fire bombing. The two survivors met again by coincidence in New York after the war. They married, but Thomas was still and forever in love with the dead Annie, not with her living, breathing little sister-who’s never named, just to drive the point home. As the Grandfather explains, “I thought we could run to each other, I thought we could have a beautiful reunion, although we hardly knew each other in Dresden. It didn’t work. We’ve wandered in place, our arms outstretched, but not toward each other.” In addition to this lonely dance, they seem to be engaged in a bizarre postmodern competition to see who can have a more attenuated relationship with language. He doesn’t speak, and so communicates only by jotting words in a notebook, and he also writes endless letters he has no intention of sending. She writes her life story on a typewriter with no ribbon.
Mr. Foer reproduces some of this linguistic oddity typographically: We’re shown what pages of the grandfather’s notebook look like. (Except the words in Extremely LoudandIncredibly Close are typed, whereas the grandfather’s would have been scrawled. Oh, well.) There are also blank pages to show us what the grandmother’s invisible typing would have looked like.
Oskar shares in the fun and games, too: Scattered throughout the book are photographs he’s downloaded from the Net and pasted in a scrapbook called Stuff That Happened to Me.
The cheap bells and whistles only distance the reader from the emotional core of the novel. I guess that’s the point. (You can’t win an argument against postmodernism, because every failure is further evidence of the impossibility of representation, the breakdown of language, discourse in crisis.)
The New York Times ran a hand-wringing article the other day about how literary novelists are beginning to “grapple” with 9/11. Of course they are-it’s a natural inclination to want to write about a spectacular tragedy. And though the horror of Dresden has been described in fiction before (by an eyewitness, no less: God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut), there’s always room for more. But Mr. Foer’s gimmicks seem thin and tacky in the context of these two wrenching historical events.
Which reminds me. I can accept that the fire-bombing of Dresden and the attack on the World Trade Center were both acts of terror, very broadly defined-but aren’t there distinctions to be made? This is where history helps, and, unfortunately, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is an utterly ahistorical novel. Mr. Foer’s Dresden is barely in Europe, let alone in the brutal endgame of a six-year-old world war. Like Oskar, the dysfunctional grandparents float in a dream world. They are all fundamentally unreal.
Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.