three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
17-July-Aug-2005
user_rating: 
0

Oskar Schell’s business card reads "Inventor, jewelry designer, jewelry fabricator, amateur entomologist, Francophile, vegan, origamist, pacifist, percussionist, amateur astronomer, computer consultant, amateur archeologist, collector…" It is an ambitious range of interests, particularly for a nine-year-old boy—even if he is a native New Yorker. Oskar’s quirks and sheer intelligence become a refuge for his grief on September 11, 2001. Sent home from school, Oskar, too afraid to pick up the phone, overhears his father, trapped in one of the World Trade Center towers, utter his last words on the family’s answering machine.

When Oskar discovers a key inside an envelope labeled "Black" in his father’s closet, he springs to action. Armed with "a Magnum flashlight, Chap Stick, some Fig Newtons, plastic bags for important evidence and litter, my cell phone, … a topographical map of New York, iodine pills in case of a dirty bomb, my white gloves, obviously, a couple of boxes of Juicy Juice, a magnifying glass, my Larousse Pocket Dictionary, and a bunch of other useful stuff," he endeavors to meet every "Black" in the New York City phone book and uncover the lock that is home to the mystery key. His innocent and picaresque adventure, tied in with his grandparents’ recollection of the firebombing of Dresden in 1945, illustrates how one boy deals with grief, the pain, and the joys of human connection following great tragedy.
Houghton Mifflin. 326 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0618329706

Critical Themes

Precociousness unbound: "Perhaps Foer doesn’t intend to be taken literally" with his depiction of Oskar Schell (San Francisco Chronicle). Critics rush to trace Oskar’s lineage from Huck Finn to Oskar Matzerath (from Günther Grass’s The Tin Drum) to Holden Caulfield to Max Fischer from the film Rushmore; none of the associations seem sufficient. Whatever he is, Oskar is one of a kind. Charges of "suffering precocity" (Chicago Tribune) are leavened by critics who see in the Foer’s protagonist "a conscious homage to the Gotham wise-child genre" of Eloise and Stuart Little (New York Times Book Review). Narration from the voice of nine-year-old Oskar is a risk, one that marks a schism between those moved by the young boy’s plight and those who can’t be bothered.

Dresden bombs: The divide widens further with the introduction of Oskar’s grandparents. Generally, the critics indifferent to Oskar’s eccentricities hold up the elder Schells’ epistolary sections, which describe the bombing of Dresden in World War II, as evidence of Foer’s talent. But those enamored with the young protagonist find the history lesson a distraction. The Wall Street Journal questions whether it’s appropriate to draw a moral parallel between the two events at all. The brief appearance of a third terror, the bombing of Hiroshima, lands with a thud, provoking many critics to wonder whether it’s all a deliberate play for sympathy.

Every picture kills a story: Perhaps even more controversial than the flourishes of tragedy are the hyper-textual elements of the novel. Foer has included photographs of what Oskar sees (a doorknob, the night sky, rollercoasters, images of a person falling upward to the twin towers) and plays games with typography in the grandparents’ chapters (the white space eclipsed by text, pages of numerical codes). The book’s supporters find deep meaning within these visual prompts; others find the intrusion annoying, especially as they occur at the most emotionally charged moments in the book.

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"As the stories connect, they overlap, pushing against each other almost palpably, bringing the narrative so unbelievably close that it feels as if the novel is being shouted into one’s ear. In a sense, it is." Diane Scharper

Hartford Courant 4 of 5 Stars
"[T]he cumulative effect of all of this grief and striving and loss, expressed as the apparently disparate fragments come together, is stunning and at the same time extremely moving." Kit Reed

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"Foer invents the form of novel he needs to tell his story, alternating between Oskar’s experiences and those of his grandparents. … Foer’s bravery rewards the reader on nearly every page as he navigates the intensely personal and the universal elements of tragedy."
Lisa Bornstein

Houston Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close could easily have been a cloying, incoherent mess, but it isn’t. It’s really a lovely book, humane and quirky and for the most part hard to put down."
Fritz Lanham

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[M]uch can be forgiven in a book that unabashedly takes a big swing, and is just such a pleasure to read. … Foer manages to pull off the simultaneous, and remarkable, feat of making Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close emotionally resonant, powerful, and true." Thomas Maresca

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"This novel and his first one effectively trace the smoke from one horror to the next, from New York to Dresden to Hiroshima to the Gulag—to every baffled survivor whose happiness was burned away by conflations of politics and hatred that were entirely irrelevant to his life." Ron Charles

Oregonian 3 of 5 Stars
"Readers not thoroughly bewitched by precocious, world-weary chatter may find Foer’s writing more cumulative than descriptive. … Though far from perfect, this book is worth its cover price as admission to the show." J. David Santen Jr.

Minneapolis Star-Tribune 2.5 of 5 Stars
"From sentence one, protagonist Oskar Schell—an exasperating, endearing 9-year-old—gleams and grabs, believable to the point of heartache. … The entire half of the book that deals with the grandparents feels false." Emily Carter

San Francisco Chronicle 2.5 of 5 Stars
"There are moments when Foer comes close to brilliance—to a startling emotional acuity, but too many times he’s undone by cleverness, by the need to perform. The result is that we are recoiling from extreme loudness when we might have pulled incredibly close." Tom Barbash

Chicago Sun-Times 2 of 5 Stars
"But there are good sequences—the grandfather’s description of shooting zoo animals during the Dresden bombing, for instance." Roger Gathman

Chicago Tribune 2 of 5 Stars
"Hidden inside his self-indulgent thicket of a novel is a tender story of loss aching to come out. Indeed, Foer comes close to eliciting this when the narrative moves back in time to the abandonment of Oskar’s father by his own father. … Yet even then, Foer can’t stop himself from yanking unconvincingly at a reader’s heartstrings." Melvin Jules Bukiet

Los Angeles Times 2 of 5 Stars
"Oskar’s … persona [is] one that mixes comedy, precocious discursiveness and a pathos that can rise to the tragic but much of the time splashes in self-conscious whimsy. True, it is a whimsy that distracts from a terrible void; but if the void shows Foer as architect, then the whimsy shows Foer as a frequently ticky-tacky builder." Richard Eder

NY Times 1.5 of 5 Stars
"While it contains moments of shattering emotion and stunning virtuosity that attest to Mr. Foer’s myriad gifts as a writer, the novel as a whole feels simultaneously contrived and improvisatory, schematic and haphazard." Michiko Kakutani

Wall Street Journal 1.5 of 5 Stars
"It is all supposed to be profound in a faux-innocent way, but it comes off as manipulative, like a ripped-from-the-headlines cop show with literary pretensions." Robert J. Hughes

NY Times Book Review 1 of 5 Stars
"No traditional story could put forward the tritenesses that Foer reshuffles, folds, cuts into strips, seals in seven separate envelopes and then, astonishingly, makes whole, causing the audience to ooh and aah over notions that used to make it groan." Walter Kirn

Critical Summary

After his spellbinding first novel Everything is Illuminated ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Summer 2002), Jonathan Safran Foer seems "trapped in [Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close] by the very tics that made his first one a success" (Chicago Sun Times). The plot structure—quirky boy embarking on a quest for information about a loved one—mirrors that of his debut. And while Foer still displays a "seemingly inexhaustible supply of verbal ingenuity," this time around there is an uneasy balance between the prose and the subject matter (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel). This is, after all, a book about tragedy and loss. Some see Oskar’s oddball evasion of his emotions as affecting and heartbreaking; others see it as evasive and, what’s worse, manipulative. Maybe the wounds of 9/11 are still too fresh.

Technical issues are more cut and dried. Oskar’s voice, for all of its precocity, overall fails to draw the reader in. Instead of portraying the world through Oskar’s eyes, Foer spins the reader around in the boy’s head, a claustrophobic world of lists and fears. The inclusion of photos makes the dearth of visual writing that much more glaring. This flatness extends to other characters as well. This can be forgiven in a book with such a large cast (there are 262 Blacks in the New York City phone book). But many grumble that the caricatures include two main characters, the Schell grandparents.

It is easy to aim critics’ complaints about Oskar’s precocity at Foer himself; all recognize this young author’s great talent. Many admire Foer’s reach for something grand, even as they acknowledge that he hasn’t fully accomplished his task in this novel.