EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE. By Jonathan Safran Foer. Houghton Mifflin Co. 368 pages. $24.95.
Jonathan Safran Foer, author of the fresh and entertaining 2002 bestseller Everything is Illuminated, is among the pack of authors brave enough to address Sept. 11 in his second and lastest book, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Unfortunately, though, the same imaginative flair that made Foer's first book so compelling works against him here, leading readers to feel manipulated and unsatisfied.
After more than three years, Sept. 11 has fully infiltrated the cultural bloodstream. The terrorist attacks figure significantly in about a dozen or so recent and soon-to-be-published novels. The timing is partly due to the nature of literature, but it coincides with a general relaxing of standards that has allowed TV shows to toss off 9/11 plots in a way that once would have been blasphemous.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close tells the story of Oskar Schell, a 9-year-old boy whose father is killed in the attack on the World Trade Center. Oskar is a smart kid who's been encouraged by his parents in his precocious efforts to invent new things and work out puzzles devised by his father. He is a bit of an oddball, a kid who functions like a stunted grown-up. His quirkiness is at times grating, but it also serves as a believable outlet for his bottled-up emotions related to his dad's death.
Oskar finds a key hidden in his father's closet accompanied by a note with the word "Black" scrawled on it. Convinced that the key is another puzzle to be solved, Oscar trudges across New York to interview everyone with the last name Black. He wants to know what the key is for and how Mr. or Ms. Black knew his father.
Oskar is the book's anchor. Interwoven with his journey is the story of Oskar's paternal grandparents, whose marriage sprang from desperate attempts to cope with another historic calamity, the World War II firebombing of Dresden.
Although some have read malicious intent in Foer's juxtaposition of 9/11 and the firebombing, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close does not draw overt moral parallels. The questions raised by Foer are not ones of intent, but ones of impact. His goal is to render achingly personal trauma from moments of epic violence in history.
Unfortunately, his characters falter under the weight of such a charge.
Foer's brand of hallucinatory description works well in the context of the terror and physical pain endured by the victims of the firebombing. It is inflicted upon readers in such a way as to practically conjure the smell of burning flesh.
But his style undermines the domestic details of the grandparents' life together. The book devolves into a literary exercise as their post-war experience feels less and less palpable and more like the imagined workings of a folk tale.
In one passage, the grandparents speak of delineating their apartment in terms of "Something" and "Nothing" spaces, the latter being "nonexistent territories in the apartment in which one could temporarily cease to exist."
Foer writes in the voice of the grandfather: "Everything was forever fixed, there would be only peace and happiness, it wasn't until last night, our last night together, that the inevitable question finally arose, we were lying awake in the darkness, I told her, 'Something,' by covering her face with my hands and then lifting them like a marriage veil. 'We must be.' But I knew, in the most protected part of my heart, the truth."
Oskar's grandfather falls mute after the firebombings, so he carries a notebook with him to communicate. Pieces of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close consist of supposed reproductions of the notebook as well as photos from a journal Oskar keeps, which he calls "Stuff That Happened to Me."
These starkly blank and full-color pages punctuate the book graphically, sometimes filling in the plot or demonstrating how Oskar is only able to hear pieces of a conversation.
Part of what made Everything is Illuminated such a great read was Foer's inventive narrative style that effectively juggled three separate, but intermingled story lines. But in this case, his spirited sense of innovation ends up highlighting how unsubstantial the grandparents feel as characters.
Many of these pages symbolize the grandfather's futile attempts at communication. They record one-sided conversations as well as a lengthy series of digits corresponding to letters on a telephone.
In the end, though, the closest the grandfather comes to ever seeming remotely alive is in a gimmicky photograph meant to be of his hands, which are tattooed with the words "yes" and "no."
It is only through Oskar that Foer is able to show readers what it is to cope with suffering. It is a limited accomplishment, but it is powerful when it is stripped to its most pared-down state.
Oscar lashes out in very real, plain English at his mother. The last phone messages from Oskar's father are described with biting clarity. That simplicity carries more weight than all of the book's literary curlicues combined.