Foer scores again with boy's touching, hilarious journey

April 10, 2005|By Beth Kephart | Beth Kephart,Special to the Sun

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close: A Novel

By Jonathan Safran Foer. Houghton Mifflin. 326 pages. $24.95.

The reading world went wild for Jonathan Safran Foer when his first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, made its debut in the spring of 2002. He was young, this Foer, and an instant superstar. He was hilarious, but also compassionate and wise. The only person capable of topping Foer would be Foer himself, critics agreed. But was such a thing even possible, and would Foer have the temerity to try?

As it turns out, Foer has tried, and Foer has done it. His new novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, is a miracle, a daybreak, a man on the moon. It's so impeccably imagined, so courageously executed, so everlastingly moving and fine that I don't mind if you quit this review right now and get in your hybrid car and drive to an independent bookstore and buy yourself a copy. There, I've said it: I love this book. And I will love the readers who embrace it.

Oskar Schell is a 9-year-old boy whose beloved, self-effacing, irreplaceable father has been lost in the collapse of the World Trade Towers. It is unbearable. It is a loss this only child of an often-absent mother cannot sustain, and yet, of course, he must, and so, weighed down by extremely "heavy boots," Oskar seeks to invent an existence for himself. He invents to keep himself alive: "What about little microphones," he wonders, among many such wonders. "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."

Crammed with facts and possessed of a first-rate imagination, Oskar is also endearingly naive, and when he finds a key in his father's closet in an envelope marked "Black," he undertakes a heartbreaking search for the lock that key might open. His plan is to visit every New Yorker surnamed Black, to tromp everywhere in his heavy boots and tell his urgent story. His mission is to discover that one last thing about Thomas Schell and, in this way, to keep his father nearly present.

Because this is a Foer novel, Oskar's story is paralleled by the tragic story of his grandmother, who lives across the street, and of his grandfather, who disappeared the day he learned his wife was pregnant. Survivors of Dresden, damaged by memories of loss and seeming culpability, the grandparents can barely blurt their stories out, and yet, hauntingly, they do.

There is much in Extremely Loud that reminded me of other books. Oskar's mathematical brilliance, his losses, his obsession with solving a riddle all recalled for me the young protagonist of Mark Haddon's phenomenal The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The seamless integration of photographs and unexpected typography made me remember W.G. Sebald. The uninhibited, at times deliberately incoherent spill of memory in the grandparent pages recalls Carole Maso's Ava. And Thomas Schell, a humble man who brilliantly nurtured his son's extraordinary imagination, recalls the father so lovingly portrayed by Roald Dahl in Danny the Champion of the World.

In total, the elixir is mesmerizing. But beyond the story here, there is a message, and it is that message that makes Extremely Loud so much more than a mere novel. This book could be life changing, if you allow it to be. I ask you to make that allowance for yourself.

Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of five books. Her most recent, Ghosts in the Garden: Reflections on Endings, Beginnings, and the Unearthing of Self, was a March Book Sense pick, a recommendation from independent booksellers.

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