What about a teakettle? What if the spout opened and closed when the steam came out, so that it would become a mouth, and it could whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare, or just crack up with me? I could invent a teakettle that reads in Dad’s voice, so I could fall asleep, or maybe a set of kettles that sing the chorus of “Yellow Submarine,” which is a song by the Beatles who I love, because entomology is one of my raisons d’etre, which is a French expression I know. Another good thing is that I could train my anus to talk when I farted. If I wanted to be extremely hilarious, I’d train it to say, “Wasn’t me!” every time I made an incredibly bad fart. And if I ever made an incredibly bad fart in the Hall of Mirrors, which is in Versailles, which is outside Paris, which is in France, obviously, my anus would say, “Ce n’etais pas moi!”
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 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.
And also, there are so many times when you need to make a quick escape, but humans don’t have their own wings, or not yet, anyway, so what about a birdseed shirt? (pgs. 1-2)
Thus the reader is introduced to nine-year old Oskar Schell, the protagonist of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Intelligent, precocious, socially awkward, and desolate over the loss of his father, Oskar forces the reader to take a hard look at how a loss that effects the many and also has a tremendous impact on the few or the individual. How do you mourn, how to you rebuild your life when your individual loss is part of many loses. A theme that is echoed through the author’s use of the characters who survived the fire bombing of Dresden.
This is the third time I read this novel. The first was several years ago for a book group, then I re-read it on my own a year or so, and finally read it again for a second book group. I also have seen the film.
The novel tells the story of Oskar, who two years after 9/11 is still missing and mourning the loss of his father in the fall of the towers. Oskar and his father were very close and his dad used to come up with excursions for Oskar, puzzles to solve that would take Oskar out and about and interact with people. One day, Oskar finds a key in his father’s things and believes that it is one last excursion to take in order to find the lock the key belongs with. The only clue he has is the name “Black” so he sets out to find the right person with that last name. Although the novel is mostly in Oskar’s voice, we also hear from others (Oskar’s grandmother and a mystery voice). And we find out more about a family mystery – an explanation of sorts for why certain things in the family are the way they are.
I am fascinated by the emphasis the author places on the importance to an individual of telling their story or the impact of having their story cut off, or the struggle an individual goes through to find a way to bring their words to life. This novel is filled with words above and beyond the words on the page. They are written on walls, and even tattooed onto skin. They are invisible, unspoken, shouted, and said so quietly they can barely be heard. They are in the form of diaries, memoirs, journals, and thoughts. The words are terse, verbose, the words are key, even beyond Oskar’s search for the keyhole that fits the key he has found. If you don’t or cannot tell your story, do you cease to exist? And if someone else tells your story, are you still alive?
“You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness.” (pg. 180)
Loss abounds in this book from Oskar’s loss, the loss of a father echos throughout the novel, loss of equilibrium, the loss of a life you will not lead, the loss of a wife, even the loss of Orpheus in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Oskar struggles with trust – leading back to Ovid’s question, “How do you trust?” Is the woman you love still behind you? How do you trust a world where buildings fall, bombs fall, people do not return, where life can change in the blink of an eye. The author doesn’t tell you what to think, he trusts you to come to your own conclusions.
Foer plays with structure and voice which some readers may find slightly off-putting. It can be difficult to tell whose voice is speaking at certain moments and Oskar may come across to some as slightly over the top. Other members of my book group spoke of having to surrender to the words, just go with the author, to trust that the words would provide meaning. I didn’t have this problem as I found the writing to be so good and the voices of the story so compelling I was able to enter into the world Foer was creating without difficulty. Oskar speaks of having “heavy boots” which is such a poignant image – so true to anyone who has suffered a loss but especially a child.
And while this is a story of loss, there are light-hearted moments – some sparks of humor and while we worry about Oskar and for him on his journey, we can see that there may be some hope as Oskar finds his way. And the book as much in it that can lead to great discussions. It was not a hardship to read this book for the third time and I must say that I got even more out of it this last time.
A short note about the film: This is one film adaptation that I feel is worth seeing. I felt the producers focused on the essence of the book that would make a good film, and while much is cut, the essence of the book is still there.
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