Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close By Jonathan Safran Foer

Exceptional writing, suffocated characters
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The Independent Culture

Oskar Schell is nine years old (although he will claim to be eight if he wants someone to feel sorry for him; or 12 if he wants a kiss). Things which are good are like "one hundred dollars", but when things get bad Oskar gets "heavy boots". And things are pretty bad. His father has been killed in the 11 September attacks and Oskar - an inventor of all kinds of imaginary things, including cars so long they begin at your home and end at your destination - seems condemned to spend his life "inventing" his father's unknown death.

Oskar Schell is nine years old (although he will claim to be eight if he wants someone to feel sorry for him; or 12 if he wants a kiss). Things which are good are like "one hundred dollars", but when things get bad Oskar gets "heavy boots". And things are pretty bad. His father has been killed in the 11 September attacks and Oskar - an inventor of all kinds of imaginary things, including cars so long they begin at your home and end at your destination - seems condemned to spend his life "inventing" his father's unknown death.

His father left other mysteries behind him. What was the meaning of the task he set Oskar, a kind of treasure hunt around Central Park - but with no clues? Why did he not say "I love you" in his final phone messages? When Oskar finds a mysterious key in his father's wardrobe, he is determined to find the lock that it opens - even after he has calculated that New York has at least 162 million locks. The only clue he has is a word on the envelope in which he found the key: "Black". So he gives up his French lessons (but not his Hamlet rehearsals) and begins visiting all the people in New York with the surname Black.

As far as eccentric, precocious, unreliable child-narrators go, you won't find many more engaging than Oskar, and the first few pages of this novel are breathtaking. However, Safran Foer doesn't stick with this wonderful voice, and soon the hell of multiple narrators begins. We meet Oskar's grandfather, Thomas, a man who lost his voice, word by word, and now begins every new conversation by writing in his daybook, "I don't speak, I'm sorry" (and rather improbably has the words "yes" and "no" tattooed on his hands, rather than getting by with nods and shakes of his head). Thomas writes beautiful prose but, because we are meant to understand that he is a bit simpler than Oskar, he does so without paragraph breaks, and with plenty of splice commas. The next narrator is his wife, whose prose has no indents. Between them they tell part of the story of their experiences in the Dresden bombings, and we learn why Thomas loves animals so much and why he had to run away before his son was born.

While much of Oskar's narrative is moving (if ultimately unsatisfying), his grandparents' stories never lift from the page. The many typographical devices don't always work (why cover the most important section of the book in red pen?) and the imagery is laboured. Thomas uses up daybooks so fast that Safran Foer is able to have his wife place them in the grandfather clock, "as if they were time itself", and store them in the bath so that, after the shower is switched on, "the water was gray with all of his days". There's no denying that Safran Foer is capable of exceptional writing, but in this book he seems to use it to suffocate his characters, rather in the same way that Jonathan Franzen did in The Corrections. The ink from the daybooks does not only bleed into the bath, but comes off, oh-so-poignantly, everywhere.

Everything about this novel is too easy when it should have been angry, dark and complicated. Much thematic content simply feels neutered. When Oskar's grandmother sits down to write her life story, she ends up with thousands of blank pages (some of which are helpfully reproduced in this book). Later, she reveals that, "I hit the space bar again and again and again. My life story was spaces." You can't get much further away from a true sentence than that.

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