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Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

October 22, 2009

Sometimes a book connects with you so strongly that it’s like you’ve developed a relationship with a person. When you read it you feel like you’re being held closely in someone’s arms, when you’re not reading it you only wish you were. It stays with you throughout the day. It makes you react physically because you can’t help but react. You want to hug it (and sometimes you do). And when it’s over, it feels like a little part of you is over too.
That was how I felt while reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. For years the book had had the cult status of an indie band that you weren’t cool enough to know about and I was dying to read it. Or even, really, just to know what it was about. Because whenever you were to ask one of these cool kids what it was about they’d react like you were requesting the price of a tagless designer good in the store: if you have to ask, you’ll never know.

Well, I’m here to actually tell you what this extremely enjoyable and incredibly beautiful story is about. Oskar Schell is a nine year old boy with smarts (but not wisdom) beyond his years. He lost his father on 9-11 and the story opens with his funeral. Later, while snooping through his father’s things he accidentally breaks a vase and discovers a key in an envelope labeled “Black” that was hidden in the bottom. Deciding that this is clearly a connection to his father, and that Black is a name, he creates a plan to visit everyone with the last name Black that lives in New York City hoping to learn something about his father, or his death. This leads him on a whirlwind tour of the five bourroughs and every nook and cranny of humanity. Meanwhile, Oskar’s grandmother’s life story is revealed through a series of her journal entries and letters written to Oskar’s father from his absent grandfather. Initially enamored with the grandmother’s sister, Anna, the grandfather has not spoken since the bombing of Dresden that killed the love of his life and unborn child. In his grief he turns to the grandmother and their ensuing silent relationship is heartbreaking. The connection between these two threads is vague at first, but once the two intertwine near the end the explanation is guaranteed to leave you in tears.

Speaking of tears, this book had me crying at every other page. Sometimes it was because it was so beautiful. The writing hurt me because each sentence made me wish I had been the one to write that sentence first. The concepts explored and the ideas provoked are heartwrenching. And each point of progression in the story digs deeper and deeper at your soul. But the real gem of this book is Oskar. His childish naiviete and outlook on the world combined with his adult knowledge and insight makes him such a fascinating character. The world through his eyes is at once the most beautiful and ugliest thing imaginable. His childlike observations make you laugh at the sweetness of it all until you realize that these are just his ways of discovering and coming to terms with some of the more terrible parts of life.

Reading the book is the literary equivalent of contemporary art. Do not expect to find familiar structure within these pages. There are sections of pages that only have one phrase on each page, some that have gaps and breaks and words running over eachother, some that have all of the words crammed in there with no pause for breath at all, some are completely blank. But this is what makes the experience of reading it so intimate. It’s not a manufactured novel, we’re truly snooping into these characters’ lives. You get completely swept up in this world because it won’t let you escape.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the most original, breathtaking, heartbreaking beautiful book I have ever read. But if there is only one word to describe this book (and you’ll be thinking it from the first page to the very end): brilliant.

Originally written February 20, 2009

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