Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2005) – Jonathan Safran FOER

The attacks on New York on September 11, 2001 have had (obviously) a massive effect on the way we live our lives. It is strange, therefore, that there are surprisingly few books or films that respond to them. It took a long time, I suppose, for this event to digest, and as such, it has taken many people a long time to write about it.

While these attacks are important to the plot of Foer’s second novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, they are far from the focus. Instead, we see the aftereffects – how they affected but one family, who already has enough issues of its own to be going on with. Oskar Schell is, like so many other protagonists of late, a pretentious nine-year-old, whose father died in the attacks. He lives with his mother, who is trying to move on, with a new ‘friend’ called Ron, as well as his grandmother – his father’s mother, who is also still trying to deal with the loss of her only child to a man that left her before she gave birth. While snooping through his mother’s wardrobe, Oskar discovers a key that his father has kept hidden, and he makes it his quest to find out what this key opens, and why it has been hidden.

Even though this is the hook that begins the book, the novel tells the story of three generations of this family – Oskar, his father, Thomas, as well as Oskar’s grandfather, whom he has never met. Since this is never totally explained in the novel until the very end, the jumps between timelines can be very very confusing. For me, anyway. They are, however, all written with very different styles, so they are easy to differentiate.

This brings me to a rather important point with this novel. Style. While this book is a novel, it is very much a po-mo (postmodern) novel. It takes many traditional literary techniques and turns them on their heads. Foer also invents some new ones. Like shoving pictures of doorknobs throughout the book. And having one sentence on one page. For no apparent reason that I can see. His flashiness gets very grating, up until about halfway through the novel, when he slows it down, and starts writing properly. Which he is very, very good at. I don’t mean to sound like an oldie, but a lot of the stuff in the book is not really necessary. Some of it is, and adds to the feel of the novel – like the sentences on a page, and the last 15 or so pictures, but the rest of it – like the entire section crossed out with red pen so it looks like a half finished manuscript – is not really, and can actually distract from what you are trying to read.

Now it sounds like I didn’t like the book. That’s not true – I did. It took a lot to get my head out of it (except for a few bits in the middle.) Foer is really a very good writer, when he isn’t trying to be funky and cool. Some passages are really quite touching, and the story he tells is very important. Give it a go, and be prepared for something a little different. And hey, it has pictures – always a good sign.

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