Extremely Poignant & Incredibly Good

I feel like I’ve been a little heavy on book reviews lately, but personally that seems like a good thing because it means I’m back in the swing of reading. I just finished another book, one that Alison promised, “You will love this” when she handed it to me. Turns out, she was right. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer, is one of the most poignant stories of familial love I have ever read and takes a proud place in the top ten books I’ve ever read.

Oskar Schell, the protagonist, is an eight-year-old whose father died in the Twin Towers on September 11th. I’ve seen and read enough movies and books dealing with the tragedy that I approached it with some trepidation, expecting a melodramatic story of loss or an hyperbolic hero story. It’s neither of these. Instead, Oskar is an intelligent child, traumatized by losing his father, who finds a key among his father’s things. Written on the envelope is simply “Black.” Without fully understanding what he is even looking for, Oskar sets out on a quest to find the lock to which the key belongs, a quest that takes him across New York’s five boroughs over most of a year.

Throughout the story, Oskar encounters interesting people. He learns more about his relationship with his family and eventually resolves some of the guilt over his father’s death. Our understanding of his story is supplemented by real and imaginary letters written to him and to his father, his grandmother and grandfather. In contrast to so many books that aspire to evoke real emotion, everyone in this story also is broken, but in real and fresh ways. Oskar, who can’t stop “inventing” (imagining) things, is also thought-provoking and an incredibly interesting character.

What become one of my favorite aspects of Foer’s writing was his persistent literary themes that remind you constantly that you are seeing things through the eyes of a child (albeit brilliant). Conversations do not benefit from new paragraphs when characters exchange comments, and sentences are rarely more than five or six words, and frequently less. Emotions are starkly expressed, based on the experience of the story instead of rhetoric. Every few pages, there is a picture – whether an illustration, a famous photograph, or text with choreographed fonts and spacing. For the first part of the book, this seemed gimmicky to me, but by the time I’d finished reading, I understood that the interspersion of images and text were one of the most original mechanisms I’ve ever seen in a work of fiction.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close struck a chord in me that few books have and I’d enthusiastically recommend it to anyone. It is a completely fresh take on the aftermath of 9-11 and one of the most engaging works of fiction I’ve ever read.

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