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Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Jonathan Safran Foer
The novel narrates the story of Oskar Schell, a precocious nine-year-old inventor, pacifist, percussionist, and Francophile, whose father died during the attacks of 9/11. A couple of years after his father’s death, he finds a mysterious key in an envelope with the name “Black” on it, in a vase in a closet. Sure that the key belonged to his father, he decides to visit everyone named “Black” in the five boroughs of New York to discover what it opens. Intertwined with Oskar’s quest are letters written by his grandparents, who went through the bombings of Dresden in the Second World War.

"Cher Marcel,
Allô. I'm Oskar's mom. I have thought about it a ton, and I have decided that it isn't obvious why Oskar should go to French lessons, so he will no longer be going to see you on Sundays like he used to. I want to thank you very much for everything you have taught Oskar, particularly the conditional tense, which is weird. Obviously there's no need to call me when Oskar doesn't come to his lessons, because I already know, because this was my decision. Also, I will keep sending you checks, because you are a nice guy.
Votre ami dévouée,
Mademoiselle Schell"

 

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is often described as one of the first novels dealing with the recent events of September 11th. It raises the question of the link between real-life tragedies and the way art narrates, describes, and tries to verbalize them. Foer tries to show how private events interfere with public history, focusing on the perspective of a young boy who sheds a humorous light on a dark subject, still fresh in the context of a struggle against terrorism. Restoring to the voice of an inventive child enables the author to alleviate the tragedy. However, the existence of a message recorded on the family's answering machine by Oskar's father just before he died, and only heard by the young boy, counterbalances the sometimes comic dimensions of the book. This blending of humor and darkness is echoed by the blending of genres and narrative tools used by Foer. Oskar is reminiscent of juvenile narrators, like Holden Caulfield and Huckleberry Finn. A real energy pervades the whole book, which takes us around New York and broaches various subjects, such as the bombings of Dresden, the tragedy of 9/11, Tomoyasu's reminiscence of the bombings on Hiroshima, and the broader issue of lost love. The writing is sometimes naïve, sometimes cruelly realistic. The characters are constructed boldly: the grandfather has lost the ability to speak and communicates on a notepad, the pages of which are reproduced in the book; the grandmother goes blind and writes her life story on a typewriter without any ribbon. The author resorts to many visual surprises: photographs, pages with only one line of text, like "Thank you, but I'm about to burst," or, "Purple" written in green. Foer mixes different genres, the epistolary novel coexisting with an illustrated narrative. Thus, when a flock of birds flies by the window, the next pages just display a picture of flying birds: they reproduce visually the shock of their sudden passage. Pictures of fingerprints, doorknobs, or turtles copulating are intermingled with pages full of figures or overlapping text, illustrating the feelings and thoughts of the characters. Criticized by some as mere artifice useless to the story, it may also be a means of communicating the incommunicable: how to deal with death, how to build a new life after the loss of love. The last pages of the novel, a flip-book depicting a body originally falling to the ground, show a man now floating up to the sky because Oskar reversed the order of the pages. It is for some the weakness of the book, for others its great strength. If Oskar's precociousness is for some aggravating, I would rather argue that it is symbolic, as when Oskar writes a letter to his French teacher pretending to be his own mother. The child's words appear behind the adulthood he takes on: he had to grow up but he's not a grown-up.
 

Alice Bonzom
mai 2008

 

Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Penguin, 2006.

 

 
 
mise à jour le 10 mars 2009
Créé le 7 mai 2008
ISSN 2107-7029
DGESCO Clé des Langues