Thursday, December 8, 2011

Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close, Fairly Good

(NOTE: This is a review of the book. My film review was posted 1/21/12.)

At my father’s burial, family members were invited to say a few words, but I declined. This was uncharacteristic, as my friends know; I am often the first to speak. But this time—although I am the eldest of Dad’s six children—I merely said that I had written Dad a letter and then dropped it into the vault into which his coffin was later lowered.

I thought of this again today as I finished Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, and not only because the novel contains another letter-and-coffin scene. Foer tells of the love between generations, especially between fathers and sons, and of the terrible sense of loss when a parent dies or disappears.

Extremely Loud will be released as a major motion picture,  starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, on January 20, 2012 (poster above). Perhaps the movie version will escape the book’s pervasive nihilism.

The primary narrator of Extremely Loud is a precocious, annoying nine-year-old whose business card reads:

Inventor, Jewelry Designer, Jewelry Fabricator, Amateur Entomologist, Francophile, Vegan, Origamist, Pacifist, Percussionist, Amateur Astronomer, Computer Consultant, Amateur Archaeologist, Collector of rare coins, butterflies that died natural deaths, miniature cacti, Beatles memorabilia, semiprecious stones, and other things . . .

Oscar does not say atheist, although he could. Late in the book, he makes a concession to the mystery behind existence, but only a small one, saying, “I don’t believe in God, but I believe that things are extremely complicated.”

Otherwise, the philosophical backdrop for Extremely Loud is a nihilism buttressed by Oskar’s most admired book, A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. Hawking’s book gives Oskar “incredibly heavy boots about how relatively insignificant life is, and how, compared to the universe and compared to time, it didn’t even matter if I existed at all.”

While he was alive, Oskar’s dad tried to soften the brutality of this philosophical stance, telling him that even if he moved a single grain of sand in the Sahara, it would mean he had influenced the history of the world. Oskar took some solace from this, although as a reader I do not.

In fact, it becomes clear from this scene between son and father that what Oskar really takes solace in is his father’s existence itself, and their companionship. When Dad dies in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, all bets, all beliefs are off. Oskar’s boots become very very heavy, a beautiful metaphor for sadness.

Characters in Exremely Loud develop unique strategies for coping with the pain of loss. Oskar bruises himself. He also sets out on a quixotic odyssey to match up a mysterious key found in his father’s closet with the lock it fits.

Meanwhile, we learn the stories of Oskar’s paternal grandfather and grandmother (secondary narrators) and their strategies for coping with their own losses—in the World War II firebombing of Dresden. The couple creates Nothing Places in their apartment, where one can go and disappear into nonexistence. Granddad says, “There came a point, a year or two ago, when our apartment was more Nothing than Something.”

There are scenes of high hilarity in the book, including a fantasy in which Oskar, playing the skull of Yorick in a grade-school production of Hamlet, turns the tables on Hamlet, played by class bully Jimmy Snyder.

But canceling out the yucks, there is a horrific view of history here, one irreparably shaped by the Holocaust (the subject of Foer’s first book, Everything Is Illuminated, and a theme in his third book, Eating Animals). This bitter view of history is only hardened by the events of 9/11. Oskar says, “Everything in the history of the world can be proven wrong in one moment.”

In a direct allusion to 9/11 he says elsewhere, “Everything that’s born has to die, which means our lives are like skyscrapers. The smoke rises at different speeds, but they’re all on fire, and we’re all trapped.”

Solace comes from sharing one’s pain with other human beings. Salvation, in Oskar’s world, comes only via fantasy. In three places near the end of Extremely Loud Oskar imagines a reversal of time, returning the world to its relatively innocent state before 9/11, before the Holocaust, before Noah, before the Fall. This fantasy is Oskar’s final solution.

To me, this is no solution at all. My heart wants a different truth, a different justice. Finally—although Jonathan Safran Foer is an eerily talented young author—my heart wants a different book as well.


  1. our heart longs for more, but does this longing means that what we long for exists? Giussani would say that it does, but I struggle with this idea. I struggled all the way through chapter 10 of the Religious Sense, but I found on page 106 a sentence that resonates with me:
    "To be conscious of oneself right to the core is to perceive, at the depth of the self, an Other".

  2. Antonella, I share your struggle, your question. My longing demands that I continue to seek the face of Christ in the circumstances given to me, no matter how dark things seem. However, I don't know if I have ever been conscious of myself "right to the core"!

  3. Web, I don't know either, but I have perceived Christ at the depth of my being.


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