Terror Comes to Tiny Town

If Jonathan Safran Foer ever tells his readers what he thinks and feels, he tells it slant. Half of his celebrated debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated, consisted of tiresome magic-realist yarns about a Ukrainian shtetl, written by a quasi-fictional Jonathan Safran Foer. The other half was a brilliant yet tender satire of life in postcommunist Eastern Europe told by the young guide who escorts “Foer” to the village’s ruins. The real Foer’s second and latest novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, shows that he hasn’t lost his taste for naïve or otherwise unreliable narrators. It looks at September 11 through the eyes of Oskar Schell, a weird, precocious 9-year-old whose father died in the World Trade Center collapse.

In a novel about the Holocaust, this kind of oblique, even playful, strategy worked, partly because the subject has already been so exhaustively and earnestly explored. But September 11, that spectacular monstrosity plopped into the middle of an ordinary Tuesday in downtown Manhattan, is another matter. We’re still not entirely sure what it signifies, or even if, philosophically speaking (and this is the hardest possibility to contemplate), it might signify nothing at all. It may just be too early to get cute in writing about September 11; on the other hand, there’s never a good time to get as cute as Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close gets.

This novel, like Everything Is Illuminated, is a braided story, with the main strand told by Oskar. The book’s slender plot hangs on a key Oskar finds among his father’s things and the boy’s quest to find the lock that fits it. The other strands come in the form of letters and diaries written by his paternal grandparents, middle-class Germans whose psyches were irrevocably maimed by the Allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945.

What attracts Foer to these tragedies isn’t so much their historical resonance as their emotional power: They opened up great, weeping maws of grief and loss. He’s drawn to pathos, but being a smart and self-conscious young writer, he’s also painfully aware of the perils of sentimentality. With a child narrator like Oskar, you can finesse the problem; he can’t be expected to realize his own poignancy, let alone be accused of wallowing in it. The distance makes Foer think—incorrectly—that he can get away with whimsies like having Oskar imagine a “special drain that would be underneath every pillow in New York,” collecting the tears of people who cry themselves to sleep and funneling them into the Central Park reservoir.

Perhaps Foer could have pulled this off if Oskar felt alive. Instead, Oskar resembles nothing so much as a plastic bag crammed with oddities. For every eccentricity that makes psychological sense—fear of public transportation or an overly clinical interest in the bombing of Hiroshima, for example—there’s another that’s just piled on. We never learn why Oskar insists on wearing only white or plays the tambourine incessantly. He’s an alien, but you can’t quite figure out how he got that way. If he learned about sex from the Internet, as he claims, how come he knows that “hump” is a slang term for intercourse, but not that “pussy” can refer to something other than a cat?

A 9-year-old can be an unpredictable mix of child and adult, but when not making fart jokes, Oskar is prone to reflections beyond the emotional sophistication of any kid, however brainy. It’s possible to believe that he spends his days writing letters to famous people, but not that, noticing he’s used his valuable stamp collection for postage, he could wonder “if what I was really doing was trying to get rid of things.” Oskar isn’t the only character prone to drifting out of focus and becoming a device serving the author’s purposes rather than a fully imagined human being. How else could Oskar’s grandmother, a nice, seventysomething, bourgeois German woman, in a letter to her grandson, describe the loss of her virginity in such poetic detail? The photographs and typographically unconventional pages strewn throughout the book are a particularly precious touch.

Despite this elaborate presentation, there’s a miscalculation at the heart of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close: The death of a beloved parent will always be cataclysmic to a child, but the attacks of September 11 were also cataclysmic in another way, a way that can only be understood with the perspective and context that comes from an adult’s experience. Choosing a child narrator gives Foer access to extravagant emotions and quirky imaginings that would seem cloying or self-indulgent in a grown-up, but at the cost of allowing the central trauma its due. September 11 was a surreal intrusion of the spectacular and malevolent into the banal and safe. But for a kid like Oskar, reality has yet to be fully established, so surreality is impossible. How and why his father was lost matters little next to the raw fact of his disappearance.

At times, you can detect Foer trying to adjust for this mistake, but he doesn’t succeed at the one thing that might have transcended it: conviction in his characters. When Oskar’s grandfather returns after a 40-year absence, he’s more like an old appliance pulled out of the closet than a person who’s been living a life elsewhere in the intervening decades. If their creator can’t quite manage to believe in these people, how can we?

  Jonathan Safran Foer’s second novel started out as a very different book—one completely unrelated to September 11. In 2002, Foer told reporters he’d completed a novel called The Zelnik Museum, which was set in a New York museum dedicated to a famous diarist and had an 11-year-old narrator named Jonathan Safran Foer. “The more I write,” he explained, “the funnier it becomes.” Now the finished product is considerably more solemn. Nicole Aragi, his agent, says, “The novel began life as Zelnik, told from the point of view of an old man looking back through relics relating to a lost love.”  

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
By Jonathan Safran Foer.
Houghton Mifflin. 368 pages. $24.95.

Terror Comes to Tiny Town