Monday, July 18, 2005

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close takes place in the enormous space between loss and recovery. It's about the efforts we make to reconnect, to bring back some semblance of our relationship to that which has gone missing. While the central loss in the novel -- that of a 9-year-old boy, Oskar Schell, whose father perished in the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Centers -- provides a framework for the plot, the losses in the novel are many. Fathers, children, wives, husbands, lovers, grandparents and grandchildren have all gone, and each character in the novel is the victim of loss.
The author, Jonathan Safran Foer, makes it clear that recovery is not possible, but the effort to recover is the stuff of life. Young Oskar searches the five boroughs of new York City for a lock that he believes might open with the mysterious key he has found in his father's closet. His only clue is the word "Black" written on the envelope in which the key was discovered, and he systematically attempts to locate and question every New Yorker with the surname Black.
All around him, others deal with their own losses. His mother and her new "friend," his grandmother, the 103-year-old man in the apartment upstairs, who hasn't left his apartment in the 20 years since his wife died.
Some things have left abruptly and unexpectedly, like Oskar's father, on "the worst day," and another character's wife and daughter, who perished in a car accident. Others drift away little by little, like the grandfather's ability to vocalize words and the mythical sixth borough of New York, an island that drifted slowly away down the Hudson, severing its connections to Manhattan one by one. And yet they all leave behind vestiges, and with those the hope of reconnection.Several of the figures in the novel write, and their writing are interspersed with Oskar's, as are letters written by his absent grandfather, who disappeared more than 40 years ago, before his father was born, after having lost his ability to speak, dropping the ability to say words one by one. His last word, uttered before he met and married Oskar's grandmother, was a lonely "I".
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close isn't subtle. Despite its structure in the form of private diaries and secret letters, it isn't really about interior thoughts. It's openly and painfully about the need to connect, and to try to bring back connections that have been broken.It's realistic about the futility of these searches; our hopes are raised and then dashed repeatedly on behalf of the characters, and the characters go on struggling. None of these failures brings closure. Even the plotlines that appear to be resolved turns out not to provide finality.
The search for reconnection is really a futile effort to turn back time (Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time figures prominently). But it is what keeps the characters going. At several points, characters explicitly acknowledge that acceptance of loss would mean the end of living.
The book is an achievement, not least of all in the creation of young Oskar, who is funny, surprising, tragic and very much real, despite his odd collection of quirks: The all-white wardrobe, the endless inventions of his fertile mind, the erudition that seems years beyond and yet entirely appropriate for this urbane child of urban parents.