Review: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

Book cover of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

Wow. This is some strange book. I’m sure a lot of you have seen the trailer for the Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close film released a few weeks ago – find it here if you haven’t. It stars Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, so obviously it’s had a huge budget. I hate being one of those people that picks up a book just because it’s been made into a film, so my misplaced sense of pride requires me to point out I got it waaaaay back in October, before my media-ignorant mind eventually clicked on to the fact. I watched the trailer before reading the book though, and I think it led to my expecting an entirely different tone from the book somehow.

Plot – Nine-year-old Oskar Schell is an inventor, amateur entomologist, Francophile, letter writer, pacifist, natural historian, percussionist, romantic, Great Explorer, jeweller, detective, vegan, and collector of butterflies.

When his father is killed in the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Centre, Oskar sets out to solve the mystery of a key he discovers in his father’s closet. It is a search which leads him into the lives of strangers, through the five boroughs of New York, into history, to the bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima, and on an inward journey which brings him ever closer to some kind of peace.
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You have to be on the ball to really follow Extremely Loud & Incredibly Loud; it’s not an easy book to get along with. It’s very, very choppy – the viewpoints change every few chapters without notice or warning and it can take a few pages to deduce who’s talking to who. Characters are addressed in these places as ‘mother’ or ‘my son’ and it’s a story that follows three different generations, so you really have to be willing to bare with it a little. Oskar’s ‘voice’ is very rambling too – he gets distracted by memories and tangents so easily that it can be difficult working out where in the timeline you are, especially when he refers to events that haven’t actually happened yet.
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It is worth it though. It can seem a little gimmicky at first, but eventually I realised that there is a point to all the photographs and insertions. Oskar has a scrapbook called “Things That Happened To Me” in which he pastes photos of things that particularly affected him, like the man falling off the World Trade Center or out of control soldiers in Iraq. A lot of these photos are shown to the reader as they’re mentioned, kind of in a Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children type way. It’s not really necessary, but it’s interesting. 

Illustration from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Example of different images.
There are also insertions than photographs. Like, early on in the story, Oskar mentions how he used to watch his Dad circle grammatical mistakes in newspapers and later in the book, it’s demonstrated in a letter his father has read. That kind of thing. There are a few irritating formats that I struggled with a little, but on the whole it works.
I found Oskar incredibly irritating until I realised that it seems as if he’s suffering from Asperger’s or something similar. They never really make a point of discussing it, but it does seem to fit. He doesn’t really have any social skills and is often unintentionally offensive because he doesn’t understand social conventions. Honestly, I did want to throttle him at times. I understand that the entire concept of the plot involves his illness, if indeed there is one, but it didn’t make me like him anymore. His absolute obsession with a strange key he finds draws him down the path of learning more about his family – without that conviction, there would be no book. Actually, I hadn’t even realised that even the title of the book gives it away until The Boy pointed it out out sufferers generally don’t like loud noises or close contact. Yeah, give him the points for observation if you must but hey, I’m prettier πŸ˜›
Realising this changes the whole idea of the book. At first glance, it appears to be a quest Oskar’s father has sent him on from beyond the grave – much like one of the scavenger hunt games they used to play. But then, the more time you spend inside Oskar’s head, you realise that actually, maybe the little boy has invented the whole idea as a way to feel closer to his father. It’s not until the end that you finally discover where it was actually a self-imposed coping method or a fun game invented by the boy’s deceased father.
The ending is slightly anti-climactic though, and that doesn’t reveal the option above as much as it seems. It’s all neatly tied up and I didn’t even dislike it, but it could have been a little more satisfying, I think.
I did enjoy Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, although it wasn’t really what I was expecting. It’s slightly manic and very disjointed, so you really have to be willing to suffer a few raised eyebrows and confused glances. That said, it’s also a moving look into a little boy’s grief if you’re willing to put in the effort and examine the different formats used.
Visit Jonathan Safran Foer’s website here, or read my review of Eating Animals.

Comments

  1. Laura says:

    Oooh, I never thought of Oskar having Aspergers! Because I essentially thought that he was a hipster's wet dream of a child, being all socially conscious as well as completely naive. Basically, I find him bloody annoying, BUT I also find the actual writing (although not really the story) amazing. So, yeah, I had mixed feelings about this book!

    I love you for your review though- basically every other one I've read has gone 'ZOMG, this is sooooo good!' and I'm just like, really?

    1. Hanna says:

      I actually read your review this morning (didn't comment because I read a rant once by somebody who hated comments on old reviews – seemed weird to me but I've avoided it ever since) and that made me giggle πŸ™‚

      I was relieved you found him irritating as well actually – wasn't sure if it was just me being intolerant and evil!

      Haha, I went and read all the negative Amazon reviews just for some balance!

  2. Nerd Girls says:

    I seriously agree with you so wholeheartedly. I've wanted to read this book for ages and I finally did a few weeks ago.

    I found a few chapters to be so disjointed that I had no idea who was even narrating (even after going back and re-reading) and while I do agree that the ending was neat and clean, I found lots of parts of the book to be bizarre and unrealistic feeling.

    Like, what was with the old man and the woman with the Something and the Nothing in their house? That to me was just weird.

    Ok basically I thought the whole book was strange lol.

    Jenny at Books to the Sky

    1. Hanna says:

      That was exactly it – working out who was narrating was the biggest problem! Really winds me up when it seems like an effort to follow it.

      Yeah, I know. I think there could have been better ways to emphasise their marital problems!

      I didn't mind it. It's not something I think I'll want to read again, but I'm glad I did before seeing the film.

  3. Ellie Warren says:

    I agree with you on the not wanting to look like you're reading a book because of the film. I have so many un read books that are suddenly popping up as films and I want to put little notices on them. I found the book first, damn you! πŸ˜‰

    I didn't think Oskar has Asbergers but everyone else at my book group did when we discussed it. I thought he was just a strange little boy who was having trouble coming to terms with the loss of his dad. I thought the title was referring to the WTC coming down.

    We had an American girl in the group at the time and she found the photos at the back really distasteful. Whilst in Europe we saw the footage on the news (which was heart breaking in itself), it was never shown in the US and she felt it wasn't right to have it stuck in your face like that at the end of a book.

    1. Hanna says:

      Haha, I swear if somebody made some post-its that said that, I'd buy a whole bunch! πŸ™‚ I know it's probably quite snobby, but still.

      I think its interesting that you didn't think he had Asbergers. For me, I was 98% positive there was something medically wrong with him, but obviously he's just a fictional character when you get down to it, so who knows? πŸ™‚

      I had no idea the footage was never shown in the US until I read this. I wonder why?

  4. Jessica says:

    I have to read this one for a bookclub at the end of March so it was interesting to read this. I have a brother with Aspergers and as a reult I hate reading books with characters with similarish traits.

  5. I want to try to read this one again. I tried a couple years ago and just couldn't get into it.

  6. pepemurphy says:

    For a refreshing review of Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, click on http://davidmurph.wordpress.com/book-reviews/

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