Full disclosure: I must admit that I have not read Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel Everything is Illuminated, which was such a big deal a few years ago (which also has a movie adaptation starring Elijah Wood and directed by Liev Schreiber coming this August). It’s just one of many books that I have not gotten around to reading. However, I received the ARC of his new book Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and started casually flipping through it. Before I knew what happened I was already deeply engrossed in this brilliant novel.
ELIC follows 9 year old genius Oskar Schell as he travels through New York City in an attempt to find the lock that fits a special key. Oskar found this key while searching through the closet of his father, who was killed on 9/11. In an effort to keep close to the father he idolized, Oskar sets out on this quest. Intertwined in the novel, is the story of Oskar’s grandparents, survivors of the bombing of Dresden in WWII. This second story is not as successful as the main story, but it weaves in nicely at the end as they come together.
Foer uses colored text, photographs and graphics to enhance the story. One of the characters has lost the power of speech (through psychological reasons) and has to write everything in a journal in order to communicate. At one point in the book as his mind gets busier and busier, he begins to run out of room in his journal. So the pages get darker and darker as the text runs together. In another part, the same character tries to talk to someone on the phone by pressing buttons. So we get several pages of numbers. I found this kind of annoying actually. I got the points of these parts, but it felt too contrived and cute in my opinion. The passages with pictures work better. There is one at the very end that works better than if he had written text himself. The pictures have more power than words in that case.
Taking on the collapse of the World Trade Center towers is pretty risky, especially doing so through the eyes and mind of a 9 year old. But the reader can’t help but be charmed by Oskar. Foer manages to capture the train of thought of a boy beautifully. Oskar at times seems as naive as his age implies he should be, but sometimes he seems to know more than he should. His precocity and honesty attract older people, but repel most of the kids his age. This story works despite minor flaws and brought me close to tears several times. At the end, I found myself staring into space, awed by the mind and emotions of a 9 year old.