Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
by Jonathan Safran Foer

A Review by Scott finished March 15, 2010

This review will contain spoilers!

In many sentences:

This is an amazing book. Oskar Schell is one of the most endearing, lovable, and creative characters I can remember encountering in a book. His constant inventing was fascinating, and to think that Foer came up with these off-the-wall ideas is even more impressive. It really was the kind of stuff only a child would imagine.

Speaking of his inventions, the first line of the book, is Oskar asking "What about a teakettle?" Though I made some conjectures about the book being odd, and intimate that turned out to be correct, there was obviously also the meaning behind the inventing itself that I never could have imagined. Oskar invents in order to deal with the loss of his father. Unfortunately, these inventions also prove problematic when it results in Oskar inventing different deaths for his dad. As Oskar himself says "I tried to invent optimistic inventions. But the pessimistic ones were extremely loud " (235).

At one point Oskar sends a letter to Stephen Hawking asking "what if I never stop inventing"? Hawking eventually gives a wistful, slightly enigmatic response. In this response, Hawking tells Oskar that he wishes he was a poet, and that he wishes he had made things that life depended on. Then he tells Oskar, "Maybe you're not inventing at all". Though it isn't clear, I take this to mean that Hawking is telling Oskar that his "inventions" are in fact the very stuff that life depends upon. In this way, what Oskar has been doing through the book has been more than just a way to cope with his father's death, but the very stuff that life depends upon.

I think the inventions also reveal a lot about Oskar as a person - he wants the world to be a better place. For example, at one point (163), he invents a chemical in the water that will change a person's skin color depending on their mood. In this way, you will always know what others around you are feeling so you can react to them appropriately. This invention, as with all of them throughout the book, gives us insight into the compassionate nature of Oskar, as well as into his struggle to be understood by those around him.

Speaking of those around him, I loved how it turns out in the end that Oskar's mother knew about his journey to find the key all along. It was slightly disturbing to think that she cared so little for her son that she would just let him roam around the city looking for the lock the key opened. However, her willingness to allow Oskar to seek out his own answers and to come to terms with his father's death on his own terms is wonderful.

The title of this book also seems important. Throughout the text, things are referred to as extremely loud or incredibly close, but only once at the same time. Oskar is inventing a device that will warn warns when they are incredibly close to a skyscraper by sounding an incredibly loud siren. Is this meant to draw parallels with plans flying into buildings? Probably, but I'm not sure what exactly the connection should mean.

One reference to extremely loud on its own that does have clear meaning, however, is when Oskar says the pessimistic inventions are "extremely loud". This image is clear, and brutal. Inventions of his father's death, or of the potential death of his grandmother in the case of this reference, are screaming in his head and are impossible to be ignored. This type of image, one that requires us to meditate on what Oskar must have been dealing with, is what makes this book so good. It is not heavy-handed with its drama, or sadness. Instead, it presents us with these vivid images that, when we truly consider them, are devastating in their sadness, or heartwarming in their compassion. It is, ultimately, a beautiful work to read.

Another unique, and really well implemented aspect of this book, was the way it used pictures, layout, font and other visual components to supplement what was happening in the text. Periodically a picture of something from Oskar's Things that happened to me book would show up, or we would see the entries from the grandfather's day book (a single entry was the only thing on a page). There was also the letter to Thomas that tried to squeeze everything in, and in doing so the text, margins, and word spacing shrank to the point where it was written over itself and completely illegible. These small, but clever, ideas helped bring the experience of the characters to life for the reader and a unique and enjoyable way. I can see how some might criticize this as being pretentious, but in the moment of reading it works perfectly.

The only aspect of Extremely Loud that I ended up not liking was the second letter from the grandfather to Thomas Schell. It was slightly boring, and difficult to read. Plus, while it gave some background on his character, as well as the grandma, on the whole I don't think it added a lot to the text.

If you've read this far, hopefully you've already read the book because I just ruined it for you otherwise. Also, you probably realize that I recommend it. It's touching, but not melodramatic. It wasn't perfect, but it's so good 90% of the time that it's extremely easy to look past the few faults it does have. I would recommend this to anyone who reads, regardless of genre preference. It is fantastic.

Favorite Quote

"I didn't want to hear about death. It was all anyone talked about, even when no one was actually talking about it."

Jonathan Safran Foer in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

First Line

"What about a teakettle?"

Jonathan Safran Foer the First Line of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Originally Published April 1, 2005

Paperback edition:

326 pages - April 4, 2006

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