Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

What about a teakettle? What if the spout opened and closed when the steam came out, so it would become a mouth, and it could whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare, or just crack up with me?  I could invent a teakettle that reads in Dad’s voice, so I could fall asleep, or maybe a set of kettles that sings the chorus of Yellow Submarine…….

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I was lucky enough to take with me to a holiday at the beach last week, a copy of  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Johathan Safran Foer.

As it happens, my reading lately has included quite a few novels for teens (due to being mother of a teen). I’ve discovered that there are some great novels for teens out there, that make enjoyable and sometimes challenging reading for adults. But having read quite a few lately, I have to admit that, on reading the synopsis on the back of Safran Foer’s novel, I was initially a bit put off reading it when I discovered that the protagonist is a 9 year old boy. I’d been looking forward to a story centred around adults for a change. But the book is written for adult readers, and it’s been on the periphery of my consciousness for a while. It seemed as though the title practically shouted to get my attention, every time I glanced over my bookshelves. I’d been deliberately ignoring it for ages.

But the other thing I realised when I read the synopsis on the back, was that death, and grieving, were central to the story. I make no secret of the fact that since the death of my brother in 2011, I am drawn to reading about other people, real or fictional, coping with death and grief. Suddenly I felt that now was the  time to read this book.

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So I took it with me on holiday at a beach house where I spent a week with no internet. I’m grateful that I did, and that I had the pleasure of knowing 9 year old Oskar Schell for a short time.

The lines quoted above are the opening lines of the novel. After such an opening, who wouldn’t already be intrigued to find out more about the narrator?

Continuing on, and being privy to the whimsical, and relentlessly active, imagination of 9 year old Oskar Schell, the book’s central narrator, was a sheer delight. This 9 year old’s favourite book is “A Brief History of Time,” he shakes a tambourine as he walks around New York, because it helped me remember that even though I was going through different neighborhoods, I was still me, and when he can’t sleep at night he lies in bed “inventing”.

But the delight of knowing Oscar is tinged with poignancy, as this young boy’s imaginings are so often related to death, loss, and the vulnerability of humans, and are a means of trying to cope with the loss of the father he loved so much. Oskar’s father died in the 9/11 World Trade Centre attacks, 2 years prior to the main action in the novel.

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In bed that night I invented a special drain that would be underneath every pillow in New York, and would connect to the reservoir. Whenever people cried themselves to sleep, the tears would all go to the same place, and in the morning the weatherman could report if the water level of the Reservoir of Tears had gone up or down, and you would know if New York was in heavy boots. And when something really terrible happened – like a nuclear bomb, or at least a biological weapons attack – an extremely loud siren would go off, telling everyone to get to Central Park to put sandbags around the reservoir.

 *

Oskar reminisces about the funeral that was held for his father, despite the lack of a body ever being found (as was the case with many victims of the 9/11 World Trade Tower attacks).  He and his grandmother were driven to the funeral in a limousine. During the trip he chats with the Limousine driver, (initially he does so in a computerised voice, mimicking Stephen Hawking, one of his heroes), and relays his usual stream of imaginative ideas.

“Actually, if limousines were extremely long, they wouldn’t need drivers.  You could just get in the back seat, walk through the limousine, and then get out of the front seat, which would be where you wanted to go. So in this situation, the front seat would be at the cemetery.”

Oskar is not the only narrator in the novel. Chapters switch from Oskar, to the voice of his grandfather and alternatively, his grandmother, through letters they have separately written to their child (Oskar’s father, Thomas). Their letters date back to before Oskar was born, and lead chronologically up to the present. All three narrators are living with a deep sadness caused by loss of a loved person, through death or forced separation.

I hesitate to suggest that this book is “about” anything other than Oskar and the people that inhabit his world, because I was content to be immersed in the world of Oskar, and other characters, (particularly his grandmother, and Mr Black from 6A). I’m richer for having encountered them all, so I don’t want to reduce such a vivid, beautiful book down to a few ideas, or make it sound dry and theoretical by saying it’s “about” anything other than 9-year-old Oskar Schell.

But if I was studying this book in a literature class and had to scribble down a few thoughts on what it was “about” I’d suggest:

  • it’s about the emotional devastation that we experience at the loss of a loved one
  • it’s about the fact that humans repeatedly bring this emotional devastation on ourselves, through wars and destruction,
  • it’s about words, and communication, and the limits that words have in being able to communicate what’s really important
  • it wonders whether words have the power to save our relationships, or our lives, or to end them – or no power at all
  • it’s about our (individual and universal) vulnerability

There is so much more that one could say about this book! I haven’t even touched on the mysterious key that drives Oskar to walk all over New York, or the heartbreaking secret he keeps in his own wardrobe – but I’m aware that my word count is rapidly escalating into danger zone. I’ll just have to wind up by saying, I loved this book, and there is a new entry in my list of all time favourite books.

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What about a device that knew everyone you knew? So when an ambulance went down the street, a big sign on the roof could flash

DON’T WORRY! DON’T WORRY!

(…)……..and maybe you could rate the people you knew by how much you loved them, so if the device of the person in the ambulance detected the device of the person he loved the most, or the person who loved him the most, and the person in the ambulance was really badly hurt, and might even die, the ambulance could flash  

                             GOODBYE! I LOVE YOU! GOODBYE! I LOVE YOU!

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10 Comments

  1. It’s been years since I read a book… But this made me want to take that book out and read! Pinning to my wish list! Thanks for sharing 🙂

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    • My pleasure! It’s hard to get time to read a book, I know – that’s why it was a great opportunity – stuck at the beach with no internet connection! 😉

      I’d love to think that my post caused someone else to read this book, so if you do read it, let me know what you think!

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  2. Definitely going on my “To Be Read Very Soon” list. Oskar sounds a delightfully quirky, thoughtful character.

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  3. I have borrowed the book from the library. I have a couple of others on the go, so I will read it when they are finished. 🙂

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  4. Excellent, I’ll look forward to hearing what you think of it!

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  5. Such a beautiful, insightful review. You picked great quotes that, I think, can resonate universally. I have had this book on my list to read. I may just bump it up because of this review. The quotes from the story are as catching as your thoughts on the book. Thank you!

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    Reply
    • Why thankyou! I loved the book, as you can tell. So I’m very pleased if my attempt to review it leads someone else to read it. I’ll be interested to hear what you think.

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