Engineering ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’

Oskar Schell’s story would be a Humans of New York post, or an Unworthy article, or shared by one of the billions of people now on FacebookHis story, penned by author Jonathan Sanfran Foer, is one of viral proportions — the kind profiled in every major media outlet on Snapchat’s Discover feature.

"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close." By Jonathan Safran Foer. 326pp. Houghton Mifflin Company. $24.95 U.S. 2005.

“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.”
By Jonathan Safran Foer.
326pp. Houghton Mifflin Company.
$24.95 U.S.

But while Schell’s story carries many universal threads (a sort of “Catcher in the Rye” meets “The Book Thief” meets “A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”), “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” is one of fiction.

Foer’s hero is an extremely precocious (and perhaps slightly autistic) nine-year-old with a penchant for French idioms, classical music and random bits of scientific trivia. Oskar fashions himself as an “inventor, jewelry designer, jewelry fabricator, amateur entomologist, Francophile, vegan, origamist, pacifist, percussionist, amateur astronomer, computer consultant, amateur archeologist, and a collector of: rare coins, butterflies that died natural deaths, miniature cacti, Beatles memorabilia, semiprecious stones, and other things.” It says so on his business cards:

Oskar Schell

Not written on the cards is obsessive, depressed, emotional insomniac dealing with his father’s death. You figure out the other stuff by reading between the lines.

His dad, Thomas Schell, died around 10:28 a.m. on September 11, 2001. That’s when the North Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed. Oskar was one of the last people who heard his voice.

You can imagine what that does to a kid. Oskar’s wracked with guilt. Thomas Schell was his mentor and role model. They used to play “Reconnaissance games” across Central Park. That’s why when Oskar finds a mysterious key in a envelope labelled “Black,” Oskar thinks Thomas is calling to him beyond the grave. 

Oskar makes it his mission to find out what this key unlocks. It’s fatter and shorted than a normal key and it doesn’t fit in anything in his and his mom’s New York City apartment. He expands his search to include the five boroughs of New York. He’d talk to anyone with the surname Black, in hopes that they know anything about his father.

“I calculated that if I went to two every Saturday, which seemed possible, plus holidays, minus ‘Hamlet’ rehearsals and stuff, like mineral and coin conventions, it would take me three years to go through them all,” Oskar said.

And so, for the next three years (and 326 pages), we follow Oskar as he journeys through grief.

Foer engineers the tale to appeal to our pathos — knowing that each of us have our own 9/11 stories. I was around Oskar’s age when the planes hit the twin towers. For me, as well as many Americans, that image is burned in my brain — playing over and over like a movie.

Knowing this, Foer plants his mines skillfully, weaving Oskar’s story with those of WWII bombing survivors. His bullets hit their mark, blowing up the waterworks.

But as compelling as Foer’s novel is, it’s hard to suspend your disbelief at times. Oskar, your first-person narrator, is so smart that he seems pretentious. His vocabulary (and especially his French) exceeds that of most adults.

“I kicked a French chicken once,” Oskar tells a cab driver. “It said, ‘Oeuf.'”

If you’re not groaning or cracking up, “oeuf” is French for “egg.” It’s also an onomatopoeic sound that one can make when you’re winded.

But bad egg jokes aside, we’re scrambling for answers. Why would a mother let her nine-year-old son wander the streets of New York City alone — especially after she lost her husband to a major terrorist attack? Why would anyone kill anyone, much less intentionally crash two planes into two towers?

It’s hard to see reason when it’s extremely loud and incredibly close.


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