I started crying immediately upon reading this book... the first page. Maybe that's what happens when you become twenty-five. You learn how to cry and suddenly find everything in the world overwhelmingly beautiful. That's where I am at least.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a story about love. 9/11, New York City, and love. It's told by 9-year-old Oskar Schell, the best character I've read in a very long time. I loved this book. Loved it. It touched me quite truly and very deeply. It broke my heart into a million little pieces. I can't imagine anyone reading it and not being completely and utterly astonished. It's heartbreaking. Heartbreaking and beautiful.
The novel opens with a long passage that follows Oskar's train of thought... a racing freight of idea and invention. It's shocking at first and a bit unsettling. He is different from us, yet we can't pinpoint why. It isn't autism and it isn't Attention Deficit Disorder... its not Aspergers Syndrome or any form of learning disability.
Oskar is a brilliant mind, we discover slowly. And that brilliance is the difference. He is worlds smarter than a 'normal' nine year old and feels much deeper than you and I. He has the most sensitive reality and the biggest beating heart I have ever read. There is nothing wrong with him... he's just a very extreme version of everyone else.
We slowly crack past the differences between his mind and ours and rest at a place of compassion and love. I tried to pinpoint why this young boy touched me so very much, and concluded about halfway through that it's because his thoughts are so pure. Which is rare, I noted sadly.
He is brutally honest about his feelings and thoughts and never ever turns off his mind. This unfortunately and very naturally causes Oskar much pain. He often refers to having 'heavy boots'-- his words for the blues, or as Holly Golightly says, the 'mean reds.' This mainly stems from mourning the death of his father, who died in the twin towers on September 11th. Our first reaction to a nine year old having such deep feelings would be to diagnose him with some level of depression... yet Oskar absolutely understands why he is so sad.
"The homeless guy in front of the Museum of Natural History who always says 'I promise it's for food' after he asks for money ... How you don't know who Larry is, even though you probably see him all the time, how Buckminster just sleeps and eats and goes to the bathroom and has no raison d'etre, the short ugly guy with no neck who takes tickets at the IMAX theater, how the sun is going to explode one day, how every birthday I always get at least one thing I already have, poor people who get fat because they eat junk food because it's cheaper,
"... Domesticated animals, how I have a domesticated animal, nightmares, Microsoft Windows, old people who sit around all day because no one remembers to spend time with them and they're embarrassed to ask people to spend time with them, secrets, dial phones, how Chinese waitresses smile even when there's nothing funny or happy, and also how Chinese people own Mexican restaurants but Mexican people never own Chinese restaurants, mirrors, tape decks, my unpopularity at school, Grandma's coupons, storage facilities, people who don't know what the Internet is, bad handwriting, beautiful songs, how there won't be any humans in fifty years ..."
"Why do beautiful songs make you sad?"
"Because they aren't true."
"Nothing is beautiful and true."See? Heartbreaking. (I realize that was an incredibly long quotation, so if you skipped over it, go back and read it again. It'll be good for you.) For he is ultimately sad for the loss of his father.
The story flips every few chapters to a new narration-- that of Oskar's grandfather and grandmother. His grandfather's story is told through letters written to his son, and his grandmother's is told through letters to Oskar. 'I hope you never love anything as much as I love you,' she says. Their devastation, like Oskar's, arises from a single horrible event: the bombing of Dresden, their home in Germany, during World War II.
This of course mirrors Oskar's invented realities of what his father's last few hours must have been like during the terrorist attacks... he invents a million ways his father could have died and drives himself crazy inventing ways he could have been saved... birdseed shirts, safety nets, elevators that bring floors to you instead of the other way around.
The plot begins when Oskar finds a key and decides to conduct a secret mission to find its matching lock that will ultimately lead him to his dead father in some unknown way. This gives this young boy a purpose, a raison d'etre (his word, not mine.) Oskar's trek becomes a sort of Odyssey who's surprising provider is revealed at the end of the story. (At which point I broke down crying on the subway. The homeless man across from me offered a kleenex, bless his heart.) Oskar travels the city's five boroughs just as Odysseus scaled ancient Greece... he meets demons, friends, and sirens along the way but in the end returns home to the comforting arms of familiarity. (Can you read my tears?)
The novel also repeatedly references Hamlet, a pointed symbol of Oskar's father's ghost haunting his journey. Hamlet's deeply philosophical thoughts on death and terror mirror Oskar's mind, though in a very normal tone as is his standard existence. He is constantly thinking of death and life and the meaning of if all. He is Godot, he is The Stranger.
Foer is brilliant in this telling. He doesn't give us a framework other than this quest that we know ultimately won't provide a real answer. Its a post-Modern novel in that it's very fragmented and quite unconventionally written. The book is packed with photographs and illustrations and a few blank pages. To be honest, this aspect interested me much less than I expected. The one illustration that caught my breath like a punch was the final flip book of a man jumping from the twin towers. Although in this case the pages were reversed so that the man seems to be floating up and back into the windows and back into life before tragedy. Oskar did that to imagine his father coming back. Tore. at. my. heart.
Like I said, this is a book about love. But the love folds itself into sadness... it has to. That is the great risk and the great sacrifice of giving it and accepting it in the first place. Agape, eros, philia, storge, thelema... they all hold weight.
Oskar is the anti-New Yorker when considering his heart and his sympathy. Power, drive, ambition, success... but we aren't great at loving thy neighbor. At the same time, Oskar explains why we do close ourselves off, why we do bask in becoming jaded. Becuase if we were to feel for each and every part of this city, our hearts would explode with grief. It's too much to handle. Of course we block that love from entering, of course we do.
"We need much bigger pockets, I thought as I lay in bed, counting off the seven minutes that it takes a normal person to fall asleep. We need enormous pockets, pockets big enough for our families, and our friends, and even the people who aren’t on our lists, people we’ve never met, but still want to protect. We need pockets for boroughs and for cities, a pocket that could hold the universe."
I listened to an interview with Joan Didion this morning in which she spoke of her characters living only within the confines of the finished novel. She doesn't see their lives continuing in any way after the story ends or existing before it began. They live simply within the created time and cannot survive outside of it.
Oskar is the opposite for me. I left the book wanting to pull this young boy close to me... wanting to protect him and listen to him and hold him. I desperately want Oskar to be okay and don't know if he will be. He is a character whose story will continue on past the pages of this book an into New York City as a whole. He will grow up and converse and love and cry and invent. He will alter the universe... because how can he not.
Read this book. Immediately.
(Oh, and thank you, Katie, for this beautiful gift. I had no idea that any New York story could top Working Girl in terms of inspiration but this may have done just that. ha. :)