Oskar Schell, 9, is either mildly autistic or precocious to the point of needing a good kick to the head. The former option makes him a more likable narrator, so I'll go with that one. Jonathan Safran Foer never states it explicitly, and I'm no doctor to be making diagnoses, but Oskar's behavior matches the symptoms I learned about in my 30-second scan of the autism page on the Wikipedia (which never lies): the way he processes information, his odd conversations with people, his repetition of language and OCD-type behavior.
Oskar's dad is good at keeping Oskar's mind engaged. "Being with him made my brain quiet." He makes up a game called Reconnaissance Expedition to keep Oskar sharp and focused. Some expeditions are easier than others. The last challenge Oskar's father gives him is simply a map of Central Park. No instructions. No clues. It's a game they never get to finish because Oskar's dad is killed in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
A year after the attacks, Oskar is going through his father's closet. "Even though Dad's coffin was empty, his closet was full." Among the dead man's belongings, Oskar finds a vase, and within the vase is an envelope, and within the envelope is a key. Oskar takes this as another challenge, a last message from his father that he'll receive if he can just find the lock the key fits. No problem, right?
"I figured that if you included everything -- from bicycle locks to roof latches to places for cufflinks -- there are probably about 18 locks for every person in New York City, which would mean about 162 million locks, which is a crevasse-load of locks."
On the envelope is a single word: "Black." So Oskar starts his search by trying to visit and question every New Yorker named Black, all of whom are apparently colorful characters. In clumsier hands, this material could so easily teeter off into treacle or insufferable whimsy. Just look at the Oscar-bait movie adaptation. Even the trailers make me gag. But Foer makes Oskar's odyssey much more than a quirkfest of Hollywood-ready eccentrics. The people Oskar meets are developed and interesting, with life experiences and insights to share with Oskar and the reader who's along for the ride.
The book is less successful in telling the stories of Oskar's grandparents, survivors of the firebombing of Dresden. Foer shares a young writer's post-DFW (David Foster Wallace) dissatisfaction with conventional storytelling methods. Such experimentation works beautifully when writing in Oskar's unique perspective or in the fractured English of the Ukrainian narrator of Foer's first novel, "Everything Is Illuminated." Not so much in Oskar's grandparents' writings. Oskar's grandfather, who abandoned the family, writes mostly unmailed letters to explain his absence to his son. Oskar's grandmother tells her side of the relationship in letters to Oskar. Why would either of them worry about literary technique? (Or get so descriptive about their sex lives, for that matter!) There's a revelation about a typewriter and Oskar's grandmother (followed by other revelations, none of which I can elaborate on without spoilers), and although it might make for a poignant scene, I'm not 100% convinced the characters' behavior makes much sense. The Dresden zoo scene, in which Oskar's grandfather has to euthanize all the animals during the Allied bombing, is just plain hokey and manipulative.
And I couldn't stop wondering what kind of mother lets her 9-year-old autistic son wander all over the New York boroughs hassling strangers.
Let's face it: The book has some problems. "Loud & Close" reads more like a first novel than the sure-footed "Everything Is Illuminated" did. It strains credibility past the point where it should. Some readers may find their twee tolerance being tested, and McSweeney's haters gonna keep right on hating. But "Loud & Close" won me over through its heart and its ambition and its bold risk-taking. Foer is maneuvering in precarious territory here, probing individual hurts in the context of one of the nation's biggest collective hurts. It's remarkable how much he does get right. Certain moments in the book ...
"I opened the apartment door, put down my bag, and took off my shoes, like everything was wonderful, because I didn't know that in reality everything was actually horrible, because how could I? I petted Buckminster to show him I loved him. I went to the phone to check the messages, and listened to them one after another."
... transported me back more than a decade to the morning I woke up happily unaware I was living in a city under attack until I checked my answering machine and found it packed with messages from worried friends and family. The passages on 9/11 aren't dishonest or contrived to jerk maximum tears. They feel like it did on that day -- "the worst day" -- and they struck a chord in this reader who still gets a little jumpy when planes fly too low overhead.
Foer, who is still at the beginning of his writing career, managed to say something resonant about a topic that's stymied many a writer of greater experience, age and literary awards. Beyond the pomo frippery, "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" speaks a truth that's so stunningly simple, it almost hurts to realize that you let it slide to the back of your consciousness. "It's always necessary."