Jennifer (aka EM)'s Reviews > Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
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's review
Dec 30, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: lonely-hearts-club, for-the-desert-island
Read from June 01 to 11, 2010

Profoundly moving, beautifully written with deep compassion and empathy for human grief, for the tragic moments that define our lives and characters. Nine-year-old Oskar Schell will stay with me, I think, for a very long time.

I finished late last night (early this morning) and immediately got out of bed to look up a feature written by Ian Brown, published in The Globe & Mail on September 15th, 2001. I've remembered it to this day, because Brown wrote so eloquently about the question: "Would you rather fly to your death, or burn to it?" (The things we can't get out of our minds) There were two photographs that illustrated the story: one of a group of people leaning out of the broken windows of one of the Twin Towers; the other of a man falling (jumping) from one of them. Very similar to the ones in EL&IC.

Foer takes us convincingly into the mind of an extremely (but not unbelievably) sensitive boy whose father had to make the decision whether to fly or to burn. Oskar's journey to put some sense around the circumstances of his father's death, and the parallel stories told by his grandmother and grandfather, is a remarkable literary accomplishment of both characterization and plot. It is incredible story telling, period.

The textual 'gimmickry', as some have called it, is evocative of Vonnegut, in that it sheds an obliquely-angled light on these characters, and their struggles to communicate--after trauma--their deepest feelings, their shame and their guilt, their loss and their grief. These things that are so difficult to render in words. Foer creates a character whose trauma left him mute. He creates a deaf character who reduces every individual to one word. He creates a character who has not attained the level of cognitive or emotional development to express his grief. He creates a character who, at the moment of his death, is leaving an unanswered/unanswerable message on an answering machine.

These are characters who all, in different ways, cannot communicate their truth, cannot connect to those they love, at a moment in their lives of unimaginable trauma. Actually, at a moment of vicarious trauma such as that we all experienced close to 10 years ago. Vicarious trauma = survivor's guilt, and this is a novel that really explores that.

In the aftermath of trauma, when we lose the ability to communicate in words, this is what our minds do: they fixate on objects that appear disembodied; they blur the distinctions between what is real and what is not. They run thoughts and ideas together in ways that lack any kind of linear logic or coherence. While experiencing trauma and grief and survivor's guilt, we make choices that we would never make if we were in "our right minds" and we exhibit behaviour that appears irrational. Would you choose to fly or burn to your death?

We descend, in our grief, to isolation, to catatonia--temporary or lasting--and sometimes, to madness.

Foer's novel shows us his characters' pain. So that when we see a photograph of a doorknob, or a key, or a blurred flock of birds -- these visual images connect to textual ones and then resonate with themes. It is more akin to how poetry works than how literature usually does.

Isn't this exactly what we want a novel to do? It is to me.

I would rip into Foer if I believed his textual gimmickry was in any way manipulative, derivative or unnecessary. I think the opposite: it reveals character, it cuts through sentiment, and it brings the reader into the characters' minds to a depth that would be absolutely impossible with straightforward narrative style. Without it, I believe the story and Oskar would have lost a dimension that it needed to avoid the very accusations of manipulativeness and sentiment that have been made against it.

I hate that I am defending Foer against the nay-sayers in this review, when what I actually want to do is examine everything that he did so very right, so incredibly perfectly and extremely well, to bring this story to light.

Five stars, unequivocally. A must-read.

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Reading Progress

06/01/2010 page 11
3.37% "He uses "extremely" and "incredibly" at least once on every page. I'm starting to fixate on it..."
06/04/2010 page 79
24.23% "I love this narrator. Cross between Oscar Wao and the kid in Haddon's Curious Incident." 8 comments
07/26/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-13 of 13) (13 new)

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JSou Wow, what a great review.

The textual 'gimmickry', as some have called it, is evocative of Vonnegut, in that it sheds an obliquely-angled light on these characters, and their struggles to communicate--after trauma--their deepest feelings, their shame and their guilt, their loss and their grief.

I loved Everything is Illuminated, but I've kind of been putting this one off since I've heard so many mixed reviews on it. After reading that line, I have to give this one a try.

message 2: by Jennifer (aka EM) (last edited Jun 11, 2010 01:15PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jennifer (aka EM) Thank you, Jessica--I appreciate the feedback.

I haven't read Everything is Illuminated, but I will. I'm almost afraid to pick up another book right now--even another Foer, or perhaps especially another Foer--as this one is still so fresh.

It's not just the illustrations and text treatments that reminded me of Vonnegut--there's something almost whimsical in the tone. Many of Vonnegut's characters are child-like and sad in the way that Oskar and other characters in EL&IC are. There's a theme around optimism/pessimism that also struck me as Vonnegutian (is that a word?).

I'll look forward to your review.

message 3: by Kim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kim I would wait on EII... I think it's so important on its own... let this one breathe a little.

I'm glad that there are people out there that appreciate this one. Screw the nay sayers.... I want a book that makes me feel and this so fit the part. Sometimes being a skeptic can narrow the mind and lose some of the beauty, you know?


Julie What a gorgeously thoughtful review, Ms. Extraordinary E. Muse. :) I am excited to have this on my to-read list.

message 5: by Jen (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jen I'm loving this book right now.

message 6: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo what a powerful review. how did i miss it?

Jennifer (aka EM) thank you so much, jo. Sorry the link is now broken - if I can somehow find the article, I'll fix it.

Jason Ugh. This book.


Jennifer (aka EM) hahahahaha. lemme go read your review... ;-)

Jennifer (aka EM) well, that wasn't so bad!

you seem to have two beefs: 1) inconsistencies and confusion in the details (sorry, don't remember the book enough to clear these up - if they are even clearable); 2) the textual gimmickry.

I responded differently to 2), but 1) raises an interesting point about reading (and rating) a book. When do we focus on the details and nitpick; and when do we enjoy the experience and let any inconsistencies wash over us?

This was a wash-over-me moment - as was Everything Is Illuminated. There`s something about JSF that just grabs me by the short-and-curlies. Well, the two I`ve read, that is. I tend to lump his wife - Nicole Krauss - in with him; there's a halo effect. I'd say she's the better writer, in fact, even though I understand her plots even less.

But plot doesn't matter for me with these two. And usually, the plottier the better for me. I'ma go think on this on the drive to work...

Jason Yeah, I was mostly being facetious with my "oh, THIS book" comment. I didn't hate it; I just didn't love it.

I agree about Krauss. I've only ever read The History of Love but I connected with it a lot more than I did with this particular JSF. I have still yet to read Everything is Illuminated, though.

message 12: by Suzanne (new) - added it

Suzanne Thanks for this lovely review, Jennifer. I had not wanted to read this book, and now I do. As far as the “gimmickry” issue, if a technique has a purpose, and one that works effectively, as you indicate Foer’s does very well to accomplish his purposes – then it’s not a gimmick at all. It’s a legitimate use of artistic choices to accomplish certain goals.

Jennifer (aka EM) Jason wrote: "Yeah, I was mostly being facetious with my "oh, THIS book" comment. I didn't hate it; I just didn't love it."

Which is interesting because there's not a lot of middle-ground on this one!

Have you read Chabon? Specifically, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier Clay? That's another polarizing read, I've noticed. I land in the middle on that one (I see I've rated it 4 but barely...)

I liked Everything Is Illuminated even better, mostly because I found it funnier and also sadder. It's a very different book - some people I know loved EL&IC and hated EII and vice versa; some love both; some just don't like JSF no matter what he does.

Suzanne wrote: "It’s a legitimate use of artistic choices to accomplish certain goals."

Thank you for your kind comments, Suzanne! That's a perfect way to summarize it. I'll be interested in your review if/when you get around to it.

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