"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Extremely talented and incredibly readable

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
By Jonathan Safran Foer
Houghton Mifflin, 368 pp, 24.95 dollars

With his latest novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer maintains a connection to his award-winning 2003 debut Everything is Illuminated. Like his previous novel, his latest is told mostly in the first person by an idiosyncratic narrator and concerns the effect that mass death on a historic scale has on the narrator and his family.

In Everything, most of the narration comes from a Ukrainian translator who is guiding Jewish American college student Jonathan Safran Foer as he searches for the Ukrainian woman who hid his grandmother during the Holocaust.

Extremely Loud follows the quest of precocious 9-year-old Oskar Schell to unravel the mystery of a key left behind by his father, who was killed in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.

Foer has brilliantly captured the voice of the eccentric young self-described "inventor, jewelry designer, jewelry fabricator, amateur entomologist, francophile, vegan, origamist, pacifist, percussionist, amateur astronomer, computer consultant, amateur archeologist, [and] collector of: rare coins, butterflies that died natural deaths, miniature cacti, Beatles memorabilia and semiprecious stones."

His constant inner monologue and odd dialogue ring true, reflecting perfectly the rambling, scattershot and utterly nonlinear thinking and speech of an intelligent and traumatized young boy. In Oskar, Foer has created a younger, 21st-century version of Holden Caulfield.

While Oskar spins his story of what happened after his father died and his dogged efforts to track down all 262 people named Black in the New York city telephone directory to inquire about the key, the reader is treated to an array of characters worthy of J.D. Salinger or Wes Anderson: Oskar's centenarian war correspondent neighbor, his father the professional jeweler and amateur copy editor, the various Blacks of New York, and especially his grandparents, survivors of the horrific World War II bombing of Dresden, Germany. Characters are as often as not the sum of their quirks: Oskar will only wear white, his elderly neighbor keeps biographical files of thousands of important people that consist of a single word, his grandfather is a compulsive writer who scribbles on walls or even shirt sleeves, if no paper is at hand.

Oskar's grandmother provides some of the narration in a few relatively straightforward autobiographical chapters about her childhood and how she came to America. Oskar's grandfather, a mute, half-crazed sculptor the boy has never met, tells part of both Oskar's story and his own, a quirky and emotional tale reminiscent of some of Kurt Vonnegut or Paul Auster's best work.

There are a number of well-executed set pieces in the book, some tragic, some comic. Oskar's conversations with his mother and the passages about him listening to his father's dying words from the World Trade Center, recorded on the Schells' answering machine, are as heartbreaking as Oskar's correspondence with various prominent people is hilarious. One of the shortest of the latter is:

"Dear Stephen Hawking,

Can I be your protege?


Oskar Schell."

Foer's writing is by turns sentimental, playful, sly and experimental, but always engaging. While the background of the events in the novel is tragic and the characters' motivations and outlook often heartrending, the author always manages to lighten the mood with a dose of whimsy or wry humor at unexpected moments. Foer explores a variety of themes: the importance of expressing love and not keeping secrets from loved ones, surviving and coming to terms with grief, the allure of mystery and the thrill of discovery.

The use of photos, unusual text layouts and other visual stunts is interesting and not without impact, but overall adds little to an already appealing and expertly rendered novel.

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