Is it possible to skillfully fictionalize a tragedy like the 9/11 attacks before its wounds have healed? How to dramatize an event whose facts are so unyielding, and whose details have been worked over by an unprecedented number of media outlets with unprecedented access to your attention? How to say something fresh when your audience already knows everything?
Jonathan Safran Foer suggests a daring approach in his second novel, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” the story of Oskar Schell, a precocious 9-year-old New York City boy coping with his father’s death in the attacks. As in his debut, “Everything is Illuminated” – a time-skipping tale of shtetl life, the Holocaust and modern remembrance – he endows his narrative with a dizzying array of formal experiments: photographic inserts, typographical corrections, dialogue undivided by paragraphs, even blank pages. The result is positively unsettling, and effectively so, as it forces the reader to consider Foer’s novel – and its over-defined central event – from an unconventional perspective. “Everything Is Illuminated” suggested that Foer was driven by an urgent Jewish consciousness, but “Extremely Loud,” which lacks any apparent connection to Jewishness, insists instead that the muse is experiment. Mourning is made of plain prose, but Jonathan Safran Foer is made of provocations.
Foer’s other dislocation is to build the narrative around a child. September 11 was a grown-up tragedy, and to relive it through the eyes of a boy – a bundle of primitive impulses, inadequate insights, and an overactive imagination – is to peer past the fog of newscast platitudes and viscerally recall how infantilizing that day was for millions of adults. Not long after the attacks, Oskar discovers among his father’s possessions a key in an envelope marked “Black.” His emotional assumption that finding its lock – which he embarks to accomplish by tracking down every Black in the phone book – will help palliate his loss is as desperate and irrational a pursuit for meaning as any undertaken after the attacks.
Adults, though, tend to be embarrassed by instinct, whereas Oskar is a consummate child: annoyingly clever (“‘Yellow Submarine,’… is a song by the Beatles, who I love, because entomology is one of my raisons d’etre”), fastidious, quick to anger, and by turns world-weary and juvenile. His character could have become an invaluable channel for the less rigorous feelings – anxiety, vulnerability, anger – that surely continue to hound New Yorkers beneath the city’s facade of restored exuberance.
But Oskar never comes into view clearly. As the boy seeks out Blacks across the five boroughs, encountering various eccentrics – a woman who lives at the top of the Empire State Building; a 103-year-old man who has voluntarily tuned out the world – Foer regularly introduces uncanny but unexplained new facts about his protagonist. Oskar wears only white; he’s a vegan; he has a habit of bruising himself; he’s an atheist – quirks that seem warranted by the author’s whimsy rather than the organic requirements of a full-blooded character.
Most of Foer’s experiments with form never really justify themselves, and begin to seem similarly gratuitous. Why, in Oskar’s conversations with his mother, does dialogue run together in a single unbroken (and usually confusing) paragraph, whereas letters by Oskar’s grandmother have several spaces between every sentence? Why is Grandpa allergic to periods? Oskar’s German-born grandfather became silent after losing his first love in the firebombing of Dresden and communicates by writing in a notebook; Oskar’s “crummy”-eyed grandmother manages to complete a thousand-page memoir without realizing there is no ribbon in the typewriter; the two used to live in an apartment divided into public and private zones marked “Something” and “Nothing.” Foer’s characters and their predicaments are so idiosyncratic that it’s a while before the reader realizes that they’re nothing but. It’s as if Foer decided that only extraordinarily unusual characters and forms could measure up to that extraordinary day. But magic realism is groundless without realism; to make its leaps of logic believable, the author must provide in intimate detail the “ordinary” world that is its departure point.
Foer tends to build personality by withholding information about characters until a suspense-relieving bombshell toward the end of the book, but this is a cheap substitute for the slow, painful work of organic character development. Why does Oskar’s mom hardly flinch at a son’s decision to wander the city alone? A “gotcha” moment explains late in the book, but until then, she remains such a fuzzy creation that we can hardly surmise. Why was Oskar’s dad, who worked in midtown, in the World Trade Center that day? This purely factual detail merits no cause for suspense, but Foer doesn’t supply it until two-thirds in. Until then, it’s a nagging distraction.
“Extremely Loud” is riddled with such omissions and mystifications, presumably justified as flights of fancy or the bewilderments of heartache. “The cafes were full that afternoon,” Oskar’s grandfather, who was in Germany at the time, writes about 9/11. “People were laughing, there were lines in front of the movie theaters, they were going to see comedies, the world is so big and small, in the same moment we were close and far.” The lazy abstraction of those last lines turns them into precious melodrama.
If gimmickry doesn’t account for itself quickly, it begins to feel like self-indulgent levity. The irony is that “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” brims with tremendously poignant moments, which also happen to be some of the novel’s simplest. Oskar’s summation of the price of precociousness (“I feel too much”); the spare prose that describes Oskar’s grandfather, now in New York, who abandoned his wife when she became pregnant and returned when that child – Oskar’s father – perished, smelling the pillow where his son slept as a boy; the unadorned fury of Oskar’s imaginary exchange with one of the hijackers: “I hate you, my eyes would tell him./I hate you, his eyes would tell me.”
Uncomplicated eloquence is only degrees from the silence of obfuscation, but what a world lives in that space. It’s a banal, unremarkable world, and it was that world that was attacked on 9/11. In this novel, as in “Everything Is Illuminated,” Foer leans on a tragedy of historic proportions to lend easy pathos to his narrative, which makes a reader wonder how he might fare with a less apocalyptic calamity, such as a car crash, or perhaps an abusive parent. The plain moments of unaided power in “Extremely Loud” seem to warrant a book-length effort to find out.