RAD Book Club review: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

16 Jan 2019

RAD Book Club’s fourth read this series and the first in the New Year was the novel Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by New York-based novelist and teacher of creative writer Jonathan Safran Foer.

The novel follows Oskar, a precocious nine-year-old boy coming to terms with the death of his father who was killed in the attack on the World Trade Centre in September 2001. Seven of us met to discuss this novel of grief, loss, humour, hope and healing in which family history, detective story, and letter writing mix.

Oskar Schell is a nine-year-old with a mission to find the lock which fits a key his dad left in an envelope in a vase in a closet before he died. Oskar believes that this is a puzzle that his dad set him. The search for the lock takes him all over New York City, where he meets people from all walks of life all of whom are dealing with the loss of a loved one in different- sometimes bizarre- ways. Scattered with letters from family members and famous people who Oskar admires, and accompanied by images, drawings and scribbles, the novel portrays the complex family relations of three generations of Jewish people, from Dresden to New York and from the bombing of a city during World War II to terrorist attacks. Grandfather, grandmother, and Oskar all present their life stories and their experiences of love and grief.

Whilst none of us completely loved the novel, most of us liked it and everyone found something to genuinely appreciate within it.  The scrapbook-like format made it engaging and we loved how some of the typographical resources were exclusive to a book format and would be lost in any other medium, for instance, audiobook, or film.

The blend of grief with the humour of the daily interactions of the characters made us realise that the intensity of loss and grief occurring alongside beauty and wit can both offset the pain and make it sharper, a literary ploy but also true in life. We agreed the rawness and ‘realness’ of the pain expressed by Oskar that it was quite hard to read, and was very moving, likewise the incapacity of all of the main characters to express their emotions to one another or even to themselves. Oskar repeatedly comes up with ridiculous ‘inventions’ which the reader gradually realises is a coping mechanism, designed to stop him constantly replaying his father’s death in his head. Oskar’s grandfather cannot speak, his grandmother cannot see, Mr Black cannot hear; the underlying topic of trauma, miscommunication and the creation of personal narratives was one of the most appealing aspect of the books.

On the less positive side, we found that the strength of the plot dissolved as the action progressed: it seemed that in the beginning our attention was focused on elements which carried no weight later in the book but the actual intention of the book was obscured by the many other sub-plots, symbolism and literary devices included by the author.  These elements of the book were described variously by us as ‘pretentious’, even ‘shallow’, ‘obscure’, promoting ‘feel-good slogans’ and ‘heart-tugging cuteness’. All of us found some aspect of the structure, repetitions, plot or characters to be contrived. Some of us felt that the flipping from character to character and backwards and forwards in time, the repeated words and phrases that the characters use, the made the book too drawn-out and a bit difficult to follow and engage with. The majority found that the presence of the grandparents, although compelling at points, was unnecessary or distracting in conjunction with Oskar’s story.

We also discussed: the humour in creating the role of Yorrick for Oskar to play in his school play; the grandfather’s reasons for not speaking; the similarity between the narrative voice of Oskar, a 9-year old, and the character of the 20-year old Ukranian in Everything is Illuminated, another of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novels; whether Oskar is autistic; the film based on this novel; the seemingly distant but protective attitude of the mother towards Oskar and the way in which Oskar actually feels closer to her, rather than his father, by the end of his journey.

We felt that we could have continued discussing Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close for much longer than our allotted lunch hour. As a group, we gave it a score of 6 out of 10.