Jonathan Safran Foer’s writing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I place myself squarely in the camp that adored his debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated. For all of its flaws, I found it captivating, alternately hilarious and heartbreaking. While this is a review of Foer’s follow up novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I feel that it’s somewhat important to mention my love for Illuminated in the context of this review. Why? Because everything that made Illuminated feel original is present in Extremely Loud…, only it’s incredibly annoying and grating the second time around.
Quirky multiple narrators? Check. Non-linear storytelling? Check. Nontraditional prose? Check. Stories set within the framework of the most mind-boggling tragic events of the past century? Check. The bulk of ELAIC is told through the voice of Oskar, a nine year old boy whose father was killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11, as well as his paternal grandparents, survivors of the Dresden bombings in World War II. Like Illuminated, the subject material is grim, but unlike Jonathan and Alex’s journey, ELAIC feels like a long slog through the boroughs of New York City with the world’s most obnoxious kid and his traumatized, emotionally closed off grandpa. The most redeeming part of the story, for me, was the stunted-love story of Oskar’s grandparents, trying to learn how to be whole again after immigrating to America, and subsequently, after their son’s death. Without giving too much away, I think that one of Foer’s strengths is his rumination on love and relationships, beautifully explored in Illuminated, and done so to a greater extent in ELAIC.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is by no means a terrible book, but it often feels like it’s overreaching. The 9/11 setting feels a bit manipulative, Oskar’s voice doesn’t ever really land as a precocious child’s or an immature adult’s, and the way the second half of the book unfolds feels very, very rushed. It’s a book that wants to be deeper, truer, and more impactful than it really is, but it has to settle instead for being the kind of story that’s made into a movie starring Sandra Bullock.