How to write a novel about 9/11? It’s a tough ask. Get it wrong and people attack you for riding the gravy train of grief. Get it right, though, and you might just have a classic.
Extremely Loud is the story of emotionally troubled Oskar Schell, a (very) precocious nine year old boy, whose father was killed in the attack on the Twin Towers. ‘Heavy boots’ is Oskar’s term for sadness, one which he has occasion to repeat throughout the story. He is very close to his grandma who lives across the street; they talk to each other at all hours by walkie-talkie. After ‘the worst day’, Oskar finds a blue vase in his father’s closet and inside that an envelope with the name “Black” written on it. Inside the envelope is a key and Oskar wants to find out what it opens, in part because it’s a puzzle, in part because it keeps him close to his father. So begins a quest to find the right Black who might know. In the midst of this search he finds one-hundred year old Mr Black who lives in the same apartment building who helps Oskar find and interview all the other Blacks in the five boroughs of New York City. Oskar offers his card to everyone he meets, on which it explains that he is an “inventor, jewellery designer, jewellery fabricator, amatuer entomologist, francophile, vegan, origamist, pacifist, percussionist, amateur astronomer, amatuer archeologist, collector of: rare coins, butterflies that died natural deaths, miniature cacti, Beatles memorabilia, semiprecious stones, and other things.” (Phew!) Along the way he has another idea: to dig up the empty coffin of his father.
This is Safran Foer’s second novel after his prominent debut, Everything is Illuminated, which I quite liked (see my review here). You know what you’re getting when you open one of his books: enough pyrotechnics to put New Year’s Eve in Sydney to shame. Extremely Loud has so many tricks that it would be impossible to list them, but it includes blank pages (curtesy of Oskar’s grandma’s attempt to write her autobiography using a typewriter with no ink ribbon); pages with one line of text; other pages in which Oskar’s grandfather, writing letters to his estranged son, runs out of paper and begins to write over the text he’s already written; photographs of things that Oskar pastes into his book of ‘Things that Happened to Me’ – including a haunting image of someone falling from one of the Twin Towers; and so on. On paper these additions are compelling inventions, things that possibly extend what the novel can do. They worked for me, though they won’t for everyone.
The story is littered with Oskar’s inventions, an almost obsessive compulsive trait, many of which are whimsical, but many of which stem from his sense of loss, such as this one, [p259]: “skyscrapers made with moving parts, so they could rearrange themselves when they had to, and even open holes in their middles for planes to fly through”.
Alongside Oskar’s quest we have the dual narratives of his grandparents, in alternating chapters. His grandma is writing letters to Oskar. His estranged grandfather, Thomas, is writing letters to his lost son. Even in these chapters there are tricks and magical-realist tendencies. Both survived the Allied bombing of Dresden in WWII. There are some odd things in these chapters. Thomas was going to marry Anna, Grandma’s sister, who was expecting their child, only for Anna to die in the war. Years later, Grandma sees Thomas in New York and asks him to marry her. He has been much damaged by the Dresden bombing and is now unable to speak, writing all his conversations out in blank notebooks. They do indeed marry, but have such strange rules and weird constructs that they live a very peculiar existence. For example they divide their apartment into ‘Something’ and ‘Nothing’ zones. If they want to disappear for a while they go into a Nothing Zone, but there become so many Nothing Zones that they fear going from one Something Zone to another, just in case they walk into a Nothing Zone! Some of this I just didn’t get. In the end, Thomas leaves, after she becomes pregnant with Oskar’s father.
Oskar has a difficult relationship with his mother who is a lawyer. He believes she doesn’t love him. He is upset that she has a friend called Ron over all time and that they laugh a lot when he is crying. In an outburst, he even tells her that she wished she had died and not his father, who told him all sorts of stories and loved him very much.
There is also a moving vignette that focuses on an interview with a survivor of the attack on Hiroshima. Says the interviewee: [p189]:
When I heard your organization was recording testimonies, I knew I had to come. [My daughter] died in my arms, saying, “I don’t want to die.” That is what death is like. It doesn’t matter what uniforms the soldiers are wearing. It doesn’t matter how good the weapons are. I thought if everyone could see what I saw, we would never have war anymore.
And when he meets his elderly neighbour, Mr Black tells him the story of his (long) life. His bed was made out of wood he sourced from cutting down a tree inCentral Park. He had spent many years as a war reporter. Oskar asks him which was his last war and he replies, [p161]:
Cutting down that tree was my last war! I asked him who won, which I thought was a nice question, because it would let him say that he won, and feel proud. He said, “The axe won! It’s always that way!”
Never was a truer word said about war.
These unembellished accounts of war are the most compelling aspects of the novel. Included in these are the voicemails Oskar’s father leaves on 9/11 after the plane struck the building he was in—and what Oskar does in order to cover them up. The calls are so traumatising for him he replaces the message machine with a new one, keeping the old machine in his closet. He doesn’t want his mother to hear them, although he has another motive for this obfuscation too.
Elsewhere, however, some of the tricks fall a little flat and rob the story of emotional depth. The story’s set-up is so good that you root for Oskar and wonder how the relationship of his grandparents works itself out. But part of the problem is that Oskar is so intelligent he comes across as being much, much older, an extension of the author in fact. Safran Foer is at pains to have Oskar occasionally ask what a word means, but he knows so many other facts and is so literate that it seems a bit forced. Why does he know one thing or erudite word and not another? It’s symptomatic of the underlying problem: he’s just a little too ‘old’. What we get is a character we should have enormous sympathy for, but can’t quite believe in. It’s a real shame.
Also, the stories of real emotional punch, like Thomas’s recounting of the Dresden bombing, get lost within the Something-Nothing world and the other tricks in these chapters. I understand that war has broken these people in ways that seem bizarre to those of us lucky enough to live at arm’s length from such terrible things, but it seems Safran Foer can’t help himself. Perhaps if there was less ‘narrative explosions’ we’d be able to see the dazzling fireworks of the story itself.
This is an anti-war novel, and there’s a reason Oskar Schell is named Oskar. Gunter Grass’s much acclaimed The Tin Drum, which I loved, has a rather unique protagonist also named Oskar. Grass’s Oskar beats away at his tin drum in response to the horrors of Nazi Germany in WWII. In Safran Foer’s novel, Oskar (occasionally) shakes his tambourine, though that’s perhaps where the similarities end. The linkages between Oskar Schell and the WWII generation of his grandparents work well in underlining the fact that, sadly, humanity hasn’t learnt enough in the last 60 years.
I love the fact that Safran Foer had the gumption to take on another weighty topic. (His debut focussed on the Holocaust. It, too, had a man on a quest and a dual-generation narrative structure.) Extremely Loud is dazzling in many respects, and most of the questions raised are very well resolved, including why Oskar’s mother lets him go off to meet all these strangers, who the mysterious ‘renter’ in grandma’s apartment is, and what Oskar does when he digs up the empty coffin of his father—a particularly moving scene. But I wonder just how great it could have been if there was a little more restraint and if Oskar had been just a little more sympathetic. It could have been a classic.
You’ll hear more about this book in the coming months. It has been made into a movie starring Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, John Goodman and others. (Hanks is an ironic choice considering he’s mentioned in the novel itself when Oskar goes to the Empire State Building!) It’ll be interesting to see what Hollywood leaves in, takes out, (and puts in!), particularly with regard to the grandparents’ stories.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
Source: the bookshelf rainbow