Starting on this book when my grandfather was hospitalised, and reading it through his wake after he passed, was especially meaningful. The first quote I shared was this:
“Grandma? Over?” “Yes, darling? Over?” “If Grandpa was so great, then why did he leave? Over.” She took a little step back so that she disappeared into her apartment. “He didn’t want to leave. He had to leave. Over.” “But WHY did he have to leave? Over.” “I don’t know. Over.” “Doesn’t that make you angry? Over.” “No. Over.” “That he left? Over.” “Sure. Over.” “Hold on,” I said, and I ran back to my field kit and grabbed Grandpa’s camera. I brought it to the window and took a picture of her window. The flash lit up the street between us.
Except that Grandpa in Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close” did not actually pass, but had chosen to leave for different reasons which are central to the book and its themes. The book itself consists of three separate, yet convergent narratives: Grandpa writing letters to the father of nine-year-old Oskar Schell, the young protagonist; Grandma writing letters to Schell; and the first-hand experiences of Schell himself. Schell lost his father to the September 11 attacks and has had difficulty coping with the loss and tragedy, echoing the trauma experienced by Grandpa and Grandma who went through the bombing of Dresden, Germany in 1945.
A common criticism of “Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close” is the unrealistic or unbelievable representation of Schell, and perhaps even the convenient or predictable conclusion. Parts of the book were indeed long-drawn and tedious (even if the intended effect was for the reader to feel the frustrations and helplessness of the characters, especially the literally voiceless Grandpa), but Schell the child narrator made me chuckle with his quick wit, smile at his intellect, and grieve at his pain.
And in this vein, how Foer can speak to different individuals going through similar episodes is the most crucial. Universality, in other words. Schell’s thoughts and actions – bits and parts of them – function as reminders, moving us in the process.