Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

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Wow. If I’d known that this book was going to be a punch in the chest, I – yeah, no. I would have read it anyway. Probably much sooner.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has been on my radar since it was made into a film a few years ago, and it made my tentative To Read list pretty much straight away. I thought the premise sounded really interesting, more so after I read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, but one of the main parts of the story – the centering of the events around The September 11 attacks – made me unsure whether I’d be able to relate to the book in any real way. I was twelve years old on September 11, 2001, and while I was distantly sad that such an awful thing had happened, couldn’t incorporate something that had happened on the other side of the world as part of my reality.

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. Jonathan Safran Foer’s writing is smooth and evocative, and several times while I was reading I deliberately didn’t pick up the book because I wasn’t in a mood for the sort of visceral emotional reaction that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close inspired in me. I finished reading while I was getting my hair done, and it was a huge challenge not to scream and cry and throw the book across the room, because everything that the characters go through is so sharp, so real, and there’s no way that anyone – not the reader, not the other characters in the story – can make anything better.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is about Oskar, a little boy who lost his father in the September 11 attacks. It’s also about his grandfather, who lost the love of his life in the Allied bombing of Dresden in 1945; and his grandmother, who tried to build a life with an emotionally unavailable man, and who suffered through losing her son in another senseless attack on a city half a world away.

I think the thing that got me the most about the book was how incredibly emotionally selfish everyone was. I personally have trouble talking about my feelings, but after months of trying really hard because I know it’s the right thing to do, I’ve just about got the hang of it. These characters have gone through terrible emotional trauma – some twice – and none of them seem willing to talk about it. They all love each other dearly – Oskar and his grandmother talk every night on a set of walkie-talkies – but they just can’t say the things they need to say.

“Can I ask you one last question?” “Was that it?” “Do you think any good can come from your father’s death?” “Do I think any good can come from my father’s death?” “Yes. Do you think any good can come from your father’s death?” I kicked over my chair, threw his papers across the floor, and hollered, “No! Of course not, you fucking asshole!”
That was what I wanted to do. Instead I just shrugged my shoulders.

Oskar seems incredibly emotionally mature for a nine-year-old, scientifically curious and determined to solve the mysteries of his world. When he finds a key hidden in a vase at the top of his father’s untouched wardrobe, he develops a plan and executes it methodically, in a way you’d certainly expect of someone with a scientifically curious mind, but not necessarily of a nine-year-old.

I loved how Oskar’s engagement with the world was so much the opposite of his grandfather’s, who went slowly mute after the death of the love of his life. Where Oskar is happy to march up to the front doors of complete strangers and ask them to help him solve his mystery, his grandfather slowly shuts himself off from the world more and more, until he suffocates under the weight of the closed world he’s created for himself and leaves.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is one of the few books in my life that I’ve actively pushed on my friends. It’s an amazing book, lyrical and visceral and real.

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