To find a narrator as exuberant and original as Oskar Schell, the tambourine-playing 9-year-old hero of Jonathan Safran Foer’s new novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, you have to go back to Alex Perchov, the boastful, warmhearted Ukrainian translator who so memorably mangled the English language in Foer’s giddy 2002 debut, Everything Is Illuminated. Employing hilariously inappropriate synonyms (”If you want to know why so many girls want to be with me, it is because I am a very premium person to be with. I am homely, and also severely funny…”), Alex spouted an outrageous but uncommonly expressive English.
Little Oskar does funky things with language too. A precocious New York City kid whose favorite book is Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, Oskar uses ”Jose” as shorthand for ”No way, Jose,” and, to his schoolmates’ glee, refers to his pet cat Buckminster as his ”pussy.” (”I know a lot about birds and bees,” Oskar later admits, ”but I don’t know very much about the birds and the bees.”) When he is happy he feels like ”one hundred dollars,” and when he is sad he puts on ”heavy boots”; while occasionally verging on the precious, the verbal play keeps you alert: When Foer writes in Oskar’s voice, his prose crackles.
As the novel begins, Oskar is wearing exceedingly heavy boots: His father, Thomas, died in the World Trade Center attacks, and it was Oskar who picked up his final phone messages from the tower. ”Being with him made my brain quiet,” Oskar says, and this self-described ”inventor, jewelry designer, jewelry fabricator, amateur entomologist, francophile, vegan, origamist, pacifist, percussionist, amateur astronomer, computer consultant, amateur archaeologist, collector of: rare coins, butterflies that died natural deaths, miniature cacti, Beatles memorabilia, semiprecious stones” is one boy who badly needs someone to quiet his brain.
In a vase high in his father’s closet, Oskar finds a key in an envelope on which someone has scrawled ”Black.” Armed with iodine tablets (in case of a dirty bomb attack) and Juicy Juice boxes, Oskar sets out to visit, on foot, every Black in the New York City phone book, hoping to find the lock that fits his father’s key. In the course of his travels, he meets a deaf 103-year-old war correspondent who hasn’t left his apartment in 24 years, a dotty widow who lives on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, and a silent stranger who turns out to be his own long-lost grandfather.
As in his first book, Foer has spliced together a lively and inventive contemporary narrative with a far less vital historical subplot. The structure didn’t really work in Illuminated — which was about the legacy of the Holocaust — and here, the decision to share the biographies of Oskar’s thinly imagined German-born grandparents seems odd. In long, vague chapters that lack the force and fluidity of Oskar’s story, his sculptor grandfather — rendered mute by the firebombing of Dresden — moves to New York, marries, and establishes an eccentric household filled with animals and ”Nothing Places,” spots in the apartment where he and his wife agree to become invisible to one another. When Oskar’s grandmother announces she is pregnant, his grandfather leaves her for reasons that are tortured and obscure.
Foer has studded his intense and uneven book with typographic gimmicks, random photos of doorknobs, and the diagram of a paper airplane design. Even if a few of his gambits fall flat, it’s hard to fault a 28-year-old novelist for such an intense hunger to connect. Especially when he’s offering such a treasure: Oskar’s wonderfully unquiet brain and his sweet soul, his ageless questions, silly school jokes, uncanny observations, and raw misery, all of which bring home a little more of the specific human pain of 9/11.