Judging by the reviews I have seen online, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is definitely one of those books you either loathe or love. I fell into the latter camp, although I have to admit that the main narrator, nine-year-old Oskar Schell, irritated the hell out of me because he was just so damned precocious.
This business card, which Oskar hands out to acquaintances, might give you some indication of the boy's huge annoyance factor:
OSKAR SCHELL: 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, and other things.
The premise of the story is this: Oskar's father died in the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York. Oskar came home to find several messages on the answerphone from his father but could not bear to let his mother hear them, so he kept the phone and replaced it with a new version of the same model so she wouldn't be suspicious. This is the big burden he shoulders, because he wants to come clean about this but isn't sure how to do it.
In the meantime, Oskar also finds a blue vase hidden away in his father's wardrobe that contains a key in a small envelope marked 'Black'. He launches an investigation of Sherlockian proportions, which takes him across the five boroughs of New York, to find out what lock the key might open. In the process he unwittingly discovers a family secret kept hidden for almost 50 years.
There's also a dual narrative revolving around Oskar's grandparents, German immigrants, who survived the bombing of Dresden in the Second World War. Their sections are narrated via letters, which I found a little confusing to begin with. But they were, essentially, welcome relief from Oskar's unrelenting smart alecky (is that a word?) voice.
There's no doubt that this is a clever and engaging book, one of the first novels to feature 9/11, for which the author received much flack. Personally, I do not have a problem with this: it's part of Western history now, so why not write about it? Incorporating the event into fiction also helps us to look at it in new and revealing ways, to examine aspects we might not have considered before.
What I found particularly interesting was Safran Foer's decision to interweave the Dresden bombing into the storyline. I'm not sure if he was trying to make a point about how each generation has to deal with something lethal and disturbing, or whether he was trying to demonstrate that the Dresden bombing was much more devastating (in sense of scale and level of destruction) than the World Trade Centre attacks. Or perhaps he was just trying to show that despite such horrible atrocities people simply get on with their lives, and there's really no use complaining about it.
On a more light-hearted note, the book is full of witticisms, and some of Oskar's antics, despite the pathos, did make me laugh.
In many ways the book is very similar to Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, not least because both novels feature precocious young boys carrying out investigations but also because the pages of these novels are littered with (delightful) diagrams, drawings and photographs (although I believe some people have taken exception -- on the basis of taste -- to the flip book at the end of Safran Foer's novel which shows a man who had jumped from the burning World Trade Center going in the other direction, towards heaven).
Essentially Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a dramatically original book about one young boy's grief in the face of a terrible disaster. It's heartbreaking in places, funny in others, but most of all it's a wonderfully realised look at how families cope with bad things that happen to them.