The boy and the falling skyscrapers
Jonathan Safran Foer explores loss, hope, 9/11 in new novel
By Todd Leopold
(CNN) -- His name is Oskar Schell.
He wanders the streets of New York City, looking for remnants of his father who died in the World Trade Center collapse. He invents constantly, at least in his mind: a birdseed shirt, a teakettle that plays "Yellow Submarine," an ambulance that tells people how a patient is doing as it speeds through the streets.
He is 9 years old, wise beyond his years, sad beyond his conception.
Oskar is the creation of Jonathan Safran Foer, the centerpiece of Foer's new book, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (Houghton Mifflin). Foer was 25 when his debut book, "Everything Is Illuminated," was greeted by critical hosannas, a $500,000 advance and -- eventually -- a dozen awards. (Full story)
He's not a man to rest on his laurels, since "Extremely Loud" takes on big topics in its 355 pages, particularly September 11 and its aftermath. Foer tells the story in an elaborate style that makes use of photographs, editing marks, pages featuring a single sentence and other diversions.
Too much? Too soon? In a phone interview from his home in Brooklyn, Foer, now 28, says he couldn't imagine doing anything else.
"I knew what I always know, which is to write what I think about and feel, and I don't know any human beings who haven't been thinking of September 11 in the last couple of years," he says. "In fact, I thought, 'Why isn't everybody writing about this?' "
The book didn't start out about Oskar. Originally, it was about a once-famous European writer who returns after a 40-year disappearance. "Eventually Oskar came to the surface," Foer says.
September 11 was an event lurking in the background, he adds. "I showed the book to my brother, and he said to write toward that thing. ... [It was risky], but there was no reason not to try."
In the book, Oskar reveals that his father had gone to the twin towers on business that fateful morning, and he was the last person to hear his father's voice, which he saved on an answering machine.
Two years later, Oskar still obsesses about his father. His mother has a new love interest; his father's mother, who lives nearby, has welcomed a strange old man into her life. Oskar finds a key in a vase in a closet and, armed with only a name -- "Black" -- decides to go in search of the lock that matches the key. In some rather fantastic scenes, he meets up with Blacks all over the city, wondering if they know anything about the key, the lock or his father.
Foer also tells a parallel story of Oskar's grandfather, a mute man who survives the firebombing of Dresden in World War II and tells his story to Oskar's father by sending him letters. Eventually, the two tales intersect.
Foer acknowledges his literary antecedents. Oskar is also the name of Gunter Grass' lead character in "The Tin Drum" -- a precocious boy who refuses to age -- and the firebombing of Dresden is the key event in, among other books, Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five." "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" also has an extended sequence about the bombing of Hiroshima, taken, with small liberties, from actual eyewitness accounts.
But though "Extremely Close" has echoes of all that -- and much more -- it takes on a spirit of its own.
Readers looking at some of the compressed type near the end, for example, may be reminded of the falling towers -- but Foer says that's not what he had in mind.
Indeed, he marvels at how the images and connections in the book eventually get away from their creator.
"A book starts to take on all of the meanings I couldn't have given it on my own," he says. "A book gets better the more people read it -- better than even the author had hoped."
'I was interested in the boundaries'
Reviews of "Extremely Close" have generally been positive -- Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, and Entertainment Weekly called it a "treasure" -- but the exceptions criticize its avant-garde aspects as, finally, empty.
"No traditional story could put forward the tritenesses that Foer reshuffles, folds, cuts into strips, seals in seven separate envelopes and then, astonishingly, makes whole, causing the audience to ooh and aah over notions that used to make it groan," wrote Walter Kirn in The New York Times Book Review, calling the book "an overstuffed fortune cookie."
Foer shrugs off the charges. "Any 12-year-old could read my book. I think this book is a lot more accessible [than 'Everything Is Illuminated,' which told the story, in alternating chapters, of a pogrom-and-Holocaust-decimated Ukrainian town and the search for that town by a malaprop-dropping narrator and his companion, Jonathan Safran Foer]. I want to write things people relate to, and move people."
The photos and the typography, he adds, all further aspects of the story. "I was interested in the boundaries of literature," he says, observing that a painter can incorporate any number of media in his work, but a writer is generally restricted to text.
"I also thought this story could be made better with a visual component. It's told by a kid, and when I think back, I remember in snapshots."
Moreover, he continues, "September 11 is also the most documented event in human history. ... When I think of how that day was experienced, through images, and you think of the image of the two buildings ... it is what it was."
Indeed, the book concludes with an altered 9/11 image -- a series of them, actually, of a body falling up, as if in reverse, alongside a burning tower. It brings to mind both stills and video of the people leaping to their deaths from the twin towers (including the famous photograph Esquire's Tom Junod wrote about in an article, "The Falling Man") and a soul rising to heaven.
To Foer, the photo illustrates themes much dwelled on in the book: tragedy and heroism, the brutality of war and the necessity of coping with loss.
"America has a perception of war being very neat, which is a reason that allows war to happen," he says. "So I wanted this book to be about looking, to stare at things too often abstracted."