Tuesday, April 19, 2005

BOOKS: 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close'

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What happened on Sept. 11, 2001 has been the subject of countless reams of reporting, analysis and debate, on what it meant for Americans and the rest of the world. Eventually life trickles down into art, and so it is that author Jonathan Safron Foer's new novel, 'Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close' takes on the tough topic of 9/11. Is it too soon? Maybe for some, but overall it's an original, tragic and dryly humorous look at loss and coming to grips with it.

Foer, who's only 28, made a splash a few years back with "Everything Is Illuminated," which was a very interesting debut novel that was a bit too clever and experimental for its own good. "Close" is more cohesive, but still daring and takes chances. The central character and the novel's beating heart is 9-year-old Oskar Schnell, a would-be inventor, precocious and filled with trivia but woefully clumsy socially. Oskar's father was killed on 9/11, and the hole that event leaves in Oskar's life can't be easily filled. Oskar discovers a mysterious key in his dead father's closet, and decides to search all of New York for whatever it unlocks.

In between Oskar's quixotic quest, Foer tosses in lots of tricks -- typographical art, photographs and shifting perspectives. The bells and whistles distract some from the main story, although the use of photos is often very effective, especially at the devastating conclusion. What makes "Close" work for me is Oskar, who is indelibly given life by Foer. He's a totally believable, too-smart-for-his-own-good boy, one who uses all the tricks of his mind to escape the horror of his dad's death. Foer makes him often funny, but never a joke, as he travels New York, searching for the "Black" whose name is on the envelope his father's key was in.

Where "Close" falters some is in lengthy digressions featuring Oskar's grandparents, who tell their own stories in journal and letter excerpts. Survivors of the Dresden firebombing of World War II, Foer is obviously trying to tie that holocaust in with 9/11. But he makes these two characters so willfully eccentric and mannered in their behavior (Oskar's traumatized grandfather doesn't speak, and writes all his conversation; his grandmother's bizarre relationship with her husband), that you're thrown out of the story. Their quirks overwhelm the message. When "Close" focuses on Oskar's powerful voice, it's a great book, and says something sensitive and respectful about a real-life tragedy. I wouldn't toss all of the stylistic experiments of "Close" - the photos work well, as I mentioned, and one point when the type blurs and compresses into a wall of words is very effective.

At 28, Foer's got a lot of books in him, I hope - I just would like to see him get the showboating out of his system and settle down to tell his story more in the next one. Grade: B+

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