Ideally, the second novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, would be found as a manuscript fifteen years from now, in a trunk or under a mattress somewhere, rather than on the front table of your local bookstore, gleaming with fresh hype. Coming as it does on the heels of a period of extreme visibility for the young author (who also coedited McSweeney's Future Dictionary of America and is a sometimes spokes-artist for New York's Downtown for Democracy), and a few years after the hyperventilating reception of his literary debut, Everything Is Illuminated (2002), the book can't help but enter the world on a cloud of expectation. (Not to mention, the film adaptation of Illuminated is due out this summer.) Fun to watch as this spectacle may be, it is also too bad in a way, because Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close deserves to be discovered with all the genuine surprise and delight that would arise from a much more intimate unveiling.

The main character of Foer's book is nine-year-old Oskar Schell, the most recent initiate in a growing gang of wise, flamboyant, prepubescent boys running rampant in our popular culture. Equal parts Bobby Hill (King of the Hill), Max Fischer (Rushmore), and vintage Gary Coleman, Oskar is the kind of precocious, soulful kid-genius who aggressively brightens the day of everyone he stumbles into. He high-fives chauffeurs and shopkeepers alike; hoards trivia but doesn't understand why calling his cat a "pussy" so titillates the bullies at school; and concocts many wondrous inventions, such as the birdseed shirt, which allows people to fly, and the intelligent ambulance, which reassures passersby that the injured party is not someone they love.

Most important, though, young Oskar misses his father, Thomas, a jeweler killed in the events of 9/11, whose absence has turned his son's mind into a hive of panic and grief. "It was worst at night," Oskar confides. "I started inventing things, and then I couldn't stop, like beavers, which I know about. People think they cut down trees so they can build dams, but in reality it's because their teeth never stop growing, and if they didn't constantly file them down by cutting through all of those trees, their teeth would start to grow into their own faces, which would kill them. That's how my brain was."

Oskar finds an outlet for his worried imagination by embarking on an odd journey through the boroughs of New York, in search of a lock that fits a mysterious key he has discovered in his father's mausoleum-like clothes closet. His only clue is the envelope the key came in, imprinted with the word black, which he interprets, somewhat arbitrarily, to pertain to the last name Black. Oskar's journey brings him into contact with many bit characters sharing the same surname: a man who hasn't left his apartment in twenty-four years, a couple who maintain museums of each others' lives in adjacent rooms of their house, and a doorman from Russia, among others. On the outskirts of Oskar's consciousness lurks the figure of his mother, whose own pain and loneliness bewilder him and who may or may not be conducting an affair with a new beau named Ron.

Oskar's travels bring the novel its great momentum and wit, but it is a second story line, the epistolary tale of Oskar's grandparents—a mute sculptor and his sometime muse, both of whom survived the World War II bombing of Dresden—that gives the tale its heart. In alternating letters to their lost son and living grandson, the immigrants recount scenes of their own sorrowful romance as it moves from Germany to America and back again, and back again. While sometimes precious, these allegorical vignettes are often lovely, too.

Foer's most affecting prose is employed by the grandfather to describe the firebombing of Dresden, a passage in which the book's main visual motif—bodies burning in air—acquires the strange, reverse gravity of a Marc Chagall canvas. Through the powerful linkage of historical explosions, from Dresden to Nagasaki to the Twin Towers, framed in a universe that is itself slowly exploding, Foer's imagery begins to roil with the mythopoetic physics of a rabbinic fairy tale. Things fall up and rise down; time flows backward; bodies are lit by violence and impossible desire.

As in Everything Is Illuminated, Foer generates redemptive energy from language itself, whose plasticity provides a way of shaping the past and summoning the absent to life. Whereas the previous novel tweaked normative grammar through a kind of search-and-replace method of verbal substitution (in the voice of its Ukrainian narrator, "difficult" became "rigid," "to bother" became "to spleen"), this one expands the field of experimentation to include manipulations of kerning and spacing, and the insertion of playful graphics and photography into the body of the text. A partial list of images would include Laurence Olivier as Hamlet, Manhattan absent Central Park, a hand holding some gems, birds in flight, and a flip-book in the final pages whose subject matter should not be disclosed. Impressively, the book's bells and whistles actually feel appropriate to its larger meaning, rather than coming across as mere gimmickry. How many ways, in how many mediums, Foer seems to be asking, can we miss each other?

The book does have its annoying tics—an antique-ish surrealism creeps in at times, and the showboating charm of Foer's main character can be cloying. But these are small complaints about a book that otherwise so passionately reminds us of many fundamental, piercing truths: the demonic way that love flourishes in the absence of its object; the strange impossibility of using words and images accurately to express love; and the miraculous way in which language makes time sensible, and thus makes loss sensible, and thus makes love sensible, and allows us to mourn its continuing passage.

 

 

Jonathan Raymond's novel The Half-Life will be published in paperback by Bloomsbury this spring.

 
     
     
 
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EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE BYJONATHAN SAFRAN FOER. NEW YORK: HOUGHTON MIFFLIN. 368 PAGES. $25. BUY NOW