Through the eyes of an incredibly precocious and extremely funny nine-year-old narrator, Jonathan Safran Foer tells a story of the effects of death on Oskar Schell and his family. Oskar's father was killed in the Twin Towers terrorist attack. Oskar's grandparents witnessed similar terrorists' attacks during World War II. The consequences of these horrid deaths have marked the psyches of the main characters in Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close in different, but equally painful ways.
Examples of how the characters in this story react to their individual, psychological pain include Oskar's grandfather, who refuses to speak. He also will not allow himself to love again. Meanwhile, Oskar, who definitely has no problem talking, keeps secrets—like his self-inflicted bruises that help to distract him from his emotional pain. Oskar's grandmother tries in vain to open up the heart of her husband. Only after Oskar's father is killed in the World Trade Center attacks does his grandfather show any signs of wanting to love. But is it too late? Oskar's mother is harder to understand. She appears to have withdrawn into herself, leaving Oskar to fend for himself. But then, how does she seem to know about everything that Oskar thought he had concealed from her?
Foer has an incredible sense of humor in his writing, especially enjoyable through the thoughts and youthful conclusions of his nine-year-old protagonist. But all the humor in the world cannot camouflage the excruciating confusion and torment that Oskar must go through. It is more than the loss of his father, who was also Oskar's best friend, although that in and of itself is a huge challenge. But in Oskar's way of thinking, he cannot get over his father's death until he knows the exact details of how his father died. Did he die trying to save others? Did he burn to death? Or was he the man whose image was caught jumping out of one of the windows? Oskar and his father loved solving mysteries together. But this is one mystery that will remain unresolved.
Foer's novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close opens with the nine-year-old narrator, Oskar Schell thinking about, as he is apt to do, imaginative inventions that would improve everyday life, such as microphones people could swallow and then listen to their insides working. Oskar is on his way to bury his father. Oskar notes, however, that his father's body is not in the coffin, which Oskar thinks is absurd. He tires of his mother and grandmother on the way to the cemetery and crawls into the front of the limousine and talks to the driver, Gerald, who converses like he understands a nine-year-old's level.
At the funeral and beyond, Oskar reminisces about his father and the games they used to play. The games often involved Oskar having to solve a mystery. His father would give him very subtle clues, challenging Oskar's intelligence. Oskar and his dad were very much in tune to one another and had a similar type of intelligence. They understood one another, seemingly better than Oskar's mother comprehended either of them. Or at least, this is what Oskar implies.
More is learned about Oskar’s inner life by way of the letters that Oskar writes to famous scientists. One letter is sent to famed physicist Stephen Hawking. Later another is sent to primothologist Jane Goodall (famous for her work with chimpanzees). In his letters, Oskar asks these famous scientists for jobs. He usually receives standard form-letter responses, but every once in a while someone compliments Oskar's intelligence.
Like his private letters, readers quickly learn that Oskar tends to keep secrets. The main one includes his father's last five phone messages on the answering machine. Oskar's dad was at a meeting at the Twin Towers on the day of the terrorists' attacks. His father was in one of the towers above where the planes struck. The five phone messages are progressively more panicked as the fires grow worse. Oskar is the only one who has heard the messages because he hides the phone after he listens to them. Then he goes out and buys an identical phone so his mother would not notice. Oskar has, up to this point, never told anyone about the messages.
To provide a broader context beyond Oskar's point of view, the narration switches to Oskar's grandmother and his grandfather. Each grandparent writes letters. Oskar's grandmother writes letters addressed to Oskar. Oskar's grandfather addresses his letters to Oskar's father. In his letters, the grandfather explains his inability to speak and to love. He writes that it is because he once loved Anna, Oskar's grandmother's older sister. Shortly after Anna told him that she was pregnant, bombs fall on her house, killing everyone but Oskar's grandmother. Oskar's grandfather also mentions how he came to marry Oskar's grandmother.
Back to Oskar's...
(The entire section is 1161 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis: What The?
The story opens with a series of thoughts. The narrator wonders about sounds and thoughts and whether it would be possible for a teakettle to have a voice. He also questions whether birdseed shirts would allow people to fly since humans have no wings.
Readers learn that the narrator has recently started jujitsu because his mother thought it would be good for him "to have a physical activity besides tambourining" and because he was curious about self-defense.
In the same breath that we learn he can play "The Flight of the Bumblebee" on the tambourine and that this is the ring tone on his cell phone, the narrator informs readers that his father has died, almost as an afterthought. Readers also learn that he wears only white clothing, has ridden in a limousine twice, that he knows the meaning of the French term raison d'etre, and that his favorite documentary is A Brief History of Time.
The narrator finally reveals his name, almost as if by accident, and readers learn that "a few weeks after the worst day, [Oskar] started writing lots of letters" because, he explains, "it was one of the only things that made [his] boots lighter." The first letter Oskar penned was to Stephen Hawking asking if he could be Hawking's protege. Oskar is thrilled to receive a response, albeit an impersonal form letter.
When Oskar's father tucks him into bed on "the night before the worst day," they have a brief discussion of physics and his father tells him a bedtime story about a sixth borough of New York. This is Oskar's final exchange with his father; the next time Oskar hears his voice, it will be the next day on the answering machine. Oskar's father leaves five messages, one at 8:52 a.m., 9:12 a.m., 9:31 a.m., 9:46 a.m., and 10:04 a.m.
Upon meeting Oskar Schell, readers will sense almost immediately that he is, indeed, a most precocious...
(The entire section is 625 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary and Analysis: Why I'm Not Where You Are (5/21/63)
This chapter begins with a letter to someone's unborn child, dated 1963. The letter explains that the writer was not always silent. It seems that sometime after he came to America, he opted to stop speaking. The letter's author had "yes" tattooed on his left hand and "no" tattooed on his right; he explains that while "it hasn't made life wonderful, it's made life possible." The last spoken word he uttered was "I."
He started to take blank notebooks with him everywhere he went to facilitate communication. At night, he would reread his life. Each sentence had its own page so he often ran out of books by day's end. Readers learn that he went through so many books that he began to use them as doorstops, birdcage liners, and coasters.
The letter's author informs its recipient that he was "already out of words when I met your mother." He attributes the success of their marriage to the fact that she never really had to know him since he never spoke. These two people who lost everything somehow found each other in New York City and completed one another.
The content of this chapter is perplexing. Readers do not know who the author of the letter is nor to whom it is directed, but he does reveal that his name is Thomas. Readers can surmise that the author is somehow related to Oskar and has an equally complex outlook on life, but the connection remains a mystery.
The reader is left with countless questions at the end of this chapter. Perhaps most vexing is the question of what trauma the letter's writer suffered that made him choose to stop speaking. Thomas informs readers that "I've thought myself out of happiness one million times, but never once into it." Thomas confesses that he wishes that he could "pull the thread, unravel the scarf of [his] silence and start again from the beginning."
The pain Thomas feels is almost palpable. Readers can...
(The entire section is 620 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary and Analysis: Googolplex
The chapter opens with a description of a bracelet that Oskar made for his mother. It was his father's last message, which he converted into Morse code and then into different colored beads. Oskar then explains that a year later, he still struggles with riding in elevators and taking showers. He also explains his fear of Arabs, scaffolding, smoke, and abandoned bags.
Oskar finds himself in his father's closet, confronting his father's possessions for the first time since his death. Oskar is distracted by his mother and her friend, Ron, who seem to be having too good of a time in the other room and accidentally breaks a vase. While cleaning up the broken vase, Oskar notices a small envelope...
(The entire section is 626 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary and Analysis: My Feelings
This chapter begins with a letter to Oskar, dated September 12, 2003, from his grandmother who writes to him from the airport. She writes about a letter she received in 1921 that had been censored. Although the writer's name was crossed out, the fact that he or she was in a Turkish Labor Camp remained. She then asked her father (Oskar's great-grandfather) to write her a letter. He does so, noting that he hopes "one day you will have the experience of doing something you do not understand for someone you love." This letter, she informs Oskar, is the only thing she has left of her father.
She also writes about a trick she and her uncle (a prison guard) played on an inmate named Kurt. He...
(The entire section is 615 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary and Analysis: The Only Animal
Oskar explains that he first read A Brief History of Time when his father was alive and that he "got incredibly heavy boots about how relatively insignificant life is." He and his father contemplated how they could change the universe and the course of human history by moving a single grain of sand. This, he explains, is the same way he decided to look for every person in New York City with the last name Black, alphabetically by first name from Aaron to Zyna. Oskar prepares a field kit and embarks on his journey.
Oskar walks to Queens (because public transportation makes him "panicky"), playing his tambourine the entire way, to the home of Aaron Black. He is saddened to learn that...
(The entire section is 640 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary and Analysis: Why I'm Not Where You Are (5/21/63)
Chapter 6 is a continuation of chapter 2 and picks up with the letter. Oskar's grandfather explains the rules that he and Oskar's grandmother established for their marriage; everything between them was "a measurement, a marriage of millimeters, of rules." For example, they never speak about the past, she never looks over his shoulder while he is writing, and they never listen to sad music. He confesses that they have so many rules that he cannot remember what is and is not a rule. He explains that he started to bring home magazines and papers so that she could work on mastering the English language, especially idioms like the "bee's knees" and the "cat's pajamas." Oskar's grandfather began to spend a...
(The entire section is 692 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary and Analysis: Heavy Boots / Heavier Boots
This chapter opens with Oskar recounting his school's performance of Hamlet, which has been cut down significantly because "most of the kids in [his] class have ADD." Oskar is disappointed and embarrassed when his peers make fun of his grandmother who had been in the audience crying and laughing loudly.
Oskar goes to Coney Island to visit Abe Black, next on his list. Oskar takes his first-ever roller coaster ride on the Cyclone with Abe who had to work hard to convince him that it would be okay to go on the ride. Oskar never explains to Abe about the key or the envelope, but he does hitch a ride to the home of Ada Black. Ada knew nothing about the key...
(The entire section is 663 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary and Analysis: My Feelings
Chapter 8 is a continuation of chapter 4, which picks up where Oskar's grandmother left off. She explains how she misses her husband (Oskar's grandfather) and that she had a difficult time leaving the apartment they shared. She details how he took photographs of everything in the apartment and purchased the most expensive insurance policy possible just in case anything happened to their home.
Readers learn that Oskar's family jewelry business began when his grandfather got a job at a jewelry store and worked his way up to assistant manager and then manager. Oskar's grandmother also explains that although she initially sent him to the airport to get her reading material, she continued to...
(The entire section is 619 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary and Analysis: Happiness, Happiness
Chapter 9 opens with an interview about the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. A survivor describes seeing children run through the streets with their skin melting like wax. She chronicles the heartrending search for her daughter and the chaos and confusion that followed the bombing. After the interview, readers learn that this interview was a tape recording that Oskar shared with his class. Instead of seeing this as an opportunity to learn something from a fellow student, Oskar's classmates see his presentation simply as confirmation that he is "weird." Matters are made worse when another student asks Oskar who Buckminster is and he replies "Buckminster is my pussy," meaning his cat. Oskar does not understand...
(The entire section is 747 words.)
Chapter 10 Summary and Analysis: Why I'm Not Where You Are (4/12/78)
This chapter takes the form of a letter to a child. The letter was written at the former site of the shed in Dresden where Oskar's grandfather had a tryst with Anna. The author, Oskar's grandfather, explains in the letter that although his child must think that he has never written, that, in fact, he writes a letter each and every day.
In the letter, Oskar's grandfather recounts his wartime experiences and his relationship with Anna. Anna informs Oskar's grandfather that she is pregnant moments before an air-raid siren sounds and everyone scatters in search of the nearest shelter. He gives a detailed and somewhat graphic account of the bombing of Dresden, replete with burning bodies and...
(The entire section is 613 words.)
Chapter 11 Summary and Analysis: The Sixth Borough
The chapter opens with Oskar's father, Thomas, telling him the previously referenced story about a Sixth Borough in New York. Oskar continually interrupts, frustrating his father. Nevertheless, Oskar's father continues the tale.
The Sixth Borough was separated from Manhattan by a thin body of water, the exact width of which was the same as the world's record for the longest jump. Each year, the two neighboring boroughs held a celebration and the symbolic jump was made; "for the few moments that the jumper was in the air, every New Yorker felt capable of flight."
One year, the jumper's toe skipped the surface of the water, horrifying onlookers. While they try to make excuses for...
(The entire section is 607 words.)
Chapter 12 Summary and Analysis: My Feelings
Chapter 12 gives readers a glimpse into Thomas's mother's experience on September 11. She watched the news while knitting Oskar a scarf. As tragedy struck, a reporter was interviewing someone about what seemed to be a missing person's case. The reporter stopped mid-interview and listened to the voice in her earpiece. The voice informed her that something had happened in New York and quickly viewers were shown an image of the World Trace Center on fire. Oskar's grandmother is flooded with seemingly disconnected memories of her youth and her husband.
Oskar's mother calls her, and the two women begin to worry that neither of them has heard from Thomas. Although he did not work in the World...
(The entire section is 615 words.)
Chapter 13 Summary and Analysis: Alive and Alone
Oskar continues his quest to find meaning in the envelope and key he found in his father's closet. Oskar continues his visits to the Blacks of New York but also makes time for a visit to the Empire State Building with Mr. Black. After their tour of the building with Ruth, their guide, Mr. Black tells Oskar that after six months of searching with him he is going to retire from the project. The two unlikely friends shake hands and go their separate ways. Wallowing in the seeming failure of his quest, Oskar's "boots were the heaviest they'd ever been." Despite his grief, Oskar finds it easier not to tell anyone about this and to forge ahead on his own.
Oskar heads to his grandmother's...
(The entire section is 710 words.)
Chapter 14 Summary and Analysis: Why I'm Not Where You Are (9/11/03)
This chapter continues the story of Oskar's grandfather, Thomas, picking up forty years after chapter 6 ended. His last letter was written on the day that his child died, September 11, 2001, and this letter is written on the two-year anniversary of that day. He is inspired to write the letter hours before he will meet Oskar, his grandson, to visit Oskar's father's grave.
Readers learn that he hand delivered the note to Oskar's grandmother's doorman on the day of Thomas's funeral. Oskar's grandfather tries to see his former wife but since he cannot talk, he tries to arrange a meeting by giving notes to the doorman. Oskar's grandmother acquiesces and allows him to come up and stay in the...
(The entire section is 613 words.)
Chapter 15 Summary and Analysis: A Simple Solution to an Impossible Problem
After Oskar and his grandfather (who he does not know is his grandfather) dig up his father's grave, he wants to tell Mr. Black about the experience. However, when Oskar goes upstairs to see Mr. Black, he finds a Realtor instead. He learns that all of Mr. Black's possessions are about to be given away or sold. Immediately, Oskar realizes that he must save some, if not all, of the biographical index. He is surprised to find himself listed as "Oskar Schell: Son." Oskar laments the fact that he did not know that the last time he saw Mr. Black would be their final meeting.
Although Oskar continues his search of New York's Blacks for a connection to the key, he admits that "I no longer felt...
(The entire section is 771 words.)
Chapter 16 Summary and Analysis: My Feelings
The chapter opens with a knock at the door of Oskar's grandmother's room. Oskar's grandfather stands before her with his pants covered in dirt. He informs her that he had gone to get her magazines. She follows him to the airport where she watches him intently for hours; she explains, "I have been an expert at watching him. It's been my life's work." She then confesses that she is not sure if she ever loved him. Finally, she approaches him and they have a conversation though he, of course, says his part written on napkins. He finally reveals that Anna had been pregnant at the time of her death and Oskar's grandmother says that she knows. He is shocked to learn this because he thought it had been a...
(The entire section is 606 words.)
Chapter 17 Summary and Analysis: Beautiful and True
Oskar's mother continues to spend time with Ron, a man whom Oskar clearly does not like and views as an inadequate substitute for his father. Oskar asks why Ron does not have a family of his own and he learns that Ron's wife and daughter died in a car accident. Oskar is taken aback when he learns that Ron and his mother met in a support group for those who lost family members.
After Oskar's mother tucks him in that night, he sneaks out. At midnight, Gerald arrives in a limousine with the renter (the same driver who took him and his family to his father's funeral); this night marks Oskar's second ride in a limo. On the way to the cemetery, Oskar takes pictures of the stars out of the limo's...
(The entire section is 712 words.)