The publication of Everything Is Illuminated in 2002 marked one of the most dazzling American literary debuts in recent decades. The novel, an international best-seller, recounts a young man’s search in Ukraine for the woman who saved his grandfather’s life during the Holocaust. The young man happens to share the name of the book’s remarkable author, Jonathan Safran Foer. A cultural celebrity at only twenty-five, Foer sold his second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, to film producer Scott Rudin even before it appeared in print. It was published a few months before the release, in August, 2005, of the film version of Everything Is Illuminated, starring Elijah Wood as Foer.
Though Foer’s early success created exalted expectations, few readers were disappointed by Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Whereas the plot of his first novel is generated by the worst atrocity of the twentieth century, the extermination of most of Europe’s Jews, the brilliant new novel responds to an early twenty-first century atrocity, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.
Most of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is narrated by Oskar Schell. Schell’s voice, while evoking some comparisons with that of J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield and Günther Grass’s Oskar Matzerath, is not quite like any other in modern fiction. A nine-year-old with an erudite vocabulary and a penchant for bilingual puns, Oskar summarizes his attributes in the calling card he dispenses to new acquaintances:inventor, jewelry designer, jewelry fabricator, amateur entomologist, francophile, vegan, orgamist, pacifist, percussionist, amateur astronomer, computer consultant, amateur archeologist, collector of: rare coins, butterflies that died natural deaths, miniature cacti, Beatles memorabilia, semiprecious stones, and other things.
Oskar’s favorite book, A Brief History of Time (1988), daunts most adults, and he writes fan letters to its author, the physicist Stephen Hawking. Alienated from children his own age, who do not share his interests and talents, Oskar was unusually closeindeed, incredibly closeto his father, a jeweler by trade but by inclination a scholar whose daily diversion was ferreting out mistakes in The New York Times.
Thomas Schell happens to be in the World Trade Center on the morning that the terrorists strike. Dismissed from school because of the emergency, Oskar arrives home in time to hear the six final messages that his father, trapped in the collapsing skyscraper, left on the family answering machine. Burdened by overwhelming grief, what he calls “heavy boots,” Oskar attempts throughout the novel to reconcile himself to the sudden, violent death of the man whom he adored.
Father and son bonded not only over bedtime stories but over “Reconnaissance Expeditions”elaborate, esoteric scavenger hunts that Thomas devised for Oskar. After September 11, Oskar embarks on the supreme Reconnaissance Expedition, an arduous quest that will enable him to understand and accept the loss of his father. Rummaging through Thomas’s effects, Oskar discovers an envelope inside a vase. The envelope contains a key, and the boy is convinced that, if only he can find the lock the key fits, the mystery of why his father was in the World Trade Center at the moment of its destruction will be solved. Oskar calculates that there are about 162 million locks in New York City. A single word, “Black,” is written on the envelope, and he concludes that someone by that name will recognize the key and unlock the puzzle of his father’s death. Wearing the exclusively white clothing that is his trademark fetish, Oskar sets abouton foot, because he has become terrified of public transportationto track down all 472 people named Black living in the five boroughs of New York.
One of the first Blacks Oskar interviews, a 103-year-old retired war correspondent named A. R. Black, happens to be living one floor above the Schell apartment on the Upper West Side of...