Considered by many reviewers to be the first major novel about the tragic events of September 11, 2001, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close tells the story of nine-year-old Oskar Schell in the months after the terrorist attacks. The book, published in 2005, is the second novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, who lives in Brooklyn, New York.
The main plot takes place in New York City and follows Oskar as he tries to understand and deal with the loss of his father, who died in the collapse of the World Trade Center. Discovering a mysterious key in his father’s closet inspires in Oskar a burning curiosity to find the lock it opens and sets him on a quest that sends him all over New York City searching for answers. The subplot of the book takes place in Dresden, Germany, and focuses on Oskar’s grandparents’ experience of the horrific bombings there at the end of World War II. Letters written by both his grandparents function as key elements in the story, revealing the mysteries and horrors of the past and the many ways the characters’ storylines are interconnected.
The novel addresses September 11 from an interesting perspective. By choosing a young, albeit gifted, child as his narrator, Foer is able to address the many emotionally charged aspects of the event while avoiding politics and hot-button issues, such as why the attacks happened. Instead, the focus remains on how Oskar navigates the chaos of the immediate event and its traumatic aftermath and moves through personal loss to eventual acceptance. The choice of narrator creates a framework for exploring the emotional significance of September 11, which is far more complex than the facts of the historical event.
The book is notable for the way it incorporates visual elements, including photographs, overwritten texts, blank pages, and a series of flip-book images at the end. Whether or not this “visual writing,” as it is sometimes called, is successful is part of what has made Foer a polarizing figure in modern literature; some reviewers find his approach powerful, and others find it distracting, gimmicky, or cloying. Despite the mixed reaction of critics, the book was a success. It was translated into several languages and ultimately turned into a film, released in 2011.
Foer, who was born in 1977 in Washington, DC, published his first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, in 2002 to great acclaim, garnering prizes including the Guardian First Book Prize, the National Jewish Book Award, and the New York Public Library Young Lions Prize. In a 2010 interview with the New Yorker, Foer was asked, “What makes a piece of fiction work?” He replied, “Fiction works when it makes a reader feel something strongly.” Readers of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close can decide whether or not his treatment of September 11 and Oskar’s experiences “work” according to the author’s definition and their own.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Discuss how this book addresses the tragedy of 9/11.
2. Describe Oskar’s quest and its goals.
3. Explain the ways in which the plot in New York City and the subplot in Dresden inform each other.
4. Discuss the relationship between writing and memory and what role writing plays in the characters’ lives.
5. Explore the different types of letters that appear in the book and their importance to the story.
6. Analyze the importance of the images in Oskar’s scrapbook, Stuff That Happened to Me, and explain what they tell us about his character.
7. Discuss the significance of the flip-book images of the falling man at the end of the novel.