Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Summary

Oskar Schell is a clever, precocious nine-year-old whose father was killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001. Before he died, Oskar's father left five voicemails for his family, but Oskar hides them from his mother. His family holds a symbolic funeral, in which they bury an empty casket.

  • Oskar's family is grief-stricken over the loss. Oskar's mother withdraws, and Oskar starts abusing himself, hoping the bruises will distract him from his emotional pain.
  • When Oskar accidentally breaks his father's vase, he finds a key in an envelope labeled "Black." Oskar goes on a quest to find this person named Black, only to discover that the key has nothing to do with his father.
  • Oskar's grandmother, meanwhile, has taken in a "renter," who turns out to be Oskar's grandfather. Oskar's grandparents have been separated for thirty years, but after the funeral Oskar's grandfather decided to come back to his family.


Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

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 She appears to have withdrawn into herself, leaving Oskar to fend for himself.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.

Extended Summary

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 narrative, readers...

(The entire section is 1161 words.)