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That earlier book tackled the subject of the Holocaust and the uses of memory; this novel explores the nature of grief and the difficulty of human connection through the prism of 9/11 and the World War II firebombing of Dresden. While it contains moments of shattering emotion and stunning virtuosity that attest to Mr. Foer's myriad gifts as a writer, the novel as a whole feels simultaneously contrived and improvisatory, schematic and haphazard.
The core problem has to do with the novel's 9-year-old hero. Oskar Schell, whose father died in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, should be a highly sympathetic character: a clever, sensitive boy, grief-stricken over his father's death, neglected by his self-absorbed mother, and beset by insomnia, depression and panic attacks. Unfortunately, he comes across as an entirely synthetic creation, assembled out of bits and pieces of famous literary heroes past. Like J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield, Oskar wanders around New York City, lonely, alienated and on the verge, possibly, of an emotional breakdown. Like Günter Grass's Oskar Matzerath in "The Tin Drum," he plays a musical instrument (in his case, a tambourine) while commenting on the fearful state of the world around him. And like Saul Bellow's Herzog, he writes letters to people he doesn't know.
To make matters worse, Mr. Foer has endowed Oskar with an exasperating precocity that's reminiscent less of Salinger's Glass-family kids than those annoying child guests on late-night talk shows. A devotee of the Internet, Oskar is a chatty font of trivia on everything from the number of birds that die smashing into windows to the number of locks installed every day in New York City. He hands out calling cards that identify him as an "inventor, jewelry designer, jewelry fabricator, amateur entomologist, Francophile, vegan, origamist, pacifist, percussionist, amateur astronomer, computer consultant, amateur archeologist, collector." And like the smarmy Eddie Haskell on "Leave It to Beaver," he's constantly flattering women his mother's age by telling them they're beautiful, sometimes adding that he'd like to kiss them.
Oskar's favorite expression for feeling depressed is wearing "heavy boots," a phrase he repeats endlessly throughout the novel. His favorite pastime is inventing things that don't exist, like "a kite-string bracelet," little microphones that would play "the sounds of our hearts through little speakers" and "incredibly long ambulances that connected every building to a hospital." "What if you had to water skyscrapers," he wonders, "and play classical music to them, and know if they like sun or shade?"
After his father's death, Oskar discovers in his dad's closet a blue vase containing an envelope marked Black; inside is a key to what appears to be a safe-deposit box. Oskar becomes obsessed with finding out whom the key belongs to, and his quest takes him on a journey through the five boroughs of New York. He begins calling on all the people named Black he can find, asking if they knew his father or if they know anything about his father's key.
Oskar's mother never really inquires about his wanderings. In fact, no one seems to think it's terribly odd or dangerous for a 9-year-old boy to be trundling about New York at all hours of the day and night, or visiting complete strangers.
But then, Mr. Foer appears to want his tale to inhabit a limbo land located somewhere just beyond the world as we know it. Indeed his main subplot, involving Oskar's grandparents, reads very much like a fable. We're asked to believe that his grandparents marked off in their apartment multiple "Nothing Places" "in which one could temporarily cease to exist" and that this caused all sorts of philosophical complications: "It became difficult to navigate from Something to Something without accidentally walking through Nothing, and when Something - a key, a pen, a pocketwatch - was accidentally left in a Nothing Place, it never could be retrieved."
We're also asked to believe that Oskar's grandfather, who lost his fiancée, Anna, during the firebombing of Dresden, was so traumatized by his experiences that he stopped speaking and took to writing down everything instead: "If something made me want to laugh, I'd write 'Ha ha ha!' and instead of singing in the shower I would write out the lyrics of my favorite songs, the ink would turn the water blue or red or green, and the music would run down my legs."
There is something precious and forced about such scenarios, as though Mr. Foer were trying to sprinkle handfuls of Gabriel García Márquez's magical realism into his story without really understanding this sleight of hand. Similar difficulties attend Mr. Foer's other attempts to employ razzle-dazzle narrative techniques: playful typography, blank pages (meant to signify pages from a memoir Oskar's grandmother supposedly wrote on a typewriter with no ribbon) and photographs Oskar has pasted into his scrapbook: images of everything from doorknobs to mating turtles to a man falling to his death from one of the World Trade Center towers.
Clearly Mr. Foer has used these techniques as writers in Latin America and Eastern Europe have used them to try to get traction on horrific events that defy both reason and conventional narrative approaches, but all too often his execution verges on the whimsical rather than the galvanic or persuasive. In fact, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" tends to be at its most powerful when Mr. Foer abandons his willful use of experimental techniques and simply writes in an earnest, straightforward manner, using his copious gifts of language to limn his characters' state of mind.
His depiction of Oskar's reaction to phone messages left by his father as he awaited rescue in the burning World Trade Center, his description of Oskar's grandfather's love affair with Anna and his experiences during the bombing of Dresden - these passages underscore Mr. Foer's ability to evoke, with enormous compassion and psychological acuity, his characters' emotional experiences, and to show how these private moments intersect with the great public events of history. Sadly, these passages are all too few and far between in what is an admirably purposeful but ultimately mannered and irritating novel.