Jonathan Safran Foer
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005)
Reading Level (choose all that apply): Young Adult / Parent / Adult
Comments: Contains some adult language.
Author Biography: Jonathan Safran Foer (b. 1977) is an award-winning short fiction writer whose first novel, Everything is Illuminated (2002), was made into a major motion picture. Born in Washington, D.C., Foer attended Princeton and then received a grant to study in Israel. He also spent time in Ukraine researching his own family background. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and son.
Plot Summary: Jonathan Safran Foer’s bestselling novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close presents the fictional story of a little boy’s journey toward healing after losing his father in the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Told through the voices of different narrators, the complex pieces of this novel come together like a mosaic that gradually reveals a picture of inter-generational love and loss, and of our need to stay connected to those we love most. The novel’s plot and characterization pose some unique challenges; its themes are often difficult and even unsettling to confront. While some of the author’s unconventional choices in style and structure may take some getting used to, by its conclusion the novel’s intricate patterns and careful planning bring into focus a big picture of stunning depth and clarity. The plot of the novel is not chronological; instead the chapters of the novel alternate between two story lines. The novel’s main plot is set in the aftermath of 9/11, and centers on 9-year old Oskar Schell, whose father has been killed in the World Trade Center. When Oskar finds a mysterious key that once belonged to his father, he sets out on adventure through all the boroughs of New York, in search of the lock that the key will open. Along the way he resolves many painful conflicts in his own family and comes into contact with a variety of people also in need of healing and liberation. The other plot line, set in Germany in the late 1930s and early 1940s, chronicles the union and dissolution of two families in the face of Hitler’s persecution of the Jews. The intricate links between these two stories are revealed gradually throughout the novel.
1. One lesson that Oskar tries to learn in this novel is how to heal from a traumatic wound, specifically from the sudden and violent loss of his father. Foer draws a clear parallel between emotional and physical pain by including many characters who have physical or sensory limitations, but who compensate for these limitations in other ways. What insights about pain and healing are offered by each of the following characters and senses: Oskar’s grandfather and speech, Oskar’s grandmother and sight, Mr. Black and hearing, Stephen Hawking and movement?
2. One of the novel’s main themes is the difficulty of communicating painful or personal information to those we love. In what ways and for what purpose do the characters in the novel make use of indirect methods of verbal communication such as notebooks, letters, a voice synthesizer, walkie-talkies, signs, newspapers, stories, and voice messages?
3. How does the novel make use of methods of non-verbal communication such as touch, drawing, sculpture, photographs, and music?
4. How does Oskar affect each of the people he comes into contact with? How does he himself serve as a kind of key that unlocks the mental and emotional prisons in which these characters are confined?
5. The novel is filled with elaborate patterns of imagery that help to reinforce its central themes and ideas. Consider the function of the following kinds of imagery: -- images of physical boundaries or barriers such as walls, doors, closets, windows, boxes, sleeping bags, coffins -- images of things that eliminate boundaries such as keys, doorknobs, keyholes -- images of planes, airports, watching planes, plane crashes, planes dropping bombs -- images of physical symbols or tokens such as mementos, clues, memorials, documents, photographs
6. One of Oskar’s idols is the famous physicist Stephen Hawking. What purpose do his character and his work A Brief History of Time serve in this novel? In what ways is his letter at the end of the novel a kind of gift to Oskar? What lessons does it impart to Oskar and to us?
7. What is the purpose of the story Oskar imagines in the last two pages of the novel? Do you think that the novel ends on a hopeful note? If so, why? If not, why not?
8.Although this novel is fictional, its two main story lines draw on historical events: the attacks on 9/11 and the bombing of Dresden during World War II. Also included is an historical account of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. What parallels does the novel draw among these events, and what commentary on these events and their effects does the novel offer?
1. Take some photos: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close includes many photos; sometimes they serve as a visual aid for the reader; other times they are a way for the characters to create a permanent record of an important event, place, person, or object. In all cases they illustrate one of the central themes of the novel: the idea that meaning depends on perspective. Two characters can look at a door, for example, and one will see a boundary while the other sees a passageway. For this project, consider taking two types of photographs. First, in keeping with the numerous pictures of doors, doorknobs, and keyholes in the novel, take some photos of doorways and/or doors in your home or in other places of significance to you. You might also want to photograph the doors of structures that play an important role in the communities to which you belong. Next, take some photos of objects, people, or places that have a special significance. You might want to experiment with visual perspective, as the photos in the novel do, or with being creative in other ways. If you wish, bring your photographs to help create a collage at the book discussion.
2. Write a letter: Much of Extremely Loud and Incredible Close is structured as letters that help characters articulate difficult truths and events in their own histories. The letters take the place of face-to-face conversations rendered impossible by a variety of circumstances. More importantly, they are ways of reaching out to others for connection, solidarity, and forgiveness. For this project, consider writing a letter of your own, perhaps as a way of voicing something you have always wanted to say. In the letter you might address someone you admire, someone close to you, someone you have lost, or even yourself. You may send the letter if you wish, keep it, or bring it in an envelope to your book discussion.
Prepared By: Ann-Maria Contarino
Date: August 2008