The World According to Oskar

May 26, 2004 |

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
By Jonathan Safran Foer
Houghton Mifflin. 368 pages. $34.95.

Our great authors were once the ultimate parents. Starting with the Bible and on down to the grand tradition of the realist novel, narration and knowledge have gone hand in hand. Writers such as Honore de Balzac and Jane Austen felt they understood the world and, as good fathers and mothers, considered it their duty to instruct us in its ways.

Jonathan Safran Foer might be the first great writer of our new century, and he represents the opposite notion of authorship. Foer’s fiction exemplifies authorship as childhood because it teaches us how much we don’t, and can’t, comprehend. In the tragicomic, technicolour world of Foer’s books — a world overwhelmed by tragedies like Hiroshima, the Holocaust and 9/11 — no one knows quite how to speak, how to love or how to live. But they try nevertheless.

A troubled nine-year-old is, therefore, an appropriate centre for Foer’s frenetic second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Like Alexander Perchov, the delightful Ukranian thesaurus enthusiast of Foer’s best-selling debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated, Oskar Schell dominates this book with a voice that can’t, or won’t, speak normally. For Oskar, “heavy boots” means sadness; “Jose” means “no way”; and the words “extremely” and “incredibly” appear about 10 times a page. He disguises profanity with childish wordplay: “Succotash my cocker spaniel, you fudging crevasse-hole dipshiitake!”

Prepubescent Oskar is a talented inventor, francophile, tambourine player, thespian and jeweler. Yet, like America’s favourite recent heroes (think A Beautiful Mind or Good Will Hunting), Oskar, whose dad died in the Sept. 11 attacks, is at best a broken genius, a handicapped prodigy. His compulsively imagined inventions — a “birdseed shirt,” a “Reservoir of Tears” under the city — express only the neuroses he’s developed in reaction to his father’s death. And like the Internet he navigates, Oskar possesses a huge amount of data, but little knowledge. “I know a lot about birds and bees,” he says, “but I don’t know very much about the birds and the bees.”

When he discovers a mysterious key in his father’s belongings, Oskar is able, through the magic of Google, to determine that “there are 319 post offices and 207,352 post office boxes” in his hometown, New York City, and probably “about 162 million locks.” But that information doesn’t answer the important questions: What did this key have to do with Oskar’s father and what does it unlock?

Oskar’s search for the keyhole brings him into the homes of eccentrics in every borough of the metropolis, including a 103-year- old journalist with a file of one-word biographies (“Henry Kissinger: war!” “Arthur Ashe: tennis!” “Susan Sontag: thought!”), a woman who lives in the Empire State Building and the “467th richest person in the world.”

In these encounters and in excerpts from the journals and letters of Oskar’s grandparents, who survived the firebombing of Dresden, Foer forges links between diverse personal and historical tragedies – – sometimes touching, sometimes tenuous — and indulges his flair for the fanciful and dreamlike.

Each chapter contains genuine wonders, but unlike Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magic realism, Foer’s approach has no roots in a traditional culture of mythology and storytelling. It grows instead out of the dominant myths of contemporary American childhood — those encountered in movies, advertising and middle-school English class — which might explain why the fantastic world outside Oskar’s head often seems to be an invention of the boy’s own imagination.

Despite occasional moments in which Foer’s magic realism is less than magical, the novel refuses to be boring. Pages are crammed with photographs (a la W. G. Sebald), scribbles, colours, numbers, notes and dozens of lists. These textual flourishes, deployed with wit and creativity, complement Foer’s larger message, which is that the language we use and the way we tell stories obscures the sad fact that most of the time no one understands what anybody else is saying.

As Oskar’s search culminates and his family’s intertwining stories are revealed, so too is Foer’s intentionally child-like insight: That, like life itself, communication is impossible but nonetheless necessary. As Oskar realizes, “feeling pain is still better than not feeling, isn’t it?”

This may seem obvious and even trite. But it is the power of Foer’s exuberant, poignant and recuperative vision that he can make his readers see the world anew, in all its terrors and possibilities, from a child’s perspective.

[Originally published in The National Post.]