Over the course of just two novels, I've developed a love-hate relationship with Jonathan Safran Foer, and after reading his "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," I understand that he has a certain style that alternates between beautiful prose and extreme pretension. There's no mistaking this for the work of anyone but the author of "Everything is Illuminated," and I mean that in a good way and a bad way.
Just like "Illuminated," this story is based around a quest set in motion by a great tragedy (in "Illuminated" it was the Holocaust, in "Loud" it's 9/11). In both novels the quest is really just a MacGuffin whose destination doesn't interest Foer nearly as much as getting there. And in both novels getting there often feels like the story spinning its wheels until late-stage revelations about the characters finally give the quest a sense of urgency.
In both novels a compelling conflict in the present is interrupted by indulgently stylized flashbacks intended not so much to tell a story but to flaunt the style of the storyteller. In the previous novel Foer gave us the tale of a girl born out of a river and growing up on a shtetl with pseduo-profound existential hangups. This time around he writes about a pair of elderly characters, one of whom, for no reason I can discern, is given a voice of endless, unbroken block text and run-on sentences. This character, named Thomas, also has a pseudo-profound existential problem: He has gone mute, for no physical reason it seems, but rather, I guess, because it seems sad and deep and gives Foer the opportunity to wax poetic in nonsense passages meant to evoke ... I'm not sure Foer figured out what he wanted to evoke. As I read, I became so frustrated with the purple prose that I stopped periodically to write down the biggest eye-rollers:
- "Sometimes I can feel my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I'm not living."
- "I took the world into me, rearranged it, and sent it back out as a question: 'Do you like me?'"
- "Years were passing through the spaces between moments."
- "I was trying to destroy the wall between me and my life with my finger."
Thomas, to make things easier for himself, has tattooed the words "Yes" and "No" to his hands. This leads to a lot of passages where Foer thinks it's meaningful to discuss how he touches someone with yes and no, molds clay sculptures with yes and no, holds a book in his hands and reads between yes and no, and so on. He's ambivalent – we get it.
But in both books the central story and protagonist are actually quite compelling. In "Illuminated," it was Alex, a translator who escorted an American through Ukraine, whose voice Foer assumed to great effect. In “Loud” it's a nine-year-old boy, Oskar, whose voice Foer also assumes; Oskar's narration is more affected than Alex's was, but eventually we settle into the child's point of view and stop noticing how he sounds more like a hyper-literate adult putting on the voice of a child.
Oskar lost his father on 9/11, finds a mysterious key among his father's possessions, and sets out to find what it opens. As the boy meanders, so does the text; the boy is searching for a lock, while the text is searching for a theme to join together its mostly disconnected scenes. Oskar's relationship with his mother is one of the most moving aspects of the novel, and if Foer weren't so preoccupied with his own cleverness he might have fleshed out something truly remarkable between the two.
The novel ends very well; the last chapters feel liberated from the self-indulgence that came before, and closing the book I felt satisfied with it as a whole despite its shortcomings. Its second half is much better than its first half – more direct, less coy – and that's the last impression it leaves. But now I'm reminded of all the things I didn't like about it, and rereading some of those quotes reminds me of how self-satisfied Foer can be at his worst, but also how really great he could be if he'd stop trying so hard to impress us.