Thursday, March 24, 2011

Written For the Road...

Sometimes an author has a theme running through all of his writing -- in the case of Jonathan Safran Foer, it seems to be a quest of the soul. His follow-up to the cult hit "Everything Is Illuminated" is the poignant, quirky, tender "Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close," which takes readers back to the rubble of ground zero.

Oskar Schell is a precocious preteen, who has been left depressed and traumatized. His father died in the September 11 attacks, leaving behind a mysterious key in an envelope with the word "Black" on it. So with the loyalty and passion that only a kid can muster, he begins to explore New York in search of that lock.

As Oskar explores Manhatten, Foer also reaches throughout history to other horrific attacks that shattered people's lives, including his traumatized grandparents. Though the book is sprinkled with letters and stories from before Oskar's time, the boy's quest is the center of the book. And when he finally finds where the key belongs, he will find out a little something about human nature as well...

Historically, only a short time has passed since 9/11, and in some ways "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" reopens the wounds. It reminds me of all the families who lost fathers, mothers and children. But Foer doesn't use cheap sentimentalism to draw in his readers, nor does he exploit the losses of September 11th families. It takes guts to write a book like this, and skill to do it well.

In some ways, this book is much like Foer's first novel, but he deftly avoids retreading old ground -- the "quest" is vastly different, the young protagonist is very different, and the conflicts and loss are different, though no less hard-hitting. Foer also sticks to that wonderfully oddballish prose, which gives a gloss of lightness to a deep plot.

After all, that is what made his first book so appealing -- there are parts of "Extremely" that are laugh-out-loud funny, and quirky characters worthy of a Wes Anderson movie. For example, one scene has Oskar sending a letter to Stephen Hawking, asking, "Can I please be your protégé?"

Child genius Oskar will probably make you want to either smack or hug him -- I tended more towards hugs. That's because Foer doesn't make Oskar seem like a tiny adult -- he's brilliant, but his mind still has the whimsy of a child's mind. His little "inventions" are just the sort of thing you'd expect an imaginative nine-year-old to create, and his quest is a realistic one, considering the tragedy he had suffered.

"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" proves that Jonathan Safran Foer was no one-hit wonder. His enchanting second book tackles a great tragedy with warmth, depth and sensitivity. Outstanding.

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