Oskar Schell’s Plight and Relevance: On Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (1)

*This is part 1 of 3 of a series of reviews on Foer’s novel

It has been two months since I have finished the novel. Initially, I refused to write about the experience I had with the text. I fell in love with the story too much and had too strong of an emotional connection with Oskar Schell and his journey. I was under the impression that it clouded the critical eye . I felt that everything I will say about the novel will end up sounding like a blurb for a bestseller, a cheesy review, or overtly-biased journal entry.  But finally, I think I’m prepared. The emotional dust has settled and has “recollected in tranquility.” I love the novel, yes, and I still would advise all my friends and colleagues to purchase the book, forget everything else, and immerse in the sweet and melancholic tragedy of the narrative, but I think I’m at the point that it no longer disarms me. Well, at least not completely.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, written by Jonathan Safran Foer, who authored the tremendously funny Everything is Illuminated, and is currently part of The New Yorker’s 20 under 40 list, tells the story of the nine-year old Oskar Schell, and the journey he pursues in search of the companion lock of the key which belonged to his father, who was one of the unfortunate victims of the attack on the World Trade Center in September of 2001. Armed with a drum (an allusion, perhaps, to another famous Oskar in literature, the evil and immoral Oskar Matzerath from Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum), to remind himself of who he is no matter where he goes, the key, his scrapbook which he affectionately entitled, Stuff that Happened to Me, and later on, by an aging one-hundred-and-three year old man, Oskar searches through the five boroughs of New York City, visiting all the “Blacks,” in the hopes of figuring out the meaning behind the mysterious remnant his father left behind.

The narrative follows the tradition in fiction which the likes of Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott and Mark Twain has been a part of, that of the novel which focuses on the experience of childhood and pre-adolescence, on the formative moments and instances which would eventually come to play in one’s future, narrated from the point-of-view of a child protagonist. Of course, there had been novels which dedicate an entire section or two to the early years of its protagonist, but rarely do we see a novel which really dedicates its entirety to the point-of-view of a child in the attempt to capture and shed light on that most wonderful and magical experience. And Oskar, dearest Oskar, is no ordinary, run-on-the-mill child. He is infinitely interesting and intriguing. He is precocious, curious, inventive and witty, ready to apply his knowledge and what little wisdom he has gained from the short time spent on his world in the things he encounters. He is Holden Caulfield, Tom Sawyer. Huckleberry Finn, Jo March, Oliver Twist and the poet Jaromil rolled up into one complex character. He thinks of teakettles that could boil water and “whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare, or just crack up” and of little microphones that could, according to him, “play the sounds of our hearts through little speakers.” He loves entomology; he uses French phrases in everyday conversations and writes letters to famous celebrities and renowned thinkers, like Stephen Hawking. He plays the “world’s smallest violin,” he is an emotional wreck, he wallows in self-pity, he fools himself to think that he is courageous and has an unbreakable will, he is unable to wrap his head around the concept of a God, or religion for that matter, truly like a child, truly like you and me when were at that age, and Foer renders the character so clearly and so effectively that, as a reader, I cannot help but accompany him in his sorrows and frustrations, feel jubilation for his accomplishments and victories, and share his perseverance for his plight that will inevitably lead to failure and disappointment.

Like any good novel, Oskar becomes the driving force and gives the narrative its remarkable appeal. His story is our story. His story is the attempt to rationalize and comprehend the nature of death and why evil exists. His story is the attempt to pursue the fulfillment of our shallowest and deepest of hopes. His story inquires on “why bad things happen to good people and why good things happen to bad ones” that we cannot help but ask even as adults. Certainly and admittedly, sometimes it feels like he’s too sentimental, he’s too smart, or he’s basically “Jonathan Safran Foer in the body of a nine-year-old boy,” like what Anish Shivani said when he accused Foer of being one of the most overrated writers writing in America in a very recent article he wrote for the The Huffington Post. And once in a while, the very character itself feels a tad bit contrived, like what Michiko Kakutani (who Shivani said was to be one of the most overrated critics in America today) said in his review of the novel in The New York Times. But despite all of that, there is no denying that Oskar Schell is the realization and summation of all our desires and frustrations, our “all that we have been and was” when we were children. This is one of the strengths of this novel, one of the reasons that make it ultimately effective, effortlessly beautiful and moving.

*Next, after a few days, or a week from now, the dialectics of adulthood and decay as seen from Oskar’s Grandparents.

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