“A great game that Dad and I would sometimes play on Sundays was Reconnaissance Expedition. …For the last one we ever did, which never finished, he gave me a map of Central Park. I said, ‘And?’ And he said, ‘And what?’ I said, ‘Where are the clues?’ He said, ‘Who said there had to be clues?’ ‘There are always clues.’ ‘That doesn’t, in itself, suggest anything.’ ‘Not a single clue?’ He said, ‘Unless no clue is a clue.’ ‘Is no clues a clue?’ He shrugged his shoulders, like he had no idea what I was talking about. I loved that.”
Months after nine-year-old Oskar Schell’s father dies in the World Trade Center attack, Oskar finds a vase on a shelf in his father’s closet. Inside the vase is an envelope with “Black” written on it, and inside the envelope is a key. Oskar decides that he has to go on this last mission of his father’s and find the lock that the key fits. He does this by attempting to visit every single person in New York City with the last name Black and asking them if they knew his father. There are other mysteries in play, too – some for Oskar, and some for the reader: who wrote “Thomas Schell” all over an art supply store a full year after Oskar’s father died? What is the identity of the mysterious “renter” who lives with Oskar’s grandmother and is never seen? And, most important to the reader, what was recorded on the five phone messages that Oskar’s dad sent as the towers were being attacked?
The mysteries are compelling, and serve as a distraction (both for Oskar and the reader) from the crushing, overwhelming sadness and grief that surrounds this story which is, at its core, the story of a family coping with the unexpected death of a loved one.
I don’t care if I was suckered in by this emotional story; it worked, dammit. Everything was beautiful and exciting and tense and so, so, incredibly sad that I wanted to stop reading at times. I loved the mysteries, too (although the main mystery is dragged out thanks to a circumstance that’s so unlikely and only serves to draw out the story that I can’t condone it), and I’m happy to report that yes, Safran Foer does us all a solid and lets his child protagonist actually solve the mystery he sets out the solve at the beginning of the story, unlike some authors I could name. (I’m looking at you, Donna Tartt. You know what you did.)
The book was, all in all, powerful and gripping, and now I have to take time to speak directly to the author.
Dear Mr. Safran Foer,
First, you are awesome. You write wonderfully, and judging by this book’s jacket photo are much cuter than a brilliant author has any right to be. I want you to keep coming out with wonderful books like this, and I have only two requests.
1) Find a new story to tell. Let’s try a game: I’m going to summarize one of your books, and you have to guess which one.
A son goes on a long odyssey to a strange place to discover the truth about his grandfather. He has almost nothing to go on, but accompanied by unlikely guides he manages to find the truth by interviewing various strangers who are altogether much more open to a perfect stranger than they probably should be. The story is narrated partially by someone with a very funny way of speaking, and partially by someone reflecting on the past. The flashbacks, told in non-linear style, describe the romance between two people that was disrupted by a tragedy caused by World War Two. Books and words have great importance in the flashbacks, and there’s a character with unusual methods of record-keeping.
Did you guess? I was describing Everything Is Illuminated. You can tell because in that one, the son is looking for the truth about his grandfather. In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the son finds out the truth about his grandfather and his father.
Your writing is good. It’s really, really good. I’d just like to read about something different now.
2) I’m going to say this as clearly as possible: for the love of God, start. A new. Paragraph. Every. Time. A New. Character. Speaks.
I read fast, and I have enough trouble following which character is speaking when the author uses paragraph breaks and doesn’t identify who’s speaking. When you put all the dialogue in one long paragraph it all blends together and pretty soon I have no idea who is saying what and it makes things difficult. I get that you are making a stylistic choice, but when it interferes with the telling of your story, enough is enough. For fuck’s sake.
Verdict: five out of five stars