We are never ready for the weight of it all

We lose more than we gain and these losses always resonate. They have very sharp edges and far-reaching sounds. They are both unique to every person, and universal to all. The impact of never having them again is just something we could never quantify. The world we live in is populated with the ghosts of those we loved--those who were claimed by the dark, and continue to haunt us long after they perished. A loss can hurt a person too deep that there is no way to swim back to the surface, even more so when the option of sinking is so tempting. A loss can ignite us with a purpose too. When love is forfeit and must be restored again, others would seek out answers to questions that could never offer closure. The search for that ultimate puzzle piece, the despair in trying to move forward, the grating incomprehension of sorrow and guilt--the weight of it all is far too great, too intangible, too heavy to ever carry ahead, let alone fully understand. But we have to try anyway.

"Our situation is this. We are standing in front of a closed box which we cannot open." ~Albert Einstein

Tragedies force us to examine the state of our relationships and perspective about the things we can't see or define, and when they occur so suddenly as they often do, it curses us with the opportunity to change, the burden of insight. We learn to die far more often we can count, but we also get to live again--either reborn as stronger people, or become mere empty shells. Author Jonathan Safran Foer attempts to capture the overwhelming mystery of what loss (as well as guilt) can do to us, as well as the shocking simplicity of the things between them. In his 9-11 tragedy-inspired novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Foer shaped a fascinating story told in the eyes of a nine-year-old Jewish boy named Oskar Schell who is coping with the death of his father, Thomas, after the terrorist attacks. Smart, inquisitive but still very young and so naive of the ways of adults, Oskar embarks on a journey to preserve the memory of his father by reading too much into clues and making up theories along the way concerning the last few things his father had done before he was killed during 9-11.

He retraces the steps of his father's habits, and explores the places he had been weeks before until he became obsessed with visiting every person in the six boroughs of his neighborhood with the surname 'Black', believing he or she may be the last person his father talked to before he went to work and died. His most prized object was the key his father left behind, wishing it will lead to some secret or revelation, regardless of whatever it is. Oskar is not the only POV narrator of this novel, however. Between his journal entries faithfully cataloging every minuscule detail of his adventures are the letters shared by his paternal grandparents. The grandmother writes to Oskar, retelling the story of how she met and fell in love with her husband who left before Oskar's father was even born. The grandfather, Thomas Sr., on the other hand, writes to his late son whom he had never met, but now he was willing to connect with his estranged wife in the wake of their son's unexpected demise in 9-11. Their respective entries serve as breaks from Oskar's own, but they have to be the saddest pieces of writing I have ever read from two people who struggle to make a life together but couldn't figure out why it was worth having one together in the first place.

The climactic meeting between Thomas Sr. and Oskar at the very last hundred pages or so of the book was a quiet moment filled with both meaningful and pointless conversation. It was also when Oskar finally confesses as to why he couldn't stop missing his father, and why he had been trying to solve a mystery he may have pinned all his hopes to, mostly because it was the only thing left of his father he can hold onto. What he had always wanted in the end was forgiveness. As perceptive and brave as Oskar was during the coping process, he remains a child of nine years; selfish, narrow-minded, innocent and optimistic. He's far too young to face such a harrowing existential crisis, but that inner conflict is what drives the spectacular quality of this novel.

I think Foer's narrative style and stylistic language overall have an impressive breadth; the descriptions are so uninhibited and very detailed, yet also quirky and sporadic that the incoherent ramblings of each of its three major narrators can be very poetic and poignant, if not altogether exhausting to peruse. I can liken Oskar to Christopher John Francis Boone from Mark Haddon's A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime because I think Oskar may also have a developmental disorder and may even be in the autism spectrum. He sure is a strange child with a sense of wonderment yet also well-acquainted with cynical and disheartening views about how the world works and the agonizing paradoxes of death and living. His grandparents are probably the saddest people I have ever encountered in fiction. Oskar's detailed accounts remind me of Captain Ahab's in Moby Dick where nothing is held back. This also means that Foer's writing has a tendency to drone, often at the consequence of the story's natural flow itself. Much like Moby Dick, this expansive writing style that is borderline anal retentive is an acquired taste and so I don't recommend this book for easy and casual reading. I admit that even I was getting irritated if not entirely bored in some passages.

Despite that, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was a fulfilling and daring chronicle about grief and loss, death and metamorphosis, told in the conflicting yet enriched perspectives between a child who lost a parent and an old married couple who lost their son. The 9-11 inspiration was done just right without giving itself to some condescending melodrama, and Foer was actually able to create a vivid landscape of feelings whenever he can say a lot more with the most economical words as long as they can deeply speak to the heart. The trouble with the writing which I remain critical of simply lies in its indulgent tendency to become garrulous, filling the pages with too much information that interrupts the flow of an otherwise consuming and unique narrative. 

In a nutshell, I really liked this book for its effort to convey how a young mind tries to process having a loved one die in an event of national importance, and how that can potentially mess him up. I really thought Foer had the ability to distill the essence of such pain and wanton longing, particularly when I read the passages shared by the grandparents because those parts of the book really made me feel as if contents of my own soul are laid bare before me, and I fear what is being reflected back in its muddled surface. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is an elegant tale that for me struggles and somewhat succeeds in offering half of the answer for The Beatles' song about where all the lonely people come from, and the wondrous, possible places that they travel to once they decided there is no reason to stay stuck in a place that only makes them feel less whole.



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