I’ve cried plenty of times at movies, songs, and even TV shows. They’re able to reach that level where the emotions are high enough quickly and effectively through the combination of sound and (in the case of movies and TV) pictures. It almost seems like cheating. A book has never made me cry though a few have come close, including Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World and Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. But for whatever reason they never quite reached that point to turn words into tears. It’s probably not their fault, I don’t blame them any. It has as much to do with my investment as it does with the quality of the writing. There’s just something about the way books work which makes it harder for me to get attached enough to shed a tear. All of this was true until I read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a book about a young boy dealing with his father’s death on 9/11 and looking for a lock to match a key. There was not one but two moments in the book that made me cry in addition to the countless others where I laughed and exclaimed in shock. What I’m saying is that this books is not only extremely well written and incredibly emotional but that those two combine to vault it into my short list of the best books I’ve ever read.
Before September 11th, 2001, Oskar Schell’s life seemed to be pretty great. A loving mom and dad and grandma and an active imagination would provide him with a pretty idyllic childhood had his father not died on that horrible day. But after that day he withdraws into himself and invents gadgets like a microphone that projects everybody’s heartbeats so that they would eventually sync with each other and everybody could be together in that way. He is, understandably, devastated. Then he finds a key hidden in an envelope with the word “Black” written on it. He goes on a quest through the five (or is it six?) boroughs of New York City to find the lock that the key will unlock and maybe put an end to his grief about his father’s untimely and unexpected death. Sprinkled throughout his story we get the story of his grandfather and grandmother (his dad’s parents) and why they could never quite work out how to live with each other. This part, told through their autobiographies and diaries, contains the first moment that made me cry. When the grandfather leaves his wife after she told him she was pregnant he brings her two hands closer and closer and closer to each other until there was but a “dictionary page’s width” between them. This wordless (he lost his ability – or will – to speak after the emotional trauma of the Dresden firebombings so vividly captured here and in Slaughterhouse-5) expression of a love that almost was but could never be is so well conceived that I had to stop reading for the night and wipe away some tears. The second moment comes when Oskar reaches the end of his quest. It’s oddly anticlimactic in a plot sense but the way that scene incorporates the father-son theme that runs throughout the book is what earns the waterworks.
There are also a few moments where Oskar believes certain happenings to be about one thing which are later revealed to be about something else entirely that are both shocking and enlightening. Much like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, there’s a sense of the age-old idea that “all of this has happened before and will happen again.” There are echoes and reverberations throughout the novel, even in some of the photographic imagery that is incorporated (mostly as a part of Oskar’s book of Things That Happened To Me) the lock and key being of great importance along with the power of books, writing, and words along with the difficulty of using them to communicate. At one point the type runs together for pages because Oskar’s grandfather runs out of paper to write on but must continue to write. It’s a powerful image that is more than just gimmickry that some have called it out for. In fact, this book has received some not-insignificant amount of criticism. This piece encompasses most of the criticisms the book has endured, including the lack of originality and the precious nature of the characters/story/style. And the thing is that I can’t really argue against that article because it’s mostly right. The style is different from the normal novel. The characters are more like fairy tale characters dealing with real issues than fully real people. And it’s not really original. Nobody will deny that it is just taking things that worked from others and incorporating them into this story. What I will deny is that all of these things are bad. All too often we require our art to be developed in a void where nothing else can possibly influence the artist. Does it really matter if this story was told by somebody else about some other happening and in some other way? Not if this one works. Please do identify sources but don’t become beholden to them. Steal as long as you do something with your stolen goods. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close does plenty with its pieces, whether they were stolen or sprung fully formed from Foer’s head. That’s all that matters.