Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer


Rating: (Recommended)




Click on title or picture to buy from amazon.com








Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is Jonathan Safran Foer’s creative contribution to the growing collection of art that has responded to the tragic events of 9/11. The protagonist of this well-written novel is nine-year-old Oskar Schell, whose father died at the World Trade Center. Oskar finds a key that his father left behind, and through the book he tries to find the lock the key will open. Along the way, we learn the story of Oskar’s grandparents, whose lives were changed by the firebombing of Dresden. The pages of Extremely Loud lead readers through the grief process, and the search for meaning in life following tragedy.


Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of the chapter titled, “Googolplex,” pp. 35-42:


As for the bracelet Mom wore to the funeral, what I did was I con­verted Dad’s last voice message into Morse code, and I used sky-blue beads for silence, maroon beads for breaks between letters, violet beads for breaks between words, and long and short pieces of string between the beads for long and short beeps, which are actually called blips, I think, or something. Dad would have known. It took me nine hours to make, and I had thought about giving it to Sonny, the home­less person who I sometimes see standing outside the Alliance Française, because he puts me in heavy boots, or maybe to Lindy, the neat old woman who volunteers to give tours at the Museum of Nat­ural History, so I could be something special to her, or even just to someone in a wheelchair. But instead I gave it to Mom. She said it was the best gift she’d ever received. I asked her if it was better than the Edible Tsunami, from when I was interested in edible meteorological events. She said, “Different.” I asked her if she was in love with Ron. She said, “Ron is a great person,” which was an answer to a question I didn’t ask. So I asked again. “True or false: you are in love with Ron.” She put her hand with the ring on it in her hair and said, “Oskar, Ron is my friend.” I was going to ask her if she was humping her friend, and if she had said yes, I would have run away, and if she had said no, I would have asked if they heavy-petted each other, which I know about. I wanted to tell her she shouldn’t be playing Scrabble yet. Or looking in the mirror. Or turning the stereo any louder than what you needed just to hear it. It wasn’t fair to Dad, and it wasn’t fair to me. But I buried it all inside me. I made her other Morse code jewelry with Dad’s messages a necklace, an anklet, some dangly earrings, a tiara but the bracelet was definitely the most beautiful, probably because it was the last, which made it the most precious. “Mom?” “Yes?” “Nothing.”

Even after a year, I still had an extremely difficult time doing cer­tain things, like taking showers, for some reason, and getting into ele­vators, obviously. There was a lot of stuff that made me panicky, like suspension bridges, germs, airplanes, fireworks, Arab people on the subway (even though I’m not racist), Arab people in restaurants and coffee shops and other public places, scaffolding, sewers and subway grates, bags without owners, shoes, people with mustaches, smoke, knots, tall buildings, turbans. A lot of the time I’d get that feeling like I was in the middle of a huge black ocean, or in deep space, but not in the fascinating way. It’s just that everything was incredibly far away from me. It was worst at night. I started inventing things, and then I couldn’t stop, like beavers, which I know about. People think they cut down trees so they can build dams, but in reality it’s because their teeth never stop growing, and if they didn’t constantly file them down by cutting through all of those trees, their teeth would start to grow into their own faces, which would kill them. That’s how my brain was.

One night, after what felt like a googolplex inventions, I went to Dad’s closet. We used to Greco-Roman wrestle on the floor in there, and tell hilarious jokes, and once we hung a pendulum from the ceiling and put a circle of dominoes on the floor to prove that the earth ro­tated. But I hadn’t gone back in since he died. Mom was with Ron in the living room, listening to music too loud and playing board games. She wasn’t missing Dad. I held the doorknob for a while before I turned it.

Even though Dad’s coffin was empty, his closet was full. And even after more than a year, it still smelled like shaving. I touched all of his white T-shirts. I touched his fancy watch that he never wore and the extra laces for his sneakers that would never run around the reservoir again. I put my hands into the pockets of all of his jackets (I found a re­ceipt for a cab, a wrapper from a miniature Kraclde, and the business card of a diamond supplier). I put my feet into his slippers. I looked at myself in his metal shoehorn. The average person falls asleep in seven minutes, but I couldn’t sleep, not after hours, and it made my boots lighter to be around his things, and to touch stuff that he had touched, and to make the hangers hang a little straighter, even though I knew it didn’t matter.

His tuxedo was over the chair he used to sit on when he tied his shoes, and I thought, Weird. Why wasn’t it hung up with his suits? Had he come from a fancy party the night before he died? But then why would he have taken off his tuxedo without hanging it up? Maybe it needed to be cleaned? But I didn’t remember a fancy party. I remembered him tucking me in, and us listening to a person speaking Greek on the shortwave radio, and him telling me a story about New York’s sixth borough. If I hadn’t noticed anything else weird, I wouldn’t have thought about the tuxedo again. But I started noticing a lot.

There was a pretty blue vase on the highest shelf. What was a pretty blue vase doing way up there? I couldn’t reach it, obviously, so I moved over the chair with the tuxedo still on it, and then I went to my room to get the Collected Shakespeare set that Grandma bought for me when she found out that I was going to be Yorick, and I brought those over, four tragedies at a time, until I had a stack that was tall enough. I stood on all of that and it worked for a second. But then I had the tips of my fingers on the vase, and the tragedies started to wobble, and the tuxedo was incredibly distracting, and the next thing was that every­thing was on the floor, including me, and including the vase, which had shattered. “I didn’t do it!” I hollered, but they didn’t even hear me, be­cause they were playing music too loud and cracking up too much. I zipped myself all the way into the sleeping bag of myself, not because I was hurt, and not because I had broken something, but because they were cracking up. Even though I knew I shouldn’t, I gave myself a bruise.

I started to clean everything up, and that was when I noticed something else weird. In the middle of all of that glass was a little envelope, about the size of a wireless Internet card. What the? I opened it up, and inside there was a key. What the, what the? It was a weird­-looking key, obviously to something extremely important, because it was fatter and shorter than a normal key. I couldn’t explain it: a fat and short key, in a little envelope, in a blue vase, on the highest shelf in his closet.

The first thing I did was the logical thing, which was to be very Secretive and try the key in all of the locks in the apartment. Even without trying I knew it wasn’t for the front door, because it didn’t match up with the key that I wear on a string around my neck to let myself in when nobody’s home. I tiptoed so I wouldn’t be noticed, and I tried the key in the door to the bathroom, and the different bedroom doors, and the drawers in Mom’s dresser. I tried it in the desk in the kitchen where Dad used to pay the bills, and in the closet next to the linen closet where I sometimes hid when we played hide and seek, and in Mom’s jewelry box. But it wasn’t for any of them.

In bed that night I invented a special drain that would be under­neath every pillow in New York, and would connect to the reservoir. Whenever people cried themselves to sleep, the tears would all go to the same place, and in the morning the weatherman could report if the water level of the Reservoir of Tears had gone up or down, and you could know if New York was in heavy boots. And when something really terrible happened—like a nuclear bomb, or at least a biological weapons attack— an extremely loud siren would go off, telling every­one to get to Central Park to put sandbags around the reservoir.


The next morning I told Mom that I couldn’t go to school, because I was too sick. It was the first lie that I had to tell. She put her hand on my forehead and said, “You do feel a bit hot.” I said, “I took my temper­ature and it’s one hundred point seven degrees.” That was the second lie. She turned around and asked me to zip up the back of her dress, which she could have done herself, but she knew that I loved to do it. She said, “I’ll be in and out of meetings all day, but Grandma can come by if you need anything, and I’ll call to check on you every hour.” I told her, “If I don’t answer, I’m probably sleeping or going to the bath­room.” She said, “Answer.”

Once she left for work, I put on my clothes and went downstairs. Stan was sweeping up in front of the building. I tried to get past him without him noticing, but he noticed. “You don’t look sick,” he said, brushing a bunch of leaves into the street. I told him, “I feel sick.” He asked, “Where’s Mr. Feeling Sick going?” I told him, “To the drugstore on Eighty-fourth to get some cough drops.” Lie #3. Where I actually went was the locksmith’s store, which is Frazer and Sons, on Seventy-ninth.

“Need some more copies?” Walt asked. I gave him a high-five, and I showed him the key that I had found, and asked him what he could tell me about it. “It’s for some kind of lockbox,” he said, holding it up to his face and looking at it over his glasses. “A safe, I’m guessing. You can tell it’s for a lockbox by its build.” He showed me a rack that had a ton of keys on it. “See, it’s not like any of these. It’s much thicker. Harder to break.” I touched all the keys that I could reach, and that made me feel OK, for some reason. “But it’s not for a fixed safe, I don’t think. Noth­ing too big. Maybe something portable. Could be a safe-deposit box, actually. An old one. Or some kind of fire-retardant cabinet.” That made me crack up a little, even though I know there’s nothing funny about being a mental retard. “It’s an old key,” he said. “Could be twenty, thirty years old.” “How can you tell?” “Keys are what I know.” “You’re cool.” “And not many lockboxes use keys anymore.” “They don’t?” “Well, hardly anyone uses keys anymore.” “I use keys,” I told him, and I showed him my apartment key. “I know you do,” he said. “But people like you are a dying breed. It’s all electronic these days. Key­pads. Thumbprint recognition.” “That’s so awesome.” “I like keys.” I thought for a minute, and then I got heavy, heavy boots. “Well, if peo­ple like me are a dying breed, then what’s going to happen to your busi­ness?” “We’ll become specialized,” he said, “like a typewriter shop. We’re useful now, but soon we’ll be interesting.” “Maybe you need a new business.” “I like this business.”

I said, “I have a question that I was just wondering.” He said, “Shoot.” “Shoot?” “Shoot. Go ahead. Ask.” “Are you Frazer, or are you Son?” “I’m Grandson, actually. My grandfather started the shop.” “Cool.” “But I suppose I’m also Son, since my dad ran things when he was alive. I guess I’m Frazer, too, since my son works here during the summers.”

I said, “I have another question.” “Shoot.” “Do you think I could find the company that made this key?” “Anyone could’ve made it.” “Well then, what I want to know is how can I find the lock that it opens?” “I’m afraid I can’t help you with that, any more than telling you to try it in every lock you come across. I could always make you a copy, if you’d like.” “I could have a googolplex keys.” “Googolplex?” “A googol to the googol power.” “Googol?” “That’s a one with one hun­dred zeroes after it.” He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You need the lock.” I reached up real high and put my hand on his shoulder and said, “Yeah.”

As I was leaving he asked, “Shouldn’t you be in school?” I thought fast and told him, “It’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.” Lie #4. “I thought that was in January.” “It used to be.” Lie #5.

When I got back to the apartment, Stan said, “You’ve got mail!”


Dear Osk,

Hello, lad! Thanks for your glorious letter and the bulletproof drumsticks, which I hope I’ll never have to use! I have to confess, I’ve never thought too much about giving lessons...

I hope you like the enclosed T-shirt, which I

took the liberty of signing for you.

Your mate,



I didn’t like the enclosed T-shirt. I loved it! Although unfortunately it wasn’t white, so I couldn’t wear it.

I laminated Ringo’s letter and tacked it to my wall. Then I did some research on the Internet about the locks of New York, and I found out a lot of useful information. For example, there are 319 post offices and 207,352 post office boxes. Each box has a lock, obviously. I also found out that there are about 70,571 hotel rooms, and most rooms have a main lock, a bathroom lock, a closet lock, and a lock to the mini-bar. I didn’t know what a mini-bar was, so I called the Plaza Hotel, which I knew was a famous one, and asked. Then I knew what a mini-bar was. There are more than 300,000 cars in New York, which doesn’t even count the 12,187 cabs and 4,425 buses. Also, I remembered from when I used to take the subway that the conductors used keys to open and close the doors, so there were those, too. More than 9 million peo­ple live in New York (a baby is born in New York every 50 seconds), and everyone has to live somewhere, and most apartments have two locks on the front, and to at least some of the bathrooms, and maybe to some other rooms, and obviously to dressers and jewelry boxes. Also there are offices, and art studios, and storage facilities, and banks with safe-deposit boxes, and gates to yards, and parking lots. I figured that if you included everything— from bicycle locks to roof latches to places for cufflinks there are probably about 18 locks for every person in New York City, which would mean about 162 million locks, which is a crevasse-load of locks.

“Schell residence . . . Hi, Mom . . . A little bit, I guess, but still pretty sick. . . No. . . Uh-huh. . . Uh-huh. . . I guess. . . I think I’ll order Indian. . . But still. . . OK. Uh-huh. I will. . . I know.. . I know... Bye.”

I timed myself and it took me 3 seconds to open a lock. Then I figured out that if a baby is born in New York every 50 seconds, and each person has 18 locks, a new lock is created in New York every 2.777 seconds. So even if all I did was open locks, I’d still be falling behind by .333 locks every second. And that’s if I didn’t have to travel from one lock to the next, and if I didn’t eat, and didn’t sleep, which is an OK if~ because I didn’t actually sleep, anyway. I needed a better plan.

That night, I put on my white gloves, went to the garbage can in Dad’s closet, and opened the bag that I’d thrown all of the pieces of the vase into. I was looking for clues that might lead me in a direction. I had to be extremely careful so that I wouldn’t contaminate the evi­dence, or let Mom know what I was doing, or cut and infect myself, and I found the envelope that the key was in. It was then that I noticed something that a good detective would have noticed at the very begin­ning: the word “Black” was written on the back of the envelope. I was so mad at myself for not noticing it before that I gave myself a little bruise. Dad’s handwriting was weird. It looked sloppy, like he was writ­ing in a hurry, or writing down the word while he was on the phone, or just thinking about something else. So what would he have been think­ing about?

I Googled around and found out that Black wasn’t the name of a company that made lockboxes. I got a little disappointed, because it would have been a logical explanation, which is always the best kind, al­though fortunately it isn’t the only kind. Then I found out that there was a place called Black in every state in the country, and actually in al­most every country in the world. In France, for example, there is a place called Noir. So that wasn’t very helpful. I did a few other searches, even though I knew they would only hurt me, because I couldn’t help it. I printed out some of the pictures I found a shark attacking a girl, someone walking on a tightrope between the Twin Towers, that actress getting a blowjob from her normal boyfriend, a soldier getting his head cut off in Iraq, the place on the wall where a famous stolen painting used to hang—and I put them in Stuff That Happened to Me, my scrap­book of everything that happened to me.


Foer’s talent continues to grow, and Extremely Loud presents his writing skills in even more creative ways than readers normally see. The photo flip-book section was disturbing and appropriate. Oskar’s grief matches our own, and at time the emotional tightness readers may feel while reading Extremely Loud parallels whatever grief we feel in our own lives.  


Steve Hopkins, April 23, 2005



Buy Extremely Loud @ amazon.com

Go To Hopkins & Company Homepage



Go to 2005 Book Shelf

Go to Executive Times Archives







ã 2005 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the May 2005 issue of Executive Times


URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/Extremely Loud.htm


For Reprint Permission, Contact:

Hopkins & Company, LLC • 723 North Kenilworth AvenueOak Park, IL 60302
Phone: 708-466-4650 • Fax: 708-386-8687

E-mail: books@hopkinsandcompany.com