“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” is a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer that was published in 2005. The novel revolves around the nine year-old protagonist, Oskar Schell who lost his father in the when the World Trade Center was attacked on September 11th. Oskar is now suffering from severe PTSD about leaving the house and struggling with the knowledge that he did not pick up his father’s last phone call because he was too scared. Oskar breaks a vase in his father’s closet and discovers a strange key in an envelope with the word “Black” written on it.
Oskar goes all over New York City talking to people with the last name Black in order to find who the key belongs to and see if they knew his father. Eventually, he finds a man named William Black who sold his father the vase and accidentally left the key inside. Oskar is disappointed that William did not know his father.
Meanwhile, in a series of letters, it is revealed that Oskar’s grandfather left his Grandmother when he found out that she was pregnant. He returned the day that Oskar’s father died. Grandpa had written countless letters to his son but never sent them. Oskar decides to dig up his father’s empty casket, and he and his Grandfather bury the letters together.
The book was praised for its portrayal of trauma and the World Trade Center attacks and its use of visual writing and pictures. It .” into a move in 2012 starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock.
The narrator, a boy named Oskar, opens the book by listing a bunch of different inventions that he has come up with. Among them is a teakettle that whistles real songs, microphones that broadcast heartbeats and a shirt made out of birdseed. He begins talking about his first time in a limousine on the way to his father’s funeral. Oskar says that they weren’t burying him.
The next time he was in a limo was the day he and and someone else that he calls “The renter” were going to dig up his father’s empty coffin. He talks about a scavenger hunt that his father sent him on through Central Park once and that he’s not sure why he was sent on the hunt. The more he found, the less he felt like he understood. He mentions “The Worst Day” and all of the letters that he sent to famous people afterward, including Stephen Hawking who replied with another letter. The last time he heard his father’s voice was on the answering machine.
The next chapter begins with a letter from 1963 that is addressed to “My Unborn Child.” The writer of the letter says that they lost their power of speech word by word. The first word that disappeared was “Anna, ” and not long later, the only thing they could say was “I.” In order to communicate, the writer had the words YES and NO tattooed on his palms, and he carried a notebook with him. By the end of any day, he’d run out of pages. He kept the notebooks all over his apartment.
He starts to talk about when he met his child’s mother. She was sitting next to him at a bakery and started talking to him. He writes to her in his notebook that he cannot speak and she writes back “Please marry me.” He tries to say no, but she pressures him. He now wonders how he lost her.
In the next chapter, the narration goes back to Oskar. Oskar has been having trouble doing things like getting in elevators, taking showers and crossing bridges since his father’s death. He also finds is difficult to be around Middle Eastern people. Recently, his mother has been seeing a new man named Ron and Oskar does not like him. One night he breaks a vase while he trying to find something in his father’s closet and his mother doesn’t hear him. He gets so angry that he gives himself a bruise which is what he has been doing to deal with his anger since his father’s death.
Inside the vase, he finds an envelope with a key inside. Oskar tries to find what the key goes to but come up empty. The next day he goes to the locksmiths to ask about the key. The locksmith tells him that he’s not sure what the key is for. Oskar wants to find out where the key goes. He finds the envelope again and realizes that it says the word “Black” on it. Oskar searches for people in New York with the last name Black and finds that there are 472 people. Oskar decides to spend his weekends searching for the Black that his father was talking about.
That night, Oskar listens to the phone message that his father left because he cannot sleep. Oskar’s grandmother has a new renter who he’s been told not to ask questions about. He wonders why the man is out running errands in the middle of the night. Oskar puts the key on a string around his neck.
The next chapter contains another letter. This one is addressed to Oskar and is dated September 12th 2003. An old woman is the author of the letter and she talks about her childhood. After moving to America as an adult, she bumped into man that used to date her sister, Anna. This is the man who wrote the last letter who cannot speak. The story that she tells is a little different than the man’s. She does not mention that she asked him to marry her, but that he asked if he could sculpt her. He begins working on the sculpture using her as a model but she thinks that it looks more like her sister, Anna. Later, they go back to the bakery and this is when she says that she proposed to him. They first agree that they do not want children.
Back to Oskar’s narration. He decides to meet all of the Blacks alphabetically. Because he is afraid of public transportation, he has to do this on foot. He makes it to A. Black’s apartment and asks the man if he knows his father, Thomas Schell. The man says that he doesn’t. At the next house, Oskar speaks with Abby Black but learning from his last experience, he tells her that he is diabetic and needs something to eat. She lets him in and tells him that she doesn’t know his father. Abby seems very sad and her husband is yelling at her but she ignores him.
Before Oskar leaves, he takes her picture and gives her a card. Oskar goes back to his grandmother’s apartment. He sees that she has been crying and she says she’s been talking to the renter.
The following chapter is another letter from Oskar’s grandfather. It is dated the same date as the letter in Chapter 2. Oskar’s grandfather complains about his marriage and says that he is leaving his wife. He says that he writing this in airport and thinking about Anna and his past in Dresden, Germany. He met Anna because their father’s were friends. After they met. Grandpa walked to her house every day in the hopes that he would see her again. However, she was never home because she had been walking to his house to see him every day. He says that Grandma has been writing her life story, but since she cannot see very well, she didn’t realize that the typewriter ran out of ink a while ago. He can’t bear to tell her.
Grandpa remembers the first time he and Anna made love and nearby her father and his friend were talking about the oncoming war. He writes that he is sorry for leaving Grandma and his unborn child and that he will never be the babies father because he “can’t live”. He intends to rip the pages out and put them in an envelope and then never write again. But a few more pages from his notebook are in the book with a few sentences each.
Oskar stars in a production of Hamlet in which he plays Yorick. A lot of the Blacks that he met attend the show. Next, he goes to Coney Island to meet Abe Black who convinces him to ride a roller coaster even though he is scared. Abe goes with him to the next Black, Ada who is wealthy. Ada’s scolds Oskar for talking to her maid and then tells him that she doesn’t recognize the key.
The next Black lives in Oskar’s building. Mr. Black is a hundred-year-old man who has not left the house in over twenty years. That night, Oskar and his mother get into an argument and he shouts that he wishes that it was her that died instead of his dad. Oskar falls asleep on the floor and wakes to his mother putting him to bed.
Grandma writes from the airport and says that they aren’t going anywhere soon. She says that she misses Oskar already and begins talking about her marriage again. She taught herself English by buying magazines. She says that she only pretended to type her life story by hitting the space bar because her life was full of spaces. She broke their first rule and decided that she wanted a child and that was when her husband left her.
The next day, Oskar picks up Mr. Black and takes a subway to the Bronx, even though it is scary for him to take public transport. Oskar learns that the next Black on the list, Agnes was a waitress in the World Trade Center. He wonders if she might have served his dad on the morning that he died. Oskar meets a few more Blacks but has no luck finding the lock. On Tuesday, Oskar sees his therapist, Dr. Fein. Apparently Dr. Fein is wants to hospitalize Oskar because he’s worried about him hurting himself. Oskar’s mother refuses.
In another letter, Grandpa explains that the night bombs fell on Dresden, Anna told him she was pregnant and that was the last time he saw her. He describes the bombing, saying that he had to kill escaped zoo animals. He looked for Anna and his parents, but couldn’t find them. He ends the letter by saying that he knows he won’t be able to send it no matter how hard he tries.
The next chapter is a retelling of a made up story that Oskar’s father once told him about New York’s “sixth borough”. He says that the city used to have a sixth borough but it floated away one day and now it is somewhere near Antarctica. However, the residents of Manhattan attached strings to Central Park and pulled it back into the city. So now the sixth borough has a hole in it where the park used to be.
Grandma writes a letter about where she was when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center. First she sees it on the news. Oskar’s mother than calls her to see if she’s heard from Thomas. Grandma checks on Oskar and finds him hiding under his bed. Thomas is missing for a short while. Oskar’s mother hangs posters of him around the neighborhood. Grandma says that they had a funeral to bury Thomas’s empty coffin and that night she opened the door to find that her husband had come home.
Six months go by while Oskar searches for the right Black. Mr. Black stops helping Oskar because the search is becoming too taxing. Oskar goes to visit Grandma but she is not there. He snoops through her room and finds a drawer filled with empty envelopes that say things like “My unborn child” and “My child”.
The renter is home. Oskar finally meets him and he is an odd old man who doesn’t speak. Oskar tells the man the story of trying to find the Black from the envelope. One woman, Ruth Black lived in a storage room in the Empire State Building. Oskar is scared to go into the building but he manages to do it. He enjoyed speaking to her, but she still wasn’t the right person. Oskar impulsively decides to show the renter the phone messages that his father left before he died. He says that he wants to know how his dad really died so he can stop coming up with worse and worse scenarios. He has found a video online of a man falling from the tower and he even wonders if that was his father.
Oskar sees that the renter has the words YES and NO tattooed on his hands. He takes a picture of it. The renter asks him not to tell grandma that they talked. He tells Oskar to throw pebbles at his window if he ever needs to talk to him. That night, Oskar decides to dig up his dad’s coffin.
In the next chapter, the reader sees a few pages from Grandpa’s notebook that say things like “I don’t speak, I’m sorry” and “My name is Thomas”. He writes in the notebook that he and Oskar are going to dig up Oskars father’s coffin. He explains that he gave a note to Grandma’s doorman and she finally agreed to see him on 9 11. When he arrived at the airport, the customs agents wanted to know why he was carrying a suitcase with a bunch of papers inside. He writes to them that they are letters for his dead son that he could not deliver.
Grandpa says that on the day the Trade Center was attacked he lost everything for the second time. Grandpa finds his son’s obituary in the newspaper. Grandpa showed up at Grandma’s house with a note that said, “I’m sorry” and she let him in. But she told him that he couldn’t see Oskar. She tells him that she gave Thomas the one letter that he managed to send when the boy started asking for his father. Thomas did find him once but he pretended to be a journalist and never revealed who he was. Grandpa has been following Oskar around in his search and he talked to Georgia Black who tells him that she just got off the phone with Oskar’s mother.
Oskar asks Grandpa to help him dig up his father’s grave. The day after they decide to dig up the grave, Oskar goes to Mr. Black’s house to tell him what is happening but the man is gone. The narrative does not reveal if he moved or died.
Oskar receives a phone call from the second Black that he visited, Abby Black. She tells him that she lied about the key. He goes to her apartment. Abby tells him that she already called his house and told the story to his mother. Oskar realizes that his mother must have called all of the Black’s ahead of time and warned them that he was coming after Abby spoke to her. Many of them knew that he was coming and some even knew his name. Abby’s husband, William tells Oskar that the key belongs to his own dead father’s safety deposit box. He accidentally left it in the vase that he sold to Oskar’s father.
Oskar is disappointed. He confesses to William that his father called the house the morning he died but Oskar was too scared to pick up the phone. He has never told anyone this before. Oskar gives William the key and leaves.
The next chapter is another letter from Grandma. She says that Grandpa came home with his pants covered in dirt. He told her he was leaving again but she followed him to the airport. He confesses that they dug up Thomas’s grave and he buried all of the letters that he wrote but never sent to him. She suggests that they stay in the airport forever because that way they will never be coming or going. Grandma says that she is typing from the airport. She remembers the last time she ever saw her sister and regrets never telling her that she loved her. She tells Oskar that she loves him and that it is always necessary to say this to loved ones. Oskar finds out that his mom’s new boyfriend, Ron lost his wife and daughter in an accident and this endears him to Ron somewhat.
Oskar reflects on digging up his father’s grave. Oskar goes home and cries to his mother and promises that he’ll try to be normal again. His mother says that his father would have been proud of him. She confesses that she spoke to her husband the day he died and he told her that he was okay so that she wouldn’t worry. Mom puts Oskar to bed and he hears her crying through the wall. He prints out pictures of the man falling from the Trade Center and makes a flip book reversing them so that the man is going back into the building. He wishes that he could go back in time to when his father was still alive.
Oscar Schell – the protagonist of the novel. Oskar is a nine-year-old boy who lost his father during the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. Oskar is precocious and an old soul who is smarter than his age would have people think. Completely on his own, he goes all around New York City trying to find the Black that the key belongs to.
Although Oskar is very driven, he suffers from a lot of trauma from his father’s death. He is no longer able to go into skyscrapers, use public transportation or cross bridges. Most importantly, Oskar was so affected by his inability to pick up the phone when his father called on September 11th that he is now afraid of phones altogether. However, he is comforted by the last messages that his father left and he stole his family answering machine to listen to when he has trouble going to sleep.
Over the course of the novel, Oskar overcomes many of his phobias in order to complete his mission. Another part of Oskar’s character is his penchant for inventing things. The novel begins with him listing some of his inventions. All of the inventions are whimsical things that a child would come up with but it is not clear if Oskar has ever actually built any of his ideas.
Oskar’s relationship with his mother is sometimes contentious. He resents her for dating someone new and seems to resent himself for never confessing the truth about his father’s last phone call. In the end Oskar and his mother seem to bond somewhat and she admits that she did speak to his father the day he died.
Grandpa Schell (The Renter) – Oskar’s grandfather. Grandpa was born in Dresden, Germany. He left shortly after World War II and soon lost his power of speech. Grandpa once loved Anna, Grandma’s sister and she believed that he continued to love her even after he married Grandma. It is never clear what exactly happened to Anna and why Grandpa left her.
When Grandpa learned that Grandma was pregnant, he left her the next day. He spends the next few decades writing daily letters to his unborn child that he never has the strength to send. Eventually, he comes back to Grandma only to find out that his son has been killed. Grandma insists that he stay away from Oskar and not tell him who he is. Grandpa still helps Oskar in his search for the Black that owns the key.
Grandpa seems furious and upset with himself for leaving, but he continues to do so every time things start to go south for him. In the end, he leaves again, but Grandma goes after him. They two end up living together in the airport.
Jonathan Safran Foer Biography
Jonathan Safran Foer was born on February 21st, 1977 in Washington D.C. Foer’s father was a lawyer and his mother was the child of two Holocaust survivors. The middle child, Foer’s two brothers have also gone on to become writers in their adult life. When Foer was a child, he was injured in a classroom accident. He has said that this lead to “something like a nervous breakdown drawn out over about three years.”
Several years later, Foer traveled to Israel with other teenagers as part of a youth fellowship program. He became interested in writing in 1995, when he took his first writing course in college at Princeton University. The class was taught by author Joyce Carol Oates who told him that he had talent. Oates oversaw Foer’s thesis about his maternal grandfather’s experience during the Holocaust for which he won Princeton’s Senior Creative Writing Thesis Prize. Foer briefly attended medical school after graduating from Princeton in 1999 but soon dropped out to focus on his writing.
In 2002, Foer expanded his thesis into his first novel, “Everything Is Illuminated.” For the novel, he received a National Jewish Book Award and the Guardian First Book Award. In 2005, the novel was adapted into a movie starring Elijah Wood. Foer married fellow writer Nicole Krauss in 2004, and the couple had two children together before separating in 2014.
Foer second novel, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” was published in 2005 which was also turned into a movie. In 2008, Foer began teaching writing at Yale University. He is now a writer-in-residence for the creative writing program at New York University. Two years later, Foer published his third novel, “Tree of Codes” followed by “The New American Haggadah” in 2012. Both received mixed reviews. His most recent book release was “Here I Am” in 2016.
Foer also serves on the board of Farm Forward, a nonprofit organization that promotes conscientious food choices. His book ‘Eating Animals’ reflects his vegetarianism and love of animals. Foer currently lives in Brooklyn, New York near his ex-wife.