While telling a bedtime story to the son who would later mourn him, one of several ghostly characters in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close says, "It's hard for anyone, even the most pessimistic of pessimists, to spend more than a few minutes in Central Park without feeling that he or she is experiencing some tense in addition to the present." The same goes for any old place, of course, but especially New York, and especially the New York of Oskar Schell, a jumpy 9-year-old whose moods power a novel pitched finely between apposite giddiness and grief.
Extremely Loud is—often stirringly, sometimes haltingly, and always bravely—a novel about Sept. 11. The book traces a family story through three generations, but the World Trade Center attack settles like gravity on every page, from every age. Front and center is Oskar, a fantastically precocious kid tangling with his dad's death. He tangles with it as an adult might, given as he is to reading A Brief History Of Time, thinking out loud about the true meaning of oblivion, and spouting arcane knowledge about elephants' mourning habits. From the start, Oskar acts nothing like a real 9-year-old, but he's a character more than a caricature; his implausible persona only helps set up tension between the fancies of fiction and the hard reality at the novel's core.
Extremely Loud meanders a bit through its own specific story, which unfolds in three parts: Oskar searching New York for a lock to match a key he finds in his dad's closet; letters to Oskar from his loving grandmother; and unsent letters to Oskar's dad written by a mute man who skipped out on him before birth. Author Jonathan Safran Foer sketches out distinctive voices for each part, all of them stylized, searching, and formally inventive without making formal invention their primary focus. It's a testament to Foer's writing that his dazzling way with words never trumps the emotions he serves, and that those emotions—pain, somberness, regret—never lose sight of the love and hope they coexist with. For a novel so demonstrably about death, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is too full of life to lie down and go numb.