Jonathan Safran Foer, born in 1977, came out swinging in 2002, with the publication of his astounding, clownish, tender, intricately and extravagantly plotted novel "Everything Is Illuminated." From the hilarious overreacher's English of the Ukrainian tour guide Alexander Perchov to the passionately fanciful evocations of a Polish-Jewish shtetl from 1791 to 1942, the prose kept jolting the reader into the heightened awareness that comes with writing whose exact like hasn't been seen before. Foer's second novel, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (Houghton Mifflin; $24.95), continues on a high plane of inventiveness and emotional urgency, while taking place on the solid turf of New York City in the aftermath of that most familiar of recent catastrophes, the 2001 World Trade Center blitz.
The hero, a nine-year-old boy called Oskar Schell, has lost his father, Thomas, in the collapse of one of the Twin Towers. Further, he is the only person to have heard the five decreasingly sanguine messages that Thomas, trapped in a meeting at Windows on the World, left on the family answering machine. A year later, he has many symptoms: insomnia, fear of elevators and Arabs, a sense of being "in the middle of a huge black ocean." This reader's heart slightly sank when he realized that he was going to spend more than three hundred pages in the company of an unhappy, partially wised-up nine-year-old. The novel, traditionally a mirror held up to the Western bourgeoisie, to teach its members how to shave, dress, and behave, has focussed on adult moral choices and their consequences. With some brilliant exceptions like Dickens and Mark Twain and Henry James, novelists have not taken children seriously enough to make them protagonists. However sensitive and observant, the ordinary child lacks property and the capacity for sexual engagement; he exists, therefore, on the margins of the social contract--a rider, as it were, on the imperatives and compromises of others. Yet in recent years a number of young novelists--Stephen Millhauser and Jonathan Lethem, for two--have devoted their most ambitious and energetic efforts to detailing the fervent hobbies and the intoxicating overdoses on popular culture, the estrangement and the dependence that characterize contemporary American childhood. Childhood's new viability as novelistic ground may signal a shift in the very nature of being a human being, considered anthropologically as a recipient and continuer of tribal myths, beliefs, and strictures. Older novelists up through Joyce, Proust, and Hemingway portrayed the pained shedding of this traditional baggage; the newer novelists, having inherited almost no set beliefs from their liberal, distracted middle-class parents, see childhood as the place where one invents the baggage--totems, rituals, lessons to live by--of a solitary one-person tribe.
Foer's protagonist, a nine-year-old atheist whose immediate family consists of a dog called Buckminster, an unusually permissive and remote working mother, a loving grandmother who lives across the street and talks to him through a baby monitor, and a grandfather whom the trauma of the Dresden firebombing has robbed of the gift of speech, has few acculturated antibodies to heal the wound of his father's abrupt death. While the twenty-year-old hero of "Everything Is Illuminated" has distinctly Jewish ancestors, full of folkloric shtetl vitality, as a cornerstone of his self, little Oskar has only a tambourine, a scrapbook titled "Stuff That Happened to Me," and a psychiatrist who thinks he should be hospitalized, lest in his unassuaged grief and shock he harm himself. His family seems oddly deracinated; his paternal grandparents spoke German, but they are not Jewish, since they were moving about freely in Dresden at the time of the Allied incendiary raid of February, 1945, and, indeed, his grandmother's family was hiding a Jew. Nor do they give any evidence of being Christian, though Grandma is said to believe in God. Oskar's mother is a busy lawyer, and his father reluctantly ran a jewelry business founded by his speechless father, who wanted to be a sculptor, but the Schells basically exist in the same West Side economic zone as J. D. Salinger's Glass family: there is enough money to support their wordy absorption in one another and their wounded pasts.
The grandparents, who met in a Broadway bakery, impulsively marry as a mutual rescue. Actually, they had met before, as young people in Dresden, Grandma being the younger sister of a girl the grandfather had loved, impregnated, and lost in Dresden's firebombing. The couple create a minimally connubial marriage of silence and strictly observed zones of Nothing and Something in their apartment. The grandfather flees back to Dresden in 1963, when he learns that his wife--breaking one of their rules--has become pregnant, and she leaves New York forty years later. From their places of retreat they shower letters upon those cruelly left behind--Grandma upon Oskar, and the elder Thomas Schell hundreds of letters, which he doesn't send, upon his son, whom he never sees, and who died in his prime on September 11, 2001.
Each letter writer possesses an eccentric style, recognizable at a glance. Grandma's letters have short, flush-left paragraphs and extra spaces between sentences. The senior Thomas Schell writes in one big paragraph when he is not, as a means of carrying on a conversation, writing single sentences. These responses are published one on a page, making for a real page-turner of a novel, a kind of serial fortune cookie:
I'm sorry, this is the smallest I've got, Start spreading the news . . . , The regular, please, Thank you, but I'm about to burst, I'm not sure, but it's late, Help, Ha ha ha!, Please marry me
The junior Thomas Schell, among the habits and skills intensely endearing to his son, always read with a red pen in hand, circling mistakes. He makes his mark on the pages of Foer's novel in the form of many red (truly red; this is a novel in full color) encirclings in the text of one letter that, in April of 1978, happened, apparently, to reach him. The picto-/typographical antics don't end there; the text is interrupted by photographs, of stars and jewels and keys and Manhattan windows and fingerprints and the backs of heads and an elephant's eye and turtles mating and Stephen Hawking appearing on television and Sir Laurence Olivier playing Hamlet and, lifted from a Portuguese site on the Internet, a blurred body falling from one of the World Trade Center towers. Oskar thinks it could be his father; all the photographs show things on his mind. Again, the longest of the grandfather's letters, in illustration of his sensation that "there won't be enough pages in this book for me to tell you what I need to tell you," exploits the possibilities of computerized typesetting by slowly squeezing, page by page, the lines and the words within the lines until the pages become illegible and, finally, almost as solidly black as an Ad Reinhardt canvas. Earlier in this remarkable missive, Thomas tells of tapping out words by means of a telephone keypad, and gives us two and a half pages of numerals that an ideal reader (not me) could decipher. There are also three blank pages in the middle of the book, illustrating a mishap whereby Grandma settled at a typewriter to write the story of her life and did so to the tune of a thousand pages only to learn that there had been no ribbon in the machine. How come she didn't notice? Her eyes, she is always saying, "are crummy." Even as a magic-realist parable of non-communication, her blind persistence boggles the mind.
This reader's mind was boggled, too, by a nine-year-old boy's being allowed to roam, every weekend, all over the five boroughs, inquiring, in alphabetical order, at the two hundred and sixteen different addresses listed in the phone book under the name "Black," which was written on an envelope containing a key that Oskar found in a blue vase on a high shelf of his father's closet. He goes on foot at first, continually shaking his tambourine, "because it helped me remember that even though I was going through different neighborhoods, I was still me." This heroic exercise is his way of drawing near to his dead father; he draws near to his live mother by zipping up the back of her dress as she prepares to go out.
In the apartment above them, it happens, there is a hundred-and-three-year-old man called Black--Mr. Black, to be exact. Though he hasn't left his apartment for twenty-four years, he agrees to accompany Oskar on his search. Foer has a flair for the list, the inventive inventory, and his ramble through the Blacks has its vivid moments: Abby Black lives in the narrowest house in New York, formerly occupied by Edna St. Vincent Millay, and is an epidemiologist; she chats with Oskar about elephants' memories and tears while an unseen man shouts for her attention in the next room; Abe Black lives in Coney Island and takes Oskar for a ride on the Cyclone; Ada Black owns two Picassos, has an African-American maid called Gail, and seems to know suspiciously much about Oskar; Fo Black, in Chinatown, displays "I * NY" posters everywhere, because ny means "you" in Chinese; Georgia Black, in Staten Island, has established a museum of her husband's life in her living room, and he has created one to her in the next room. I don't doubt that Foer is resourceful enough to take us all the way through the alphabet with amiable freaks, but was grateful that he didn't; playful inventiveness can come down with a case of the cutes. After a while, Foer allows us to forget Oskar's tambourine, and his use of the expression "zipping up the sleeping bag of myself" for emotional withdrawal and "wearing heavy boots" for depression. As for Oskar's inventions--a teakettle whose spout becomes a mouth that "could whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare"; little microphones that, once swallowed, would play our interior sounds for all to hear; a biodegradable car; safety nets everywhere--they measure, I suppose, his desire to improve an implacable world, and serve to placate a child's seething impotence.
The book's graphic embellishments reach a climax in the last pages, when the flip-the-pages device present in some children's books answers Oskar's yearning that everything be run backward--a fall is turned into an ascent. It is one of the most curious happy endings ever contrived, and unexpectedly moving. But, over all, the book's hyperactive visual surface covers up a certain hollow monotony in its verbal drama. An anomie and disaffection afflicts the Schells which no description of the Dresden firebombing or Hiroshima (it's in here, too, for good measure) can quite excuse. There is a disproportion not felt with the Nazi atrocities that haunt the grandfathers in "Everything Is Illuminated." As a result, the later novel, on its local ground, seems thinner, overextended, and sentimentally watery, compared with its Old World predecessor. Grandfather Schell's abandoning his newly pregnant wife never feels explained; it is just chewed over. Grandma recounts his departure to Oskar:
Why are you leaving me?, He wrote, I do not know how to live., I do not know either, but I am trying. , I do not know how to try.
To explain her own narrow and static life, she proposes, "That's been my problem. I miss what I already have, and I surround myself with things that are missing." The voices of both grandparents protest too much, crying "I love you, I love you!" while receding. It's as if the author wants to give his characters his own warm heart, but the transplant doesn't take. "I love you so much it hurts me," Grandma writes Oskar. In this family, everybody keeps saying, "I'm sorry," but nobody acts sorry.
Oskar's mother, it turns out, is watching over him more closely than it appears, but the child has to deduce this on his own. His prose style, interestingly, is to run dialogue together in paragraphs, except, sometimes, when he and his mother talk; then he runs their laconic exchanges down the page as thin as the mouse's tail in that pioneering study of childhood "Alice in Wonderland." In similar minimalist, straggling fashion, Grandma's last letter expresses what seems to be the novel's preachment, Oskar's lesson to live by. She remembers sleeping as a girl next to her sister, her husband's true love:
The hairs of our arms touched., It was late, and we were tired., We assumed there would be other nights . . . , I said, I want to tell you something., She said, You can tell me tomorrow., I had never told her how much I loved her . . . , I thought about waking her., But it was unnecessary., There would be other nights., And how can you say I love you to someone you love?, I rolled onto my side and fell asleep next to her., Here is the point of everything I have been trying to tell you, Oskar., It's always necessary.
This is magnificent in its quiet way, but possibly assigns too much importance to verbalization, as children do. People know more than they are told. They know when they are loved, and did even in eras when "love" was not the all-purpose catchword it has become. As no less aloof an eminence than T. S. Eliot wrote:
There's no vocabulary, For love within a family, love that's livedin, But not looked at, love within the light of which, All else is seen, the love within which, All other love finds speech., This love is silent.
We must trust our parents, our children to hear us even in silence, in an age that fears silence, when Muzak, TV, and their computerized counterparts fill the few crannies left by traffic noise. Foer is, I would say, a naturally noisy writer--a natural parodist, a jokester, full of ideas and special effects, keen to keep us off balance and entertained. The novel's very title, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," suggests the kind of impact he wants to make on the reader. But a little more silence, a few fewer messages, less graphic apparatus might let Foer's excellent empathy, imagination, and good will resonate all the louder.