Nine-year-old Oskar Schell has embarked on an urgent, secret mission that will take him through the five boroughs of New York in order to find the lock that matches a mysterious key that belonged to his father, who died in the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11.
Oskar's travels bring the novel its great momentum and wit, but it is a second story line, the epistolary tale of Oskar's grandparents—a mute sculptor and his sometime muse, both of whom survived the World War II bombing of Dresden—that gives the tale its heart … Through the powerful linkage of historical explosions, from Dresden to Nagasaki to the Twin Towers, framed in a universe that is itself slowly exploding, Foer's imagery begins to roil with the mythopoetic physics of a rabbinic fairy tale … Impressively, the book's bells and whistles actually feel appropriate to its larger meaning, rather than coming across as mere gimmickry. How many ways, in how many mediums, Foer seems to be asking, can we miss each other?
Despite the dramatically contemporary subject of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Foer hasn't invented something new as much as shifted the plot of his spectacularly successful Everything Is Illuminated … Journeys like this are dangerous – a little boy could get mugged; an author could get mawkish – but Foer is an extraordinarily sensitive writer, and Oskar's search for a missing parent scratches one of our first anxieties … This novel and his first one effectively trace the smoke from one horror to the next, from New York to Dresden to Hiroshima to the gulag – to every baffled survivor whose happiness was burned away by conflations of politics and hatred that were entirely irrelevant to his life.
The danger that Foer is braving here is the ease with which the work could have slipped into the exploitative and sentimental. The novel could have come off as crass and too clever for its own good. Or worse, reading this novel could have been painfully insulting and cruel … Placing the weight of Sept. 11 on the narrow shoulders of a young boy allows Foer to sidestep the politics of the event and focus completely on the emotional toll … Oskar, as precocious as he may be, is an amplified heartbeat of a character. Through him, Foer's incredibly moving novel rescues the victims from becoming objects, and in turn, it rescues the survivors as well.