The Book Club

In Defense of Oskar Schell

Dear Ruth,

I liked Oskar much more than you did. Oskar will be the litmus test of this novel for many readers, I suspect; already reviewers are divided between those who, like you, find him “charmless,” and those who think he’s “Foer’s most brilliant creation.” It seemed to me that Oskar is supposed to be at once vulnerable and unpleasant, and that this was strategic on Foer’s part; after all, this is a book about how hard it is to connect with others, and a boy so traumatized by death that he routinely bruises himself in private. So it would be too easy, I think, if Oskar was as delightful a creation as Penelope Fitzgerald’s the Bernhard, or Helen DeWitt’s Ludo. And Foer captures well the abrupt brutality of a smart kid like Oskar—one of the most convincing moments takes place when, in a fit of fury, Oskar tells his mother that if he could have “chosen, I would have chosen you”—meaning he wishes she’d been the parent to die on 9/11.

More important, choosing to focus on a rebellious, troubled child (an “organization kid” who’s cancelled his French lessons) rather than an adolescent helps invigorate Foer’s big thematic concern: the tension between the need to speak (to connect) and the urgent need for silence (which insulates you from failing to connect, and preserves a certain purity). A poignant and hilarious bit (and we haven’t mentioned that Foer can be very, very funny) is the anecdote about Oskar being asked to wear a huge papîer maché skull for his “role” as Yorick in the school production of Hamlet. Yorick, in case anyone has forgotten, is the skull Hamlet picks up in the graveyard, not a “role” at all. It’s a macabre part to ask a 9-year-old who’s just lost his father to play—and the image of this tiny boy swallowed up by an oversized, grotesque, papîer maché skull is one I’ll find hard to forget. It’s also, I think, Foer’s symbol of the way that aesthetic materials can actually muffle the world around us. After all, nearly every character in this book is unable to live without relying on some kind of aesthetic material as a self-explicating tool (a notebook, a tambourine, Oskar’s grandfather’s tattoed hands) allowing them to tunnel free from what Oskar’s grandfather calls “the marble of myself.” But these tools can also keep them from each other—functioning more like methadone than balm.

But maybe your problem with Oskar is that his vulnerability can seem a little, well, schticky. I myself bridled at being asked to believe not only that Oskar’s quest required him to walk the five boroughs but that, as he puts it, “I shook my tambourine the whole time, because it helped me remember that even though I was going through different neighborhoods, I was still me.” Like you, I thought that slightly too much “deliberate idiosyncracy” infected the whole book, particularly in the thread of the novel about the grandparents. Were you bothered by the fact that at the end of the novel Oskar’s grandfather appears to take up long-term residence in an airport, not long after Oskar meets a woman who, unbeknownst to anyone, lives alone at the top of the Empire State Building? I loved the notion of the latter, but in concert with the former, it seemed a bit much. Given such flights of fancy, one does wish for more moments of what M. H. Abrams, in his definition of magic realism, called the “sharply-etched realism” that is necessary in order to underpin the larger blurrings between real and unreal.

Two last points: First, I found the novel to be uneasily divided between its invocation of the Big Questions about life (how do we deal with suffering?) and, at times, a kind of exquisitely overdrawn strangeness that Foer adroitly avoided in Everything Is Illuminated. Take the moment early on when Oskar’s grandfather remembers the disastrous firebombing of Dresden in 1945, in which his true love died:

I’d experienced joy, but not nearly enough, could there be enough? The end of suffering does not justify the suffering, and so there is no end to suffering, what a mess I am, I thought, what a fool, how foolish and narrow, how worthless, how pinched and pathetic, how helpless. None of my pets know their own names, what kind of person am I?

I don’t know about you, but “None of my pets know their own names” struck me as self-consciously cute after the despair preceding it—and this passage seemed to crystallize a disjunction that haunts the entire book: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close can be, at times, an incredibly whimsical novel about immensely serious things.

Which leads me to my final point: It struck me that this book wants to be a version of Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939,” with its infamous imperative “We must love one another or die”—a poem, as you may remember, which was much circulated after Sept. 11. Extremely Loud’s characters frequently avow their love for one another; Oskar’s grandmother helps him start a stamp collection, for example, “because I love you so much it hurts me.” An emotional climax of the book is her final communication to Oskar, in which she describes the sister who died in World War II:

I had never told her how much I loved her.
She was my sister.
We slept in the same bed.
There was never a right time to say it.
It was always 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.
I love you,

Clearly, Grandma is giving Oskar good advice: It can’t hurt to tell the people we love that we love them, and one of the things about death is that we lose the chance to speak all the words we thought, somehow, didn’t need saying. Like J. D. Salinger, Foer is always writing, I think, about what gets lost when we leave childhood behind. He is writing against adult deadening, against compromise. (I think this is partly why you asked whether it’s unfair to judge this book by its “believability”—somehow, it feels curmudgeonly to critique such open, childish excess.) I’m highly sympathetic to this stance. But Oskar knows from Page 1 that love comes with an expiration date—and so do we, therefore. Given the particular arc of the novel, then, its “verbalize your love” message seems at once true and limited—and, as a conclusion, slightly tinny in the hands of such a gifted writer. Or am I being too skeptical? I’m eager to learn what you think.