Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Book review by
Barbara Schultz, Common Sense Media
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Book Poster Image
Moving tale of young boy grieving loss of dad on 9/11.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

The precocious, 9-year-old main character, Oskar, and his adult friends at times barrage the reader with random-seeming information. Readers will learn a little about the life of a war correspondent, Shakespeare's Hamlet, the bombing of Dresden during World War II, elephant behavior, the design and construction of the Empire State Building, the events of 9/11, and more.

Positive Messages

The biggest and hardest lesson of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is that not everything happens for a reason. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Oskar's greatest role model is his father. Thomas Schell was a thoughtful husband and father, who encouraged his son's penchant for scientific discovery and always knew charming, inventive ways to keep Oskar calm and engaged. 

 

Violence

The events of 9/11 are related in a range of ways, as Oskar remembers what he experienced on the "worst day" and imagines ways his father might have died. Oskar's pent-up anger prompts him to imagine committing violent acts: bludgeoning a school bully with a skull, with blood spraying all directions, or attacking his psychologist in a similar way. These are fantasies, but they are described graphically. Oscar also pinches his own skin to bruise himself. The bombing of Dresden is remembered, and Thomas Sr. and Oskar's grandma recall seeing the dead and injured. The book also includes passages from an interview that fascinates Oskar, where a father graphically recalls the death of his daughter after the bombing of Hiroshima. 

Sex

Oskar's grandmother describes making love with Thomas Sr. in some detail, and Thomas Sr. remembers making love with Anna, his first love. These events are described in some detail but not in a highly sensual way. There's some kid talk among elementary students about "blow jobs," "hand jobs," and private body parts. Oskar's friend Mr. Black equates Marilyn Monroe with sex. Oskar asks a couple of grown women he finds attractive if he can kiss them (but they don't kiss).

Language

One of the first things we learn about 9-year-old Oskar is that he's not allowed to curse, so he's invented creative ways to say curse words without saying them: He says he mustn't say "s--t," so he says "shiitake." Or whole sentences like "Succotash my Balzac, dipshiitake." There are also a few actual curse words in the novel, including three uses of "f—k," one "sons of bitches," and a scene where some boys try to make Oskar say his mother is a whore.

Consumerism

Oskar drinks Juicy Juice boxes.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A character shows an old cigarette case from when her husband "used to smoke." Another person mentions bottles of wine "we never drank."

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything Is Illuminated), describes the grieving process of a family that's lost a loved one in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Most especially, this is the story of Oskar Schell, a precocious 9-year-old with highly advanced scientific curiosity but a child's limited ability to process loss. Oskar is a social misfit who exhibits repetitive behaviors that have led some readers to think he's on the autism spectrum. In fact, in the film adaptation of the novel, Oskar tells another character that he was tested for Asperger's syndrome but nothing "definitive" was determined. Though most of the novel focuses on Oskar's quest for a lock he thinks will reveal hidden details about his beloved father, the book also digs into various characters' memories of 9/11, as well as the Dresden bombing during World War II, which shaped the lives of Oskar's grandparents. There are also passages from an interview with a man who watched his daughter die after the bombing of Hiroshima. These accounts of violence are graphic and sorrowful. Oskar also has violent fantasies of hurting people who make him feel small and misunderstood. The novel includes rare cursing (a few uses of "f—k," one "sons of bitches") and some sexual content, including children's playground talk about "blow jobs," "hand jobs," and private parts, and more adult scenes where a young couple, and then an older couple, make love. It's best suited for mature teens. However, it's worth noting that the novel has more humorous and lighthearted moments than the movie version does. 

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What's the story?

EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE follows a nonlinear path to reveal a young boy's experience of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and history that shaped his family. Oskar Schell exhibits unusual behavior and strong curiosity. He's struggling painfully to cope with the grief of losing his dad, and he begins a quest to find an object that he believes will reveal hidden secrets and help him make sense of what happened. Along the way, Oscar meets a fascinating cast of characters, including his delightful 103-year-old neighbor, Mr. Black, a former war correspondent with a surprisingly bright outlook, and "the renter," a mysterious character who shares an apartment with Oskar's grandma.

Is it any good?

This is meaningful book deals with loss, war, and terrorism, and mature readers who take it on will be rewarded with original characters and an engaging quest. Author Jonathan Safran Foer has a marvelous ability to express emotions and tell stories from different points of view: those of a 9-year-old boy who may be on the autism spectrum, an elderly grandmother who survived the bombing of Dresden, a Japanese man who lost his daughter in Hiroshima, and more. These characters are well-drawn and relatable, and sometimes funny to observe.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is grim but not relentlessly so -- except when it should be. The events are painful, and it's particularly sad to experience young Oskar's grief and confusion. Written for adults but sometimes assigned in high school, this novel is best for older teens ready for a serious read.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the events of 9/11 and other attacks described in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. What's the connection between the 9/11 attacks and the Dresden and Hiroshima bombings?

  • What do you think of the graphic descriptions of violence? Are they necessary to convey the consequences of war and bombings? What about the fantasy violence Oskar imagines against a bully? Is violence easier to take when it's fantasy rather than reality or actual history? 

  • What do you think of how grief is portrayed in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close? Does it seem realistic? Have you ever lost someone close to you or seen relatives grieving for someone who died? I this what grief can look like? 

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