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Boy, Interrupted

Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page BW03


By Jonathan Safran Foer

Houghton Mifflin. 326 pp. $24.95

_____Online Extra: Chapter 1_____
This feature allows you to read the first chapter of a new book. This week's selection is "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" by Jonathan Safran Foer.

After illuminating everything with his first novel, Jonathan Safran Foer has written another that looks familiar. 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. That award-winning 2002 debut described an odd young man accompanied by a very old man on a madcap search through Ukraine for information about a loved one who was caught in the Holocaust. It was hysterical, except when it was devastating. Foer's new novel describes an odd young man accompanied by a very old man on a madcap search through New York for information about a loved one who was caught in the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center. It's hysterical, except when it's devastating.

For this updated quest, Alex, the linguistically challenged narrator from Everything Is Illuminated, has been replaced by an equally endearing misfit, a precocious 9-year-old boy named Oskar Schell. He speaks pretty good French, wears only white clothes, writes letters to famous scientists and plays the tambourine almost constantly. "My most impressive song," he tells us, "is 'Flight of the Bumblebee.' " We meet him about a year after the terrorist assault that killed his father, a jeweler who was devoted to piquing his son's curiosity with games and elaborate puzzles. Though crippled by their own grief, his mother and grandmother are doing everything possible to let Oskar emerge gently from the shock, but their protection is no match for the boy's curious mind in a world of horrors. Raised by a man who thrilled him with exploration, Oskar is now falling chaotically through a catalogue of adult anxieties. He knows that subways are easy targets for poison gas. On the Internet, he searches out photos of jihadist beheadings and videos of the Twin Towers that American stations refused to show. While his classmates read Harry Potter, he's depressed by the cosmology of A Brief History of Time. He used to want to know everything, he says, "but that isn't true anymore."

Lying awake for hours at night, he inflicts himself with bruises and invents things: skyscrapers that move up and down while the elevator stays in place, Morse Code jewelry, stamps that taste like creme brûlée, sirens that announce who's being whisked to the hospital. He recognizes the bruising and inventing as compulsive responses to guilt and fear, but like so much of the knowledge he possesses, that information gives him no solace.

What finally draws Oskar out is the discovery of a mysterious key in his father's closet. It's in a little envelope marked "Black," and he becomes convinced that it can open some essential insight about his father. Robbed of the chance to say goodbye, robbed even of a body for the casket, Oskar clings to any memento. "I decided," he says, "that I would meet every person in New York with the last name Black." It's a futile effort -- he's done the math -- but "I needed to do something," he says, "like sharks, who die if they don't swim, which I know about." And so, nervously avoiding subways and elevators, he trudges all over the city, starting with Aaron Black and working toward Zyna Black, asking if anyone knew his father and might identify this key. Some Blacks live hours away; others are right in his building. Some are sympathetic; others are needy. "How could such a lonely person have been living so close to me my whole life?" he wonders after meeting a particularly sad Mr. Black. "If I had known, I would have gone up to keep him company. Or I would have made some jewelry for him. Or told him hilarious jokes. Or given him a private tambourine concert."

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. It's no coincidence that we all still remember P.D. Eastman's Are You My Mother? The picaresque structure Foer uses here sometimes runs close to the path of Holden Caulfield, another tear-your-heart-out innocent who knew too much, but it usually flows deeper, like the Mississippi River that drew Huck Finn through a curious assortment of people during his own fatherless wanderings.

Laced through Oskar's adventures in the streets are the surreal confessions of his grandmother and grandfather, who survived the 1945 firebombing of Dresden. As he showed in his depiction of the Holocaust in his first book, Foer can capture vast disasters with intimate moments of searing realism. 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.

Extremely Loud suffers a bit from its tendency toward the grotesque. In Everything Is Illuminated, that quality animated Foer's comical legends of life in an 18th-century Ukrainian shtetl; in this story, the grotesque elements accumulate and clot, ossifying people into Haunting Characters of Modern Fiction. Oskar wears his peculiarities with innocent panache, but his blind grandmother writes her life story every day on a typewriter with no ribbon, and his mute grandfather carries around thousands of blank letters. Upstairs lives a man who pounds a nail into his bed each day until it becomes a giant magnet. Against the real and deadly absurdity of religious fanatics who fly planes into office buildings, these contrivances seem to have wandered over from a retrospective of Ionesco skits.

And there are some ornaments here that risk looking like gimmicks. The novel reproduces photographs that Oskar has pasted in his book of "Stuff That Happened to Me": keys hanging on walls, Laurence Olivier playing Hamlet, box turtles mating, a rollercoaster plunging. In the grandparents' chapters, these artifacts grow more avant-garde. There are pages containing only numbers, a few pages on which the letters are typed over each other to form a gray blob, pages with just one or two words, and a few pages left entirely blank. Some of this is cool, but it rarely rises above the affectations of cleverness that authors such as Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace have already worn out.

Fortunately, the best sections of the novel are the most plentiful: Oskar's unconscious comedy and his poignant search for information about the man who spun bedtime stories out of fantasy and science. All he wants is some way to go back to that moment of sweet security before zealots murdered his father. The tragedy of September 11 has made Oskar older than his years, but in Foer's tender portrayal the grief that weighs him down makes children of us all. •

Ron Charles joins the staff of Book World as a senior editor in April.

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