We guess you get the picture. Each of the narrators is sunk in grief that pervades their narratives. Sure, we gets moments of humor from Oskar's eccentric interests and naïve observations, but for the most part the tone ranges from serious to downright bleak. Oskar's grandmother's letters have glimmers of hope, but they're just glimmers. His grandfather's letters just bury the reader in hopelessness and emotional numbness. The author wants to show us that ultimately, love can help us manage sorrow, but in overall tone, we think sorrow wins.
With its focus on the inner world of its characters, its serious subject matter, and striking writing style, we'll call this novel Literary Fiction. Foer aims for more than just telling a story here; he gives us an array of complicated characters with overlapping storylines, told in an inventive and unusual way. (This had many critics screaming, BTW.)
Sometimes it feels like Jonathan Safran Foer is playing literary Mad Libs. Adverb: Extremely. Adjective: Excited. "Extremely excited" (7.109) "Extremely important" (7.134) "Incredibly nervous" (9.52).
There are lots of extremely thises or incredibly thats sprinkled through the novel. Oskar's a pretty intense kid who's usually in a ramped-up emotional state, so the incrediblys and extremelys are understandable. But how about Loud and Close?
And then a thought came into my brain that wasn't like the other thoughts. It was closer to me, and louder. I didn't know where it came from, or what it meant, or if I loved it or hated it. It opened up like a fist, or a flower. What about digging up Dad's empty coffin? (13.165-13.166)
This idea seems to come out of nowhere. BOOM. And it ends up being a defining moment for Oskar. It's tempting to think of loud and close as referring to moments of immediacy of experience for Oskar, as well as a description of what those planes crashing into the World Trade Center felt like for most New Yorkers. But there's another meaning to "close" as Oskar uses it.
When Oskar's feeling anxious and panicked, he describes it like this:
It's just like everything was incredibly far away from me. (2.2)
Contrast this with Oskar's feeling when he's with his Dad tucking him in at bedtime:
I loved how my cheek could feel the hairs on his chest through his T-shirt, and how he always smelled like shaving, even at the end of the day. Being with him made my brain quiet. (1.27)
I tucked my body incredibly close to his, so my nose pushed into his armpit. (1.32)
"Close" means personal closeness, which is the antidote to the distant, scary world inside Oskar's head.
"Close" makes appearances in other personal context throughout the novel. Oskar stands "incredibly close" to Abby Black when he visits her apartment. He was "incredibly close" to William Black in that same apartment, even though he didn't see him. Here, Oskar just seems to be referring to physical, not emotional closeness. And as we discussed in our "Symbols" section, close sometimes means "close, but not close enough."
At the end of the book, Oskar finally finds the lock the key goes to, his Dad's secret diary is revealed, and Oskar's life changes forever.
Okay, no. Oskar may have wanted to find something like that (we're not sure what he expected to find) but he ends up finding out that the key goes to a safe-deposit box belonging to William Black's dead father. Oskar doesn't even go with William to open the box. It has nothing to do with him, and he doesn't care. While this journey may have changed William's life (he'd been madly searching for the key, too) Oskar's left with no answers.
Because of this disappointment, Oskar still has to invent closure, creating a fantasy world in which he and his father are safe. The books final pages are a flip book (honestly, you can flip them) of photos of a man falling to his death from the World Trade Center, a man that Oskar thinks might even be his father. Oskar reverses the photos so that when you flip them, the man falls up. He creates a fable, like the Sixth Borough, in which his Dad is still alive. His final words at the end of the book are "We would have been safe" (17.162).
The hard truth is that no matter where the key led Oskar, it wouldn't have provided him with any closure about his Dad's death. Dad died tragically, and there's no changing that. Oskar's going to have find closure from within. No scavenger hunt will lead him to it.
People all over the United States, but especially people in New York City, came together after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, showing the strength of the human spirit and all that inspirational jazz. But it's human nature to drift apart, even after a tragedy such as this one, and by 2003, New York City has been returning to the way it was before the attacks: people constantly moving and minding their own business, thank you very much.
Oskar changes that a bit. Even though he thinks he's just looking for a lock, his journey ends up bringing people together, changing routines, getting people out into the city, and just generally shaking things up. Oskar loves the Beatles, so it's only appropriate that he helps people come together once again.
New York's a sprawling city of millions of people of all classes and races, and buildings and neighborhoods and bridges and tunnels. By venturing out into the city, Oskar literally and figuratively broadens his horizons. He doesn't really even need the key.
New York City's kind of a mythical place. It's one of the most populated and diverse cities on the world, filled with arts and culture. But to people living there, it's just home. Oskar's only nine, so he hasn't had a lot of opportunities to hunt down Banksy in Chelsea or find the Naked Cowboy in Times Square. Dad helps to foster Oskar's appreciation for the city through his fable about New York's Sixth Borough. It doesn't have a name: just the Sixth Borough.
People lived and loved there, but one day it started to float away. The citizens of New York tried to save it, so they grabbed Central Park and moved it to Manhattan before the Sixth Borough completely disappeared. The moral of the story is this: Explore something as much as you can while it's there. Cherish it while you have it. When it leaves, you can keep a little piece of it, but you have to let it go.
Oskar's grandparents grew up in Dresden, Germany and lived through its bombing by the US and Great Britain near the end of WWII. (Did they know Kurt Vonnegut?) This was a controversial action, since many people felt that Dresden was not an important military target but rather a center of art and culture in Germany.
This additional setting, along with Oskar's show-and-tell presentation about Hiroshima, puts September 11 into a larger historical context as well as showing very personal stories about the aftermath of all the attacks. Both Dresden and Hiroshima experienced extreme destruction and terror, massive loss of life, and long-lasting consequences. The grandfather's description of the bombing universalizes the themes of loss and trauma.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has three different narrators: nine-year-old Oskar, who has a vocabulary better than most ninety-year-olds; and his Grandma and Grandpa, who both love to write and have a lot to say.
The most confusing part of the book is trying to figure out what's going on with the structure. The words themselves are easy enough to read, but it's difficult to tell what's taking place when. Oskar's our main narrator. Grandpa's letters are all handily dated (and addressed to his son, but never mailed). And all of Grandma's chapters are basically one long letter broken up into four different sections. Plus, there are pictures! Everyone loves pictures!
If you're lost, just keep reading. By the end of the book, everything is illuminated… oh wait, wrong book.
By saying Foer's writing style is visual, we don't mean that Jonathan Safran Foer uses incredibly vivid imagery (although he does). We're talking about how he uses actual photographs in the text to illustrate Oskar's adventure, making this our favorite illustrated book since Bunnicula. Most of the images we see come from Oskar's binder, which he calls Stuff That Happened to Me, even though most of the things didn't happen to him at all. There are pictures of keys, paper airplanes, and Hamlet, which all relate to Oskar's life, but what about cavemen, a French astronaut, and a tennis player?
We also get to see a few photos of the Blacks Oskar encounters, like the back of Abby Black's head and the back of her husband's head too. Why don't we get to see their faces? They don't want to be tagged on Facebook?
And occasionally we're treated to a photo of a doorknob. These likely belonged to Oskar's grandfather, who took photos of all the doorknobs in the apartment before moving out. Doorknobs and keys…hmm, might have to think about that one.
Foer employs other visual techniques with his text, too. You can always tell a chapter that Grandma is writing from her typewriter because she puts two spaces after each period, infuriating the Punctuation Patrol. And Chapter 10 (Why I'm Not Where You Are – 4/12/78) has tons of words and phrases which are circled in red pen. This is the only letter that Dad received from his own father, a father he never knew, and he marked it up as though he were the meanest English teacher in school. Why did he do that? Does correcting Grandpa's spelling and grammar somehow correct all the mistakes in their relationship? Or is it simply Dad's way of bringing order to the chaos left in his life when his father abandoned them? Not seeing the forest for the trees?
Many critics found this use of imagery, weird punctuation, and blank pages gimmicky and annoying. What do you think? Did it enhance your experience of the book? Was it distracting?
Okay, we're being a little optimistic with our headline. The Key to Nothing would be a more appropriate title, but for most of the book, the key's a symbol of hope for Oskar. Unable to climb out of grief for his father, he finds a sense of purpose in tracking down the key. It frees him from his daily routine, which is depressing and boring to him. He treks all over the city, meeting new people and getting a broader perspective. He hopes the key will give him some special insight into his father. While he's searching, his father's with him in spirit. Well, Oskar wouldn't say that. He'd say that the search keeps his father in mind. He says that the more he searches, the closer he feels to Dad.
When Oskar finds the key in a vase in his Dad's room, he wears it "like a pendant" (3.72) over his heart, and is determined to find what it goes to. When it begins to irritate him, he puts a Band-Aid over his heart. We couldn't think of a better image here than a Band-Aid over the heart. But the quest is just a Band-Aid. He pulls it off in the end, and has to confront reality: that his Dad is dead and nothing will ever be the same. All you can do is love the people who are left.
The puzzle of the key is reminiscent of the Reconnaissance Missions that Oskar's Dad sent him on, hoping to open up the larger world to Oskar. The new journey does that. Mission accomplished, Dad.
When Oskar goes into Queens for the first time, he stands on the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge, between Manhattan and Queens, and wonders, "What's the name of the parts of New York […] that aren't in any borough?" (5.6)
It's an invisible boundary, an arbitrary distinction really, between neighborhoods of a city. It's kind of like when you're playing a board game with a spinner and you land "on the line." How do you count it? (It's too confusing for us, so we just spin again.) These invisible boundaries don't just exist between boroughs. They exist between people. And even though he doesn't realize it, Oskar is blurring the lines between people during his quest for the key.
The way he brings people together is most evident when the Blacks attend his school play. Oskar observes:
[The Blacks] must have been half the audience. But what was weird was that they didn't know what they had in common. (7.3)
Oskar doesn't always succeed at bringing people together, not even in his own life. He never gets to know that the renter in Grandma's apartment is his Grandfather, making the scenes when they meet all the more poignant:
[The renter/Grandpa] was on one kind of carpet, I was on another. The line where they came together reminded me of a place that wasn't in any borough. (13.51)
Oskar never does get to cross that line.
New York City might have more birds than people (and, well, let's not talk about the rats or the bedbugs, okay?) so it's only natural that they show up a few times in a story set in New York City.
The most notable instance of birds of a feather flocking together is when Oskar turns on Mr. Black's hearing aid and "A flock of birds flew by the window, extremely fast and incredibly close" (7.126). These birds seem to punctuate this fateful encounter between a nine-year-old boy and a man who's well over a hundred. Their relationship ends up changing both their lives. We even get treated to a picture of a flock of birds smack dab in the middle of that scene.
Birds are important to Oskar because of one of his more creative inventions: the birdseed shirt. We doubt Oskar would have invented this were he not constantly picturing his Dad falling to his death from the World Trade Center. The birdseed shirt is the ultimate in safety (if not fashion): birds will latch on to the wearer's shirt and fly him or her out of harm's way.
In order for the plan to work, however, you need birds. Lots of them. Oskar has a plan to keep all the birds in New York City from hitting buildings, but there's one problem: "The birds would never leave Manhattan" (13.103). Oskar says that would be great, though. For him, safety is more important than exploration and adventure. Birds, which are often a symbol of freedom, suddenly become a symbol of captivity in this example.
This motif recurs throughout the novel; people get incredibly close but no cigar. The timing's just off. Some examples:
All these incredibly close coincidences and near-misses seem to reflect the complicated, random nature of human relationships. We're all just wandering around, desperate to connect and not always succeeding.
With all due respect to the San Francisco Examiner and the Washington Post, we here at Shmoop acknowledge the New York Times as the true intellectual king of the newspaper world. It's got the most educated readers and most erudite writers. (If you read the Times, you'd know what that word meant.) As such, the paper represents Oskar's intellectual precocity. (Ditto.) Not many nine-year-olds have the Times read to them before bed. And not just reading it, but looking for mistakes? Fuhgeddaboutit.
During the firebombing of Dresden, Oskar's grandfather burned his hand on a metal doorknob, all that was left of his home. The image becomes "burned" into his mind, and before he left New York, he took photos of all the doorknobs in their apartment. In some of the photos the doorknobs are locked, in others unlocked. (See: "Should He Stay or Should He Go?" in Grandpa's "Character Analysis." Clearly, he's not sure what he should do.) Opening doors can have a positive connotation—exploring new possibilities. A locked doorknob could mean thwarted possibilities. And a doorknob on fire would make you completely helpless.
And doors have keys, of course, so this imagery mirrors Oskar's journey as well. Would Oskar's "key" have helped Grandpa if he'd been able to stay around?
The image of the man falling from the World Trade Center is probably the most troubling one that Oskar (and all of us) saw from the countless gruesome images of the 9/11 attacks. It brings this massive tragedy down to a horribly intimate scale. Oskar's terrified of the image but can't stop thinking about it. At the same time it gives him a strange comfort, because he thinks it could be his father and he believes that falling to your death is less painful than burning to death.
Oskar's tried looking at this photo from very close, but concludes that the closer you look, the less you can really see, like how images can look pixilated when seen at very close range. This thought reminds the reader of something his mother said about his father—that sometimes Dad couldn't see the forest for the trees. Is the author telling us that Oskar's obsessive focus on the falling man keeps him from seeing the bigger emotional picture of his loss?
The falling man is the ultimate image of hopelessness. We know with 100% certainty when we see this image that the man will die. The only solution is illusion. Oskar makes a flipbook of the falling man and reverses the image in an attempt to replace terror with comfort.
The book's a first-person narration, but what's unique is that there are three first-person narrators. The story really belongs to Oskar, and he gives us a nonstop, mile-a-minute tour of his thoughts about everything. His grandparents have their own, quieter stories, that weave in and out of the narrative and are told as letters written to Oskar (by his grandmother) and to Oskar's father (by Oskar's grandfather). The stories are largely unrelated to Oskar's narrative, until they all catch up to each other at the end. They mirror the trauma Oskar's going through as they describe horrors from a different time but with the same consequences.