Maybe it goes without saying that we write differently in letters than we do in email or text. Something about putting pen to paper makes a handwritten letter more intimate and less imposing than electronic media. We take off the tin-foil hat. Our mistakes are not made invisible by a backspace key, but crossed out with our own hand. We reveal ourselves. And letters to people we love are that much more intimate and revealing, even sentimental. We create something, a product, that you can hold in your hand, and then send it off, like a little piece of ourselves. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
is Jonathan Safran Foer’s love letter to New York City.
I’ve seen some readers complain that its sentimentality is manipulative, and even though I can imagine reading the book that way, I can’t understand it. I think this book is one of the most beautiful explorations of love, grief, and humanity that I’ve ever experienced. It’s been years since I last read it, and I wanted to read it again before reviewing, but I’m not really at an emotional place where I could take it right now. What is love without death? And sometimes both are too harsh to look in the face. I have to make a nothing place for them. But I’ve had this review percolating in my brain, and I felt like I needed to share it, even though it’s only impressions.
Traditional wedding vows summarize pretty economically that classic feeling of being in love. I will love you in sickness and health, for richer or poorer, till death do us part.
It’s that feeling of “I loved you before I knew you, and I will love you after we’re dust.” Foer does something similar here. He’s saying to the City, “I loved you as a child. I love you as an old man, as an old woman. I loved you when I only had a key to your secrets, but didn’t know what door it belonged to. I love you in the health of family and in the sickness of grief.” And somehow, for right or wrong, it is more meaningful to be reminded of love when we are at our most worthless and broken. This love letter takes place just after the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center, and it gives me the feeling of Foer sewing up the wounds of the city.
I lived in New York a couple of years before the September 11th attack, and I hated the city. When the attacks happened, I lived in one of the religiously fanatical far-away places where a lot of people felt, secretly or openly, that New York deserved to have a symbol of its decadence cut down. I lived in Oregon. People would say that “we” brought this upon ourselves, but, despite my aversion to New York City, that always offended me. New York is not “we” to anyone in Oregon. “We” is Rainie Falls and Mount Pisgah and Voodoo Doughnuts and Dutch Bros and Rice Hill. “We” is the Caveman statue and Powell’s and the stupid Enchanted Forest. The World Trade Center is just as foreign to “us” as Afghanistan or Nicaragua, Dresden or Hiroshima. Not only do I not believe that anyone, English speaking or not, brings that kind of devastation upon themselves, I also do not believe that it is “our” right to speak to the justice of that kind of event. I love where I live, and I feel that same kind of love and care in Foer talking about where he lives. I think it is beautiful. I think that it is not possible for a place that could be so beloved, no matter how much I dislike it myself, to have deserved bombing. I would say the same about Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Dresden, and Hiroshima.
On a lighter and more bitchy note, Nicole Krauss is married to Foer, and her book The History of Love is very, very similar to Extremely Loud
. I think that if you’ve read one of those, you can’t really like the other, unfortunately. They are both, to some extent, about the injustices of growing up, but Krauss takes the tone of overcoming adversity, where I think Foer takes the tone of reconciliation and healing. Maybe they both have all of those elements. I’m one thumb up, one thumb down on History of Love
, but words cannot tell you how much I love Extremely Loud
. Some of the similarities are in the family phrasings, some are in the plots. You can see how they are very different writers who suffer from the disadvantage of living in the same house with another great writer. It’s stressful. Extremely Loud
is American folklore. It is regional, but can’t be held responsible for it. Not that regionalism is necessarily a turn-off, but we want to read about ourselves. Cultures that are familiar but foreign can be suspicious. At the same time, this story does bring me into the culture that was devastated by 9/11. I was not the target of the 9/11 attacks, just like Oskar, the protagonist of this book, was not. But also, we both were. We both are Americans, despite our foreignness. It is one of those muddles that political boundaries make out of culture. We are foreigners and family at the same time. It’s confusing and figurative and sentimental. In fact, all of this, everything in this book, is more figurative and sentimental than many readers care for, but what do you expect from a love letter?