Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Discussion Questions
1. Some reviews of the novel, such as reviews published in The New York Times and The Guardian (London), were very hard on Foer when the novel was first published. The Guardian summed the book up this way: “Extremely annoying and incredibly pretentious.” One critic for The New York Times argued that “there are neurological limits to some readers' ability to tolerate a wee one who says whatever springs to mind at roughly the same speed it springs to mind and keeps circling to the clue of cluelessness . . .” He went on to dismiss the book as "a triumph of human cuteness over human suffering." Many critics attacked the style, specifically, as too showy and gimmicky and a poor substitute for good storytelling techniques. Michiko Kakutani, leading critic at the NY Times, argued that ''Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close'' tends to be at its most powerful when Mr. Foer abandons his willful use of experimental techniques and simply writes in an earnest, straightforward manner, using his copious gifts of language to limn his characters' state of mind." What are your answers to these criticisms? (It is worth mentioning that some critics were highly praiseful of the book, and the general reading public has also been very enthusiastic. The books has an average rating of 4 out of 5 stars on Amazon.com, and readers of The New York Times placed it high on a list of their favorite books of the past 25 years.)
2. Oskar has been repeatedly compared with Holden Caulfield of Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. How would you compare and contrast Oskar with Holden? (Interestingly, there are some similarities in the critical responses to both books just after they were published.)
3. The book mixes elements of realism with parts that read like a fantasy story. Does Foer maintain a good balance between fantasy and realism? Doe he achieve anything by doing this; if so, what?
4. This book is one of the first novels to take on 9/11 as subject. How well does the deal with that historic event? Is there anything particularly effective about selecting a nine-year-old as protagonist and narrator of a book focused on 9/11? What about the stylistic approach (the experimentation with form: typography, pictures, etc.) -- is it appropriate for a book about 9/11?
5. Oskar casually mentions being a “pacifist” a few times in the novel. What does this term mean? Some readers describe the book as an anti-war novel. Do you agree that there is an anti-war message? Why or why not? Why do you think that Foer includes graphic narratives of the bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima in a novel that is primarily focused on 9/11? (Note that the Dresden and Hiroshima bombings were carried out by the United States and its allies, both incidents killed tens of thousands more innocent people than the 9/11 attacks, and there is a lot of controversy among historians on the strategic value and/or moral justification of the bombing of either city).
6. The book could be described as a modern tragicomedy, in the tradition of tragicomic novels such as Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) and Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum (1959), both of which depict the horrors of World War II. (Foer named Oskar after the protagonist of The Tin Drum.) In essays on this topic, some arguments that have been made include:
“Dramas of this kind have a unique power to affect the viewer, as the comedy disarms them enough to relax, and then the tragedy strikes its blow.” Another essayist claims: “[Tragicomedy]provides a clever compromise between pure tragedy and comedy; it illustrates both the both the positive and negative experiences of humanity. The ending of a tragicomedy often comes not from the pages of a fairy tale, but from the canvas of daily existence.” Do you think Foer’s technique is more effective than a comparitively straightforward, sentimental account of a child losing a father on September 11th would have been?
7. Is there a catharsis in the book? That is, is there an important moment of emotional release for Oskar, and by extension, the reader? When and how does it occur?
8. How do you interpret the significance of Oskar’s search for the key? How important is what he actually finds; in other words, is the search itself more or less significant than the result of the search?
9. Is there anything about the book that speaks to teenagers, specifically, in your view? If so, what is it? Even if you are very different from Oskar, in terms of personality and interests, can you find something to relate to in his perspective?
10. How well does Oskar’s mother deal with Oskar's unique ways of grieving, while attending to her own needs? Note the things that she does and does not do, such as: the way she handles Oskar's search for the key, seeing Ron, her response to Oskar's hurtful statement, and other examples.
One issue that was raised last year repeatedly in class by students is Oskar's mom's relationship with Ron. Many students are very interested in determining whether or not the relationship is a romantic one, and some commented that it would be inappropriate for her to be romantically involved with someone at this time in her life. I found it intriguing that students cared so much about this, especially as I didn't focus as much on this as I read and re-read the book. If this was something you focused on, why do you think it bothered you?
11. What other themes or messages do you take away from the book?
 limn -- "to outline in clear sharp detail" (Merriam-Webster's)