A precocious young boy, Oskar, loses his father in 9/11. Two years later, still trying to come to terms with the loss, he finds a key in his father's closet. Oskar doesn't know what they key actually unlocks, so, with the word "Black" written on the envelope the key was in as his only clue, he begins a journey to discover what the key is for. Given its grave subject matter, it's surprising just how quick of a read Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is. I was immediately hooked by Foer's prose, even if the novel's structure is a touch too precious and overworked at times (A second story emerges about the failed marriage between Oskar's grandparents; he writes in run-on sentences, her sentences are short, almost like lines of poetry. It's not complicated to understand but it does get to be a bit much in parts). He captures grief and loss extremely well, almost as well as Michael Chabon did with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.
For all its strengths, though, never have I been in love with a book and simultaneously hated it as much as I did with Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. The character of Oskar is one of the most awful, unbearable protagonists I've encountered in ages. I understand that he's in pain and doesn't know how to process his father's death properly, but he's incredibly self-centered (just before his death, his father left recordings on the answering machine but Oskar refuses to share these recordings with his mother, primarily because she has found comfort with a new guy) and almost impossible to relate to. Oskar is a know-it-all and if you think they are bad in real life, try spending 300 pages with one. Obviously, I don't mean to suggest that we must "like" every protagonist in order for a book to be successful. But, in a story like this, we have to like Oskar, otherwise his journey means absolutely nothing to the reader. His revelations at the end would have been far more impactful if we could relate to Oskar. I was almost on the verge of tears as it was; if I had cared, it would have been waterworks. But it's a small complaint in the grand scheme of things, as Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close remains a very good novel.
With a film this good and this timely, it's not surprising that we're getting a film adaptation later this year from director Stephen Daldry. A lot of people think this will be a slam dunk, but I remain pessimistic. I'm assuming the film will rest firmly on the shoulders of Thomas Horn, the young actor playing Oskar. Here's the problem: there is absolutely no way an actor his age can appropriately navigate the emotional journey Oskar goes through in the novel. Sure, he'll be coached and directed and it will most likely look halfway decent, but it will lack the power someone older could pull off. And I'm not saying this simply because I generally dislike child actors. I doubt that even my two favorites, Jean-Pierre Léaud and Phillip Alford (of To Kill a Mockingbird fame), could do it (although I'd be the first to admit that I would have loved to see Alford's attempt). I'm ready for you to prove me wrong, Thomas, but until then, I remain unconvinced.
At least we'll get to see Sandy Bullock, presumably as Oskar's mother, in a meaty role. Will I need to dust off my Team Sandy martini glass to celebrate a second Oscar nomination? I certainly hope so!