The novel is narrated by nine-year-old Oskar Schell.
Oskar enjoys inventing things. Although his imagined inventions are impractical - they include a teakettle that sings the chorus of “Yellow Submarine” and a birdseed shirt that allows the user to fly - they illustrate the incessant and imaginative outpouring of ideas that gives the narrative its fast-paced, unfiltered style.
In the first pages, Oskar drifts quickly from subject to subject. For example, he justifies recently quitting his jujitsu class on the grounds that he is a pacifist. He shares that he is comforted by playing “Flight of the Bumblebee” on his tambourine. He also admits that he is wearing "heavy boots," a term he uses to describe depression (2).
Oskar remembers the first time he rode in a limousine, on the way to his father’s funeral. His father - Thomas Schell, Jr. - had died in the World Trade Center during the 09/11 attack. In the limo, Oskar wore white, because he refuses to wear any other color, and joked in French with the driver, Gerald. Oskar’s Grandma, who was knitting white mittens for him, tried to touch him sympathetically, but Oskar hates being touched. Meanwhile, his Mom (he never names her outside this) was angry with him for giving copies of their apartment key to the mailman and to Stan, their doorman. Confused as to why she is upset, he "could tell that she didn’t really love me” (6).
He then shares that the second time he rode in a limousine was when he later went to the same cemetery to dig up his Father's empty coffin. (This happens in the novel's final sections. Because the father's body was not found after the attacks, the service was merely symbolic.)
Oskar remembers how he and his dad used to play a game called Reconnaissance Expedition, in which Oskar would interpret clues that his dad laid out in order to find a final prize. Oskar was unable to finish the last Reconnaissance Expedition before his father died - his father had given him a map of Central Park, with no other clues to guide him. Though he understood that his father often assigned expeditions to encourage him to talk to others (he readily admits his anti-social tendency), he decided to pursue the expedition by using a metal detector. All he found in the park were odds and ends - a quarter, some paperclips, a bent spoon - and though he examined them in his laboratory (his closet), he discovered no overarching pattern.
Confused, he brought his findings to his Dad, who was sitting with their cat Buckminster, “reading The New York Times… marking the mistakes with red pen” (9). When he saw his father circle the words “not stop looking,” he interpreted it as a clue and continued to search nightly in the park. However, the more objects he found, "the less [he] understood” (10).
Oskar switches subjects to discuss other interests. He is not allowed to watch much TV, but likes to read. His favorite book is A Brief History of Time by his hero, Stephen Hawking. Despite its advanced math, the book comforts him, and often relieves his depressions. He once wrote to Stephen Hawking, but only received a form response letter. Nevertheless, he had it laminated.
Oskar remembers how "being with [his dad] made [his] brain quiet," and how his father would tuck him in and tell stories (12). He particularly recalls the night before 09/11, when his dad tucked him in and they listened to a man on the shortwave radio, whom Oskar considered could be his estranged grandfather. When Oskar's dad tried to tell him a fantasy story about how New York City once had a sixth borough, Oskar kept interrupting him until his dad threatened to stop. That night, he learned about the boroughs, and then pretended to fall asleep. Before his father left the room, Oskar started to ask a question, but stopped himself. Their final exchange still haunts him:
“Dad?” “Yeah, buddy?” “Nothing” (14).
The next day (09/11), Oskar was let out of school early, though the teachers did not explain about the attacks. When he got home after a leisurely walk, Oskar discovered five messages on the answering machine, all from his father. In the first message, his father assured them he was okay, and that firemen were soon to arrive. (Oskar does not reveal the content of the other messages yet.)
Then the phone rang, and he saw that it was his father calling.
Why I’m Not Where You Are 5/21/63
This section - like every other section entitled "Why I'm Not Where You Are" - consists of a letter from Thomas Schell Sr. to Thomas Schell Jr. (In other words, they are letters from Oskar's grandfather to Oskar's father.)
This letter was written on 5/21/1963, after Thomas abandoned his wife and unborn child, and recounts his experiences leading up to the event.
Soon after arriving in America from his home in Dresden, Germany, Thomas discovered that he was losing his ability to speak. Initially, he could not say the name of his former girlfriend, Anna, but he steadily lost more and more words. The last word he lost was “I.” Eventually, he was fully mute, and had the words "Yes" and "No" tattooed on the palms of his hands to facilitate communication (17).
He also began to carry a blank notebook, in which to scribble answers to questions he was asked throughout the day. He wrote only one answer per page. When he ran out of pages during a day, he would try to recycle former answers to respond to new questions.
Several pages of the novel then feature some examples of his answers.
One day, Mr. Richter, Thomas's only friend in the city, encouraged him to resume sculpting, as he had done in Germany. As Thomas had no new pages on which to write, he used a former answer to reply: “I’m not sure but it’s late” (25).
Eventually, his apartment ended up littered with notebooks.
The letter then details how Thomas met young Thomas's mother (Oskar's Grandma), in a bakery in NYC. She sat next to him, and led a short, melancholy conversation about adjusting to life in America, her crummy eyesight, and their loneliness. Then, she asked him to marry her. Using his notebook, Thomas pointed to “Ha! Ha! Ha!” (27). She cried and then wrote back, “Please marry me” (32).
The chapter ends with a close-up image of a partially locked door with a glass doorknob.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is structurally connected through the narrations of the three main characters: Oskar Schell, Grandpa (Thomas Schell Sr.), and Grandma (unnamed). Oskar’s narrations are always followed by one of the other narrator's sections, all of which are presented as correspondence previously written.
Though all the narrators speak in first person about life in New York City, what they have in common most of all is their pervasively melancholy tone. Each character is exploring his or her personal grief - for Oskar, over his father's death; for Grandpa, over the abandonment of his son; for Grandma, over the disappearance of her husband. Though none of the narrations are presented chronologically, each takes the reader on a journey to the past in order to inform what Oskar is experiencing during his search.
Oskar, the protagonist, is obsessed with answers. In many ways, his focus on the search (which is detailed in later chapters) helps him to ignore the more difficult moments of his time with his father. The Reconnaissance Expedition is a perfect symbol for the way Oskar operates. He seeks everywhere for clues to what his father wants, whereas his father works much more intuitively, communicating through shrugs and clearly oblique hints. Much of Oskar's journey throughout the novel involves learning to accept the unscientific, imprecise nature of emotions and moments with loved ones. In the same way he refuses to stop returning to Central Park to find clues to the final expedition, he refuses to cease seeking a lock for his father's key. Through his literal journey, he undergoes an emotional journey as well.
As a character, Oskar is contradictory. Intelligent with an overactive imagination, he speaks with little filter between his thoughts and actions. His dialogue, often precocious, is bulky yet energized. He switches from topic to topic with dizzying speed, hiding behind his thoughts and inventions, while pushing aside the grief he feels so keenly. There is a heavy dose of dramatic irony in the way Oskar insists he is interested only in facts, while the reader realizes how fully his emotions control him. Consider his use of the phrase "heavy boots" for depression. He characterizes the emotion as something that can be taken on or off, possibly to avoid acknowledging the lack of a clear cause for the depression. Ironically, because of his tendency to think in terms of "boots," his ability to move on past his grief is stagnated.
Oskar's voice is one of the novel's most distinctive qualities. Not only does it follow a unfiltered, imaginative and free-wheeling rhythm full of references and tangential insights, it also features a judgmental, unforgiving side. It is both the voice of an excessively precocious boy, and of that of a boy subsuming his grief into harsh cynicism. Some critics, however, believe the voice strains credibility - though Oskar has many interests that belong to a nine-year-old, his sophisticated language and sentence structure often reveal the presence of the hyper-literate Foer, who was twenty-eight when he wrote this book.
The post 09/11 genre often features protagonists who grapple with the historical significance of the attacks, while being besieged by personal crises. Oskar’s narration is unique because he does not question or mention the cause of the attacks or their aftermath. Interestingly, politicians, government and war are all mostly absent from Oskar’s story. If Oskar were an older character, he would be expected to deal in part with the cultural and historical significance of 09/11. By using a younger character, Foer gets to explore the less polemic qualities of both grief and the particular tragedy.
The author’s focus on the personal rather than the public, impact of tragedy is also reflected by the other narrators. Thomas Sr.’s narration is bereft of historical context, focusing solely on the personal aftermath of the trauma he experienced during WWII. Unable to let go of the past, he constantly reminds himself of what he has lost in the Dresden bombing, to the point that he becomes mute and can no longer communicate in the traditional manner. His description of losing one word at a time until none remains calls to mind the symptoms of aphasia, a disease of the central nervous system which renders a person incapable of speech as a result of tremendous stress, trauma, or head injury, all of which Thomas experienced during the bombing. Though an older character, he does not think of this condition in relation to the Dresden bombing (which is mentioned later, though never as a central focus). Instead, he thinks of the condition in relation to his personal relationships, to Anna and then later to Grandma.
Oskar’s narration parallels that of his grandfather’s, in that they both have a tendency to use run-on sentences, an abundance of commas, and unclear thought patterns. Both Oskar and Thomas have a difficult time relating to others, especially the women in their lives. All of their shared characteristics and narrative similarities suggest that Oskar will become like his grandfather: miserable, misunderstood, and unable to make peace with the past. Implicitly, then, Foer poses a question in these first chapters: will Oskar be able to change his outlook in order to avoid such a life of misery?