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Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close


“Tragedy primes one for humor. And humor primes one for tragedy. They amplify each other. As a writer, I am trying to express those things that are most scary to me, because I am alone with them. Why do I write? It's not that I want people to think I am smart, or even that I am a good writer. I write because I want to end my loneliness. Books make people less alone. That, before and after everything else, is what books do. They show us that conversations are possible across distances.’” —JSF to Deborah Solomon, in “The Rescue Artist,” NYT, February 27, 2005


Biography and Literary Career:

Born in 1977 Jonathan Safran Foer grew up in Washington D.C. as the middle child in a close Jewish family, the grandson of Holocaust survivors. Although Foer developed a strong imagination of self and other as a child, in the summer of 1985, he sustained second-degree burns in an “extremely loud and incredibly close” accident while attending a chemistry camp and, in the immediate after-math of “The Explosion,” witnessed the severe wounds of several friends and classmates, an experience which lead to a nervous breakdown in the years that followed, a re-shaping of the imagined world around him, and to a Foer who wanted “nothing, except to be outside of his own skin,” as he recounted to Deborah Solomon in a 2005 New York Times interview. In 1999, Foer graduated with a degree in philosophy from Princeton University where he took an introductory writing course with author Joyce Carol Oates and completed the first draft of his first novel. His first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, was published in 2002 and within the year had garnered, among other awards, the Guardian First Book Award. Foer has since published three books, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), Eating Animals (2009), and Tree of Codes (2010), in addition to a number of other stories and writings. His next novel, Escape From Children’s Hospital, a story that finds its roots in Foer’s trauma from “The Explosion,” is expected out in 2014.


Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Publication/Transmission* History

Since its first publication in both hardback and paperback with Houghton-Mifflin in March 2005, Foer’s second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, has logged significant changes in its development, transmission, and reception. In terms of creation and development, the novel finds its roots in a kitsch of personal experience and meditations, literary traditions and influences, and additional external writings that Foer completed between 2002 and 2004— specifically Foer’s childhood trauma with “The Explosion,” his engagement with Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum, and his flash fiction “The Sixth Borough,” published in The New York Times in 2004, a tale which eventually locates parts of itself within Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as the bedtime story that Thomas Schell tells to Oskar the night before the events of 9/11. In terms of its transmission and reception, the majority of the pressure placed on Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by critical and popular readers alike,  stems, it seems in some cases, from the format in which each reader encountered the text: the audio book edition (2009 +/-), the Stephen Daldry film adaptation* (2011), the Houghton-Mifflin “Movie Tie-In” edition (November 2011), and the Amazon Kindle edition (2012 +/-). Although most reviewers and scholars encountered the printed text as available March 2005-October 2011, an edition of the text which informs the majority of their opinions on the influence of the physical book, a number of readers from the general public expressed disparate experiences with the book on popular review forums, such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble, many telling shifts in opinions suggesting a conflict between print and digital editions.


Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Reception History

Most immediate book review feedback for the novel (circa 2005) returns top-heavy across the board with disdain for Foer’s style, narrative developments, and innovations, many allotting some merit to the novel’s ingenuity, but all suggesting some translation of the same opinion: contrived. In his March 2005 New Yorker review, author John Updike, the first of the critics to voice an assessment of the novel, expressed in his article “Mixed Messages” his opinion that the text bears a “high plane of inventiveness and emotional urgency,” nevertheless “a little more silence, a few fewer messages, less graphic apparatus might let Foer’s excellent empathy, imagination, and good will resonate all the louder.” Michiko Kakutani, another March 2005 reviewer, expressed in his New York Times review, “A Boy’s Epic Quest, Borough by Borough,” his opinion that the novel is “admirably purposeful but ultimately mannered and irritating.” Harry Siegel of NYPress goes so far as to say to Foer in his April 2005 review, “Extremely Cloying and Incredibly False,” “Don’t walk the
streets naked and complain that no one takes you seriously, and certainly don’t write a book culminating
with a flipbook and then complain that your words aren’t taken seriously,” words which veer dangerously close to an ad hominem attack on the author as they dismiss the novel. A more neutral case, Walter Kirn, writing for The New York Times, makes the following remark in his April 2005 review “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: Everything Is Included,” picking up on obliquely authentic emotional resonances for lost innocence where his fellow critics had sensed none: “Foer chose this quaint template for an ingenious reason: it evokes, at a primal cultural level, the benevolent, innocent New York that was vaporized, even as a fantasy, when the towers were toppled…Not all the victims, Foer knows, were real, live people. Eloise and Stuart Little died, too.” Laura Miller, in her 2005 New York Magazine review, “Terror Comes to Tiny Town,” also speaks to this emotional register in Foer’s novel, however, her specific assessment is less favorable than Kirn’s, suggesting on both macro- and microcosmic levels, “We’re still not entirely sure what [9/11] signifies, or even if, philosophically speaking (and this is the hardest possibility to contemplate), it might signify nothing at all.” “It may just be too early to get cute in writing about September 11;” she continues, “on the other hand, there’s never a good time to get as cute as Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close gets.” Miller also notes that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close allegedly started as a different novel, The Zelnik Museum, the story of an older man sorting through relics as a means of narrative about the past, and though encouraging an interesting complication in the background story to Foer’s development of the novel, the source of this specific note is only available in her review.


Around and post-2008, the theoretical exiting threshold to what Richard Gruisin describes as the “after-9/11” “era” in his book Premediations: Affect and Mediality after 9/11, a number of academics begin to approach the novel in a scholastic context and find their work inclined to assess the novel more as an “artifact” than a “literary composition,” a distinction which allows the novel to operate as a watershed text for thinking about literary innovation as a plausible answer to writing about the un-writable and to coping with the traumatized imagination. While earlier reviewers and critics suggested, among other things, the hypothetical damage that the similarities between Foer’s and Grass’s respective novels, scholar Sien Uytterschout, in her 2010 article “An Extremely Loud Tin Drum: A Comparative Study of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum,” her position that the novels compliment and complicate one another in a specific resonant dialogue of cultural trauma, noting that “The intertextual link between the two novels, however, is by no means confined to superficial resemblances in the respective plots.” “Rather,” she continues, “similarities on the plot and thematic level are complemented by a set of characteristics typical of both trauma fiction and magical realism (186).” S. Todd Atchison also revisits early critical opinions of the novel, and in his summer 2010 article, “Why I am writing from where you are not”: Absence and presence in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” the scholar asserts a counter-assessment to the suggest that Foer’s style and innovation in the novel present themselves as mere emotional ploys, recommending that readers consider the novel in terms of the cultural counter-narratives that Foer creates in disrupting traditional narrative structures and think of these disruptions as a means of encountering traumatic events. Moreover, taking the critical conversation to the plane of “9/11 book” genre, scholar Aaron Mauro, in his fall 2011 article, “The Languishing of the Falling Man: Don DeLillo and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Photographic History of 9/11,” sets aside earlier damning commentary to examine both Falling Man and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close in the afore mentioned context of 9/11“artifact,” instead of “literary composition,” favorably noting that both novels “have become photographic and historic nodes that have greatly marked our literary imagination regarding the events of 9/11 (585).”


Not unlike their critical counterparts, readers in the general public also returned Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close with widely mixed reviews; nevertheless, final sentiments, in contrast, bore and continue to bear a general tone of favor throughout, the novel averaging around 4 stars out of 5 across the popular review forums. In the case of the Amazon review forum, readers noted their feedback at each of the five-star levels, their attitudes, as mentioned earlier, occasionally drawing attention to a potential correlation between reader opinion and textual medium. A three-star reviewer 2005 hardback edition) responds positively, but concludes that the novel is “a story ruined by talent,” suggesting the book to be over-written to the brink between love and disgust; still, a two-star reviewer (2011 Movie Tie-In reader) blankly dismisses the novel “contrived and overdone.” Another low reviewer, with one-star (Movie Tie-In reader, 2013), notes that the novel sets “new lows for the Ewok test,” or “cheap and easy emotional manipulation” based on the harm that befalls something ultimately cute, noble, and innocent; nevertheless, a five-star reviewer (Hardback, 2005) refers to the novel as a “loud and lovely” “quest for the soul.” Adding to the complexity, Kindle readers had an even stronger reaction to the novel, in many cases, due to the fact, as one reader notes, “the formatting made some places impossible to read,” an opinion that, again, suggests an articulate difference between print and digital editions of the text. Barnes and Noble reviewers also responded in scatterplot fashion, one one-star reviewer referring to the novel, in accordance with the early book reviews, as “mere gimmickry,” even as a proximal five-star reviewer refers to the novel as a “six star literary masterpiece.”



Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Critical Articles, Source Information, and Supplemental Links


Selected Academic Articles:

Atchison, S. Todd. “Why I am writing from where you are not”: Absence and presence in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing 46. 3-4 (2010): 359-368. Print.


Mauro, Aaron. "The Languishing of the Falling Man: Don DeLillo and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Photographic History of 9/11." MFS Modern Fiction Studies 57.3 (2011): 584-606. Project MUSE. Web. 9 Feb. 2014.


Mullins, Matthew. "Boroughs And Neighbors: Traumatic Solidarity In Jonathan Safran Foer's "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.." Papers On Language & Literature 45.3 (2009): 298-324. Academic Search Premier. Web. 9 Feb. 2014.


Saal, Ilka. "Regarding the Pain of Self and Other: Trauma Transfer and Narrative Framing in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close." MFS Modern Fiction Studies 57.3 (2011): 451-476. Project MUSE. Web. 9 Feb. 2014.


Uytterschout, Sien and K. Versluys. “Melancholy and Mourning in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” Orbis Litterarum 63 (2008): 216–236. Web.


Uytterschout, Sien. "An Extremely Loud Tin Drum: A Comparative Study Of Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close and Günter Grass's The Tin Drum." Comparative Literature Studies 47.2 (2010): 185-199. Academic Search Premier. Web. 9 Feb. 2014.



Selected Book Reviews (in chronological order):

John Updike, “Mixed Messages.” The New Yorker: 14 March 2005



Michiko Kakutani, “A Boy’s Epic Quest, Borough by Borough.” The New York Times: 22 March 2005



Walter Kirn, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: Everything Is Included.” The New York Times: 3 April 2005



Harry Siegel, “Extremely Cloying and Incredibly False.” NY Press: 20 April 2005



Michael Faber, “A Tower of Babble.” The Guardian: 3 June 2005



Laura Miller, “Terror Comes to Tiny Town.” New York Magazine: 2005




Press Releases and News:

Houghton-Mifflin Co. Press Release, 2005: http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/booksellers/press_release/extremelyloud/


Jon Lyus, “Stephen Daldry to Bring Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to the Screen”: 1 April 2010:





Deborah Solomon, “The Rescue Artist.” The New York Times: 27 February 2005




Supplemental Texts and Links:

Jonathan Safran Foer,“The Sixth Borough.” The New York Times: 17 September 2004 http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/17/opinion/17foer.html?pagewanted=all


Link for the Noisy Outlaws…Collection, a later publication containing Foer’s “The Sixth Borough”:



Link for Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum:



Link to Video of Foer Re-tracing Oskar Schell’s Search:



Jonathan Safran Foer, “Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease.” The New Yorker: 3 June 2002



Anis Shivani, “The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers.” The Huffington Post, 7 August 2010

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anis-shivani/the-15-most-overrated con_b_672974.html#s123751title=Jonathan_Safran_Foer


Bookpage Blog Post about Foer’s 2014 Escape From Children’s Hospital: