Puzzles offer a comforting alternative to disasters that don’t make sense: puzzles suggest that life has answers, and that even the scariest situations will have a solution in the end. Puzzles might seem like a light-hearted pastime, but Oskar takes puzzles extremely seriously. When Oskar discovers the key in his Dad’s room, he turns it from a random object into a quest. The key is in a little envelope labeled “Black,” and Oskar decides that the he’s going to discover who Black is by tracking down everyone in New York with that last name. Oskar’s self-assigned mission to unlock the mystery of the key becomes an elaborate journey that takes him around every corner of every borough of New York.
Oskar’s clearly a very precocious kid: he has an enormous vocabulary, and he proofreads the New York Times to relax. Puzzles have always been the way Oskar deals with sensory overload, or things that might be too complicated for him to grasp fully on his own. Oskar’s Dad used to send Oskar on elaborate “Reconnaissance Missions” throughout the city, turning the potentially overwhelming landscape of New York into a treasure hunt. The puzzle also becomes a tribute to Oskar’s Dad, or, in a type of irrational thinking, a way of keeping his Dad alive: if Oskar can believe that his Dad set him up on this quest, then his Dad still remains a part of his life.
The form of the plot is a lot like a puzzle. Even though the main narrator is nine-year-old Oskar, Foer includes several letters and notebook entries written by other characters. Oskar’s Grandpa writes letters to his son, who is either Oskar’s Dad or the unborn baby who died at Dresden. Figuring out what’s going on with the story of these other characters creates mini-quests within the main quest of the book (that is, to find out the mystery of the key). And there are puzzles within these other sub-plots. One of the letters from Oskar’s grandfather to Oskar’s dad is covered with red ink: Grammatical and spelling mistakes get circled, but lots of random and not-so-random words (like “love” and “father”) are also circled. The editing marks make the letter into a puzzle: the circles and underlines make it seem like there’s a hidden message that the reader has to decipher, even if the code is difficult to crack.
The style of the book is also puzzle-like. Jonathan Safran Foer sticks photographs and images directly into the book, like a rebus puzzle. For example, there are photos of things like doorknobs, keys, paper airplanes, Hamlet, and Stephen Hawking that crop up in the middle of the story. Many of the images seem like they’re meant to be from Oskar’s binder, which he calls “Stuff That Happened to Me,” even though most of the things in it only “happened” to Oskar in his mind, or by association.
Puzzles and Cleverness ThemeTracker
Puzzles and Cleverness Quotes in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Isn’t it so weird how the number of dead people is increasing even though the earth stays the same size, so that one day there isn’t going to be room to bury anyone anymore?
I spent all day walking around the park, looking for something that might tell me something, but the problem was that I didn’t know what I was looking for…But that’s how tricky Dad could be. There was nothing, which would have been unfortunate, unless nothing was a clue. Was nothing a clue?
“Well, what I get is why we do exist? I don’t mean how, but why.” I watched the fireflies of his thoughts orbit his head. He said, “We exist because we exist.” “What the?” “We could imagine all sorts of universes like this one, but this is the one that happened.”
And maybe you could rate the people you knew by how much you loved them, so if the device of the person in the ambulance detected the device of the person he loved the most, or the person who loved him the most, and the person in the ambulance was really badly hurt, and might even die, the ambulance could flash GOODBYE! I LOVE YOU! GOODBYE! I LOVE YOU!
When I was exactly halfway across the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge, I thought about how a millimeter behind me was Manhattan and a millimeter in front of me was Queens. So what’s the name of the parts of New York—exactly half through the Midtown Tunnel, exactly halfway over the Brooklyn Bridge, the exact middle of the Staten Island Ferry when it’s exactly halfway between Manhattan and Staten Island—that aren’t in any borough?
I went to the guest room and pretended to write. I hit the space bar again and again and again. My life story was spaces.
A millimeter at a time, the Sixth Borough receded from New York…The eight bridges between Manhattan and the Sixth Borough strained and finally crumbled, one at a time, into the water. The tunnels were pulled too thin to hold anything at all. The phone and electrical lines snapped…those fireflies in glass jars, which had once been used merely for decorative purposes during the festivals of the leap, were now found in every room of every home, taking the place of artificial light.
I want to stop inventing. If I could know how he died, exactly how he died, I wouldn’t have to invent him dying…There were so many different ways to die, and I just need to know which was his.
OSKAR SCHELL: SON
I’d have said “Dad?” backwards, which would have sounded the same as “Dad” forward.
He would have told me the story of the Sixth Borough, from the voice in the can at the end to the beginning, from “I love you” to “Once upon a time…”
We would have been safe.