Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

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Themes and Colors
Mortality and the Purpose of Life Theme Icon
Puzzles and Cleverness Theme Icon
Trauma and Guilt Theme Icon
Superstition and Ritual Theme Icon
Love and Family Theme Icon
Language and Communication Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Puzzles and Cleverness Theme Icon

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.

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Puzzles and Cleverness ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Puzzles and Cleverness appears in each chapter of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Puzzles and Cleverness Quotes in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Below you will find the important quotes in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close related to the theme of Puzzles and Cleverness.
Chapter 1 Quotes

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?

Related Characters: Oskar Schell (speaker), Dad
Related Symbols: Science, Mathematics, and Invention
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

One of the ways that Oskar deals with the trauma of the Twin Towers’ collapse and of his father’s death is by constructing elaborate scenarios in his head and asking impossible but scientifically structured questions about the world. Oskar’s narration is essentially constructed as an unfiltered running commentary of everything that Oskar is contemplating at a particular time, and his mind jumps among many different subjects, from the ever-increasing number of dead people to the white blazer that his grandmother gave him for his birthday.

Oskar’s narration is filled with direct questions, as though he is carrying on a conversation with someone. Much of the novel is about various forms of communication and direct address, both successful and failed. Oskar asks questions to the people around him, but many of his questions are internal. Oskar used to ask his dad these types of existential queries: they range from the silly to the serious, and the worries have varying levels of grounding in reality, but they always reveal something deeper going on in his mind. The musing about the number of corpses crowding the world shows Oskar’s simultaneous fascination with and fear of death. Oskar does not know how to reckon with the fact that death looms larger in his world at the moment than life, and he wonders how to create the mental as well as physical space necessary to heal. The question also reveals his claustrophobic tendencies, as well as his desire to quantify and categorize everything. Oskar feels safer when he can think about the world scientifically, rather than through overwhelming emotions.


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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?

Related Characters: Oskar Schell (speaker), Dad
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:
Dad used to send Oskar on “Expeditions” around New York City, which helped Oskar cope with some of his fears and explore the world outside the apartment. Oskar’s father teaches Oskar how to come out of his shell and find his way in the world. Dad made the world a structured place for Oskar, something that could be navigated with a plan, rather than an infinite chaos without purpose or meaning. Oskar’s Dad’s Expeditions seem like elaborate, meaningless games, but they enable Oskar to function in the world, rather than becoming overwhelmed by everything. The Expeditions also help Oskar and his father bond, because these puzzles and clues give them a shared language through which they can communicate. By seeing the world as a puzzle with possible solutions, instead of a chasm, Oskar also has the sense that his dad has never really left him, and that by following anything that seems like a potential clue, Oskar can eventually find his father again. Dad’s “Expeditions” give Oskar the inspiration to take the key in the closet as a clue that sets him on a new quest.

“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.”

Related Symbols: Science, Mathematics, and Invention
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

The conversation about parallel universes foreshadows the ending of the book, in which Oskar tries to rewind time and image a world in which a different outcome happened than the events of September 11. By switching only a few small decisions, Oskar envisions a world in which his Dad is still alive and everything is just as it had been before. However, even though Oskar tries to turn to another idea of reality as a comfort, he has to learn how to accept things as they are.

But accepting things as they are doesn’t mean that we have to stop telling stories. The “fireflies” foreshadow the story of the Sixth Borough, which Oskar alludes to in this first chapter but does not appear in the novel in full until much later. In this fable, eventually the only source of light in the Sixth Borough comes from fireflies kept in jars. The Sixth Borough represents another imaginary universe, a long-lost, Atlantis-like world that becomes a shared mythic space between Oskar and his father. Stories about alternate realities can, paradoxically, help us live in our own universe.

Chapter 3 Quotes

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!

Related Characters: Oskar Schell (speaker)
Related Symbols: Science, Mathematics, and Invention
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:

The devices that Oskar imagines are often whimsical and seem tangential, but they typically represent something that is deeply important to Oskar’s subconscious mind. In the case of the ambulance siren that blasts an important message from the person dying inside, the invention represents an idealized version of the messages that Oskar’s father left on the answering machine on September 11. Oskar feels incredibly guilty both that his father left these messages and that Oskar didn’t pick up the phone when he had the final opportunity to speak to his father. Oskar is preoccupied with getting closure for his father’s death, and he wishes that his father had left a very clear message saying goodbye, rather than a series of messages asking if anyone were there to pick up the phone. Oskar knows that he could not have done anything to stop his father’s death, but he still feels guilty because the final words from his father were so unresolved. An ambulance siren that blasts canned but unambiguous messages to loved ones would help those left behind feel more at peace and able to move forward, rather than being trapped in an emotional limbo land.

Chapter 5 Quotes

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?

Related Characters: Oskar Schell (speaker)
Related Symbols: Science, Mathematics, and Invention
Page Number: 88
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Oskar again shows his tendency towards whimsical scientific questions and the ritualized ordering of spaces, through which he tries to make sense of emotional issues. At this point in the novel, Jonathan Safran Foer also inserts a picture of several bridge girders in a lattice pattern, and through them, one can see part of the New York skyline, though, of course, missing the Twin Towers.

On the one hand, there are several layers of supporting structures holding the bridges up, which makes the "connective tissue" between the boroughs seem very strong. However, since the bridges are all in lattice structures, the viewer can also see through the gaps between the beams, which makes the reader aware of the empty spaces as well. Throughout the novel, in all of the various plots, Foer emphasizes that there must be a balance of positive and negative space, between something and nothing, in order to create true, lasting stability. The space in the middle of every borough, on the one hand, could be thought of as a kind of a black hole, a void that belongs to no one and thus has a terrifying power to destroy those who enter. On the other hand, the space could belong to everyone, so rather than sucking people into no man’s land dangerously, it could be a trusting space supported by all.

Chapter 8 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Grandma (speaker)
Related Symbols: Letters, Notes, and Notebooks
Page Number: 176
Explanation and Analysis:

The fact that Grandma has been deliberately typing spaces over and over, unbeknownst to Grandpa, symbolizes the fundamental gap between them. Grandpa is heartbroken when he sees Grandma’s sheaf of blank papers, since he thinks that she believes she has been typing actual words the whole time. Grandpa lies to Grandma to protect her feelings, and Grandma lets Grandpa lie, because, to her understanding, this lie is more palatable than the truth, which is that Grandma is typing a blank autobiography because she believes that her life is a blank. Grandma has married her dead sister’s lover, she cannot communicate with him, and her family is gone, so she thinks that her life is now just an empty space. However, an empty space can be filled. Grandma’s letter to Oskar has several spaces between every sentence, and there are many line breaks, yet because she has a message to convey to Oskar, she is starting to have words to put in between the spaces.

Chapter 11 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Dad (speaker), Oskar Schell
Page Number: 219
Explanation and Analysis:

Oskar’s Dad tells Oskar a fable about a mythical Sixth Borough of New York City. In the first chapter of the novel, Oskar describes the scene in which Dad tells him the story, but only now does the reader get to read the full story, which emphasizes the puzzle-like structure of the novel itself. The story of the Sixth Borough is very close to the center of the novel itself, which demonstrates its symbolic significance in all the various relationships and plot lines that unfold. Dad tells the story to Oskar to help Oskar process the fact that change might be sad, and we might fight to stop negative change, but ultimately, sometimes, we have to let go. When Dad tells Oskar this fable, Oskar doesn’t yet know that he will have to apply it to his relationship with his father, but the story of the Sixth Borough symbolically helps him move forward.

The fable of the Sixth Borough also resonates with the areas of Grandma and Grandpa’s apartment that are designated as Something versus Nothing. Although Grandma and Grandpa try to hold the ties between them and to keep their relationship together, their shared grief proves to be too strong a force, and it pulls them apart. Just like the tunnels and electric wires in the fable, the lines of communication between Grandma and Grandpa cannot hold. 

Chapter 13 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Oskar Schell (speaker), Grandpa, Dad
Related Symbols: Science, Mathematics, and Invention
Page Number: 257
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout the novel, invention and telling stories have been a source of comfort and security for Oskar. However, in the quest to come to terms with his father’s death, Oskar is frustrated by his fruitless obsession with imagined scenarios, and he wants the truth to set him free. He fixates on his father’s mode of death because it provides a concrete clue that gives him focus and purpose, rather than the depressing concept of seeing everything as a meaningless void. Oskar gets the idea to dig up his father’s coffin, which makes Oskar's role in Hamlet as the dead skull of Yorick all the more symbolically, if morbidly, appropriate.

Oskar is speaking to a man whom he calls “the renter,” since he only knows him as the man who is staying with Grandma. Unbeknownst to Oskar, however, “the renter” is actually Oskar’s grandfather, and although he thinks he is entrusting his story with a stranger, he is instead confiding to his father’s father, which is about the closest to his father that he can get in real life.

Chapter 15 Quotes


Related Characters: Oskar Schell (speaker), Mr. Black
Related Symbols: Letters, Notes, and Notebooks
Page Number: 286
Explanation and Analysis:

Foer not only writes about what many of Mr. Black's business cards or index cards (which contain brief biographical information about people he considers "significant") say and look like, but he also places an image of these cards directly into the novel. Mr. Black’s card describing Oskar resembles in size and shape the business cards that Oskar makes for himself. Oskar’s business card also begins with his name, but underneath it he has packed many descriptions, including inventor, jewelry designer, percussionist, and amateur archaeologist. Throughout the novel, Oskar takes all the roles he describes himself as having and many more. Mr. Black does not have a comprehensively detailed description on every card, but rather, exactly the opposite. He has a vast library of people in his card catalog, and all of them are distilled to one essential description. Oskar may, indeed, do many things and have many traits—but being a son is Oskar’s primary motivation, and being a son is a very complex, layered job that gets at the root of everything Oskar does. Oskar spends the majority of the novel on a quest to discover the mystery of the key in his closet, which is a quest designed to bring him closer to his dead father. But being a son is also about being there for his mother, who is still alive, yet is mostly silent in the background for much of the novel. Even though Oskar concentrates explicitly on looking for clues about his father, it is his mother who is there for him, and whom he has to be there for in the present.

Chapter 17 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Oskar Schell (speaker), Dad
Page Number: 326
Explanation and Analysis:

The last words of the novel express the desired fulfillment of many of Oskar’s deepest wishes. Oskar longs to turn back time and reverse the course of history so that his father wouldn’t have had to die on September 11. By rewinding and telling the story backwards, Oskar wants to take control over uncontrollable events so that history can unfold in a different direction. But these final words also express the fact that Oskar’s wishes can’t be fulfilled. The quotation is in the subjunctive mood, rather than the indicative, which demonstrates that Oskar is presenting a wish rather than a fact. Throughout the novel, Oskar has learned that we can’t actually go back and reverse the course of history. Even though the book ends in a fantasy description of what Oskar wishes the world could be like, the reader knows that we have to move forward in reality.

Although these are the last words in the book, they are not the book’s ending. The book concludes with several photographs of a person falling from the Twin Towers, but arranged in reverse order, so that if the reader flips through them, the person appears to be falling up instead of down. This reversal of the familiar image shows the tension between fantasy and the poignant reality that all characters struggle with throughout the novel. Even though they wish they could reverse time and space in certain key moments, and even though they replay events in their minds, they have to figure out some way of moving forward in order to heal.