Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer

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Houghton Mifflin, 349 pp, $34.95, hardcover.

Jonathan Safran Foer is a victim of the sophomore jinx, and he's only got himself to blame for it.

Although he has a gift for evoking empathy in his readers (amply shown in his debut, Everything Is Illuminated), Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close fails because instead of just writing a story, he attempts two difficult things: writing in the voice of a child and playing with the structure of the novel.

Nine-year-old Oskar Schell's father was killed in the World Trade Center attacks; his body was never found. When Oskar finds a special key that belonged to his father, he embarks on a search for the lock it opens. In so doing, he maintains a closeness to his father that he is reluctant to relinquish. Oskar is angry, paranoid, and poised on the brink of an obsessive-compulsive disorder. He's filled with guilt and struggling with grief.

Which is what Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is all about: grief. That and the survivor's search for lost loved ones. In confronting these themes, Foer bravely links the events of September 11, 2001, with two events near the end of World War II: the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, and the apocalypse at Hiroshima.

But Foer just can't carry off Oskar's voice. The child is just too self aware, too precocious, for belief. Despite this shortcoming, Foer gets us to feel for Oskar, to root for him, to hope he can deal with his grief, his sadness.

More troubling is Foer's struggle with structure. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close alternates chapters between first-person Oskar, letters from a father to the son he never knew, and letters to Oskar from his grandmother. Not to mention pages of graphics and Oskar's photographs presumably meant to lend the novel verisimilitude. But novels aren't reality television, and the extraneous elements simply distract from what is, in truth, a touching, troubling story.

Foer should forget the tired postmodern cut-and-paste and let the story and characters do their job. He is a good enough writer to carry that off.