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Take a tragically dead father, a good-hearted but distracted mother, and a clever kid engaged in a mystery-solving quest around New York. Add weighty historical background, aging WWII survivors, some plot-driving letters/diary entries/manuscript fragments, and you have the constituents of not one novel but two: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer and The History of Love by his wife, Nicole Krauss.
One can only speculate as to what the couple was thinking when they made the decision—for this is no unwitting coincidence—to come out with sophomore novels obviously collaborative, so numerous are the similarities. Is it a cute postmodern joke? God knows Foer is fond of those. Or perhaps it's a romantic statement: as we are joined in matrimony so is our work? (Naturally, the dedications are to each other.) Reading the novels back-to-back triggers the strange sensation of exiting an imaginary world only to immediately re-envision it through a slightly different lens. And it's an appealing world, notwithstanding the war—or terrorism—derived gravitas with which the authors imbue their tales: a cozy milieu of Manhattan Jewish intellectuals, of unostentatious comfort, of kind and cooperative strangers, of family members who are always nice to one another and whose dysfunctions are poetic, never crass or petty.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close centers upon a fictional creation either adorable or insufferable, depending on your point of view: nine-year-old Oskar Schell. Oskar is determined to discover—and indeed anti-climatically succeeds at discovering—the origins of a key found in the closet of his father, who died on 9/11. Meanwhile his grandmother, who survived the Dresden bombing, writes the story of her life and marriage in a series of letters to Oskar. Added to this are letters from Oskar's absent grandfather. But because Oskar's adventures around New York and his grandparents' situation have no real connection in terms of plot (save a red herring involving a signature), the effect is chaotic: for all Foer's creativity, the throwing together of these essentially independent narratives seems un-artful, despite the common themes of bereavement and historical atrocity.
Krauss's novel—strikingly superior to her husband's, it must be said—juxtaposes the plights of Leo Gursky, an elderly Polish émigré eking out a lonely existence in a Lower East Side apartment, and Alma Singer, an oddly childlike but likeable fifteen-year-old. Alma's father died of cancer some years ago and when her mother, Charlotte, accepts the job of translating from Spanish a book called The History of Love, Alma identifies two opportunities: to play matchmaker between Charlotte and the man commissioning the translation, and to track down her own namesake and the heroine of the Spanish story, Alma Mereminski. As Alma pursues these plans, her diary jottings take on a mutually illuminating relationship with those of Leo and we learn, via a satisfyingly intricate plot spanning sixty years and several countries, how The History of Love came to connect our narrators' lives.
One of the more thought-provoking parallels between Krauss and Foer's novels is the scenario of the father who never meets, and indeed outlives, his son. The burden carried by Krauss's Leo Gursky is that the love of his life, Alma—yes, Alma from the book being translated—was already pregnant with his child when she fled Poland for the United States in 1941. She and Leo had arranged to meet in New York but he gets delayed, and she has no choice but to marry someone else. So Leo invisibly tracks the life of his son, Isaac, and in one of the novel's most moving passages, arrives anonymously at the synagogue where Isaac's funeral service has just ended. Seeing his beloved Alma in a photograph at the subsequent gathering of mourners, Leo reports, in a heartbreaking understatement: "My tears fell on the picture frame. Luckily there was glass."
The echo of this storyline in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is that Oskar's grandfather, Thomas Schell, leaves the United States to go back to Dresden when—in fact, because—his wife becomes pregnant. The girl he loved as a youth perished in Dresden when pregnant with his child and so, Foer wishes us to believe, he can neither commit to a real life with his (unnamed) wife—the dead girl's sister whom he meets and marries in New York—nor reconcile the prospect of a flesh-and-blood baby with the one who never was. Thomas's inability to live in the present is evidenced by his resignation from the verbal world, writing being his sole means of communication. He remains in Dresden for forty years, only returning to New York after seeing his son's name in the published lists of the 9/11 victims.
To relinquish a precious filial relationship and then to be permanently robbed of the chance to reclaim it: it's a potentially rich novelistic vein, and an appropriate litmus test of authorial skill. Accordingly, in Krauss's hands the result is quietly devastating, whereas in Foer's it comes off, unfortunately, like one of many elements too clearly contrived to crank up the poignancy quotient.
Both authors have chosen to explore the experience of living with huge loss, and both attempt to impress upon the reader the profundity of love and the pain of separation, but only Krauss succeeds in this lofty goal, and she does so majestically.
Presumably the respective publishers conferred as to release dates, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close got to go first, with The History of Love's publication date a month later. The decision was a wise one—at least this way Foer's occasionally brilliant but largely flawed and sentimental effort had a few weeks not overshadowed by Krauss's finely wrought masterpiece. Whatever collaborative writing process this literary power-couple's got going on, she's the one benefiting.
Emma Garman is a writer living in New York