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The boy who knew too much

The young Oskar - and his creator, Jonathan Safran Foer - show off their skills, with mixed results

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
By Jonathan Safran Foer
Houghton Mifflin, 326 pp., illustrated, $24.95

Jonathan Safran Foer's new novel is the mirror image of its young protagonist. The book is energetic, inventive, and ambitious, while also, at times, indulgent, contrived, and crushingly desperate for attention.

''Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" stars Oskar Schell, a 9-year-old whose beloved father died in the World Trade Center attack. This is the kind of boy who carries a business card announcing his various pursuits (inventor, pacifist, vegan, Francophile) and says things like ''Entomology is one of my raisons d'être."

Fans of Foer's celebrated first novel, ''Everything Is Illuminated," will recognize the eager fluency of Oskar's voice, and the story he tells has been skillfully assembled. It concerns a mysterious key he finds after his father's death, which leads him to race around New York City searching for clues and charming the pants off everyone he meets. He rescues old men from emotional atrophy and makes grown women swoon.

This is his assigned role: the troubled child as saint. Foer clearly wants us to view Oskar's charm as a defense. Unfortunately, the boy is so relentlessly self-aware that he winds up explaining his feelings to the reader, rather than dramatizing them. After his mother takes him to visit a psychiatrist (whom he naturally outwits) Oskar tells us, ''We were quiet on the car ride home. I turned on the radio and found a station playing 'Hey Jude.' It was true, I didn't want to make it bad. I wanted to take the sad song and make it better. It's just that I didn't know how." These direct pleas for sympathy begin to feel, after a time, more like strong-arming.

Oskar is forever proposing inventions that will save people, such as a pocket large enough to store loved ones. ''But I knew that there couldn't be pockets that enormous. In the end, everyone loses everyone." It's a lovely line, of course, wise and true, which is why plunking it in the mouth of a 9-year-old feels stagy.

This tendency to play to the balconies makes it tough to regard Oskar as an actual little boy. He comes off more as an authorial creation: a collection of lovable quirks bundled around a defining tragedy.

Foer fares better with Oskar's grandparents, survivors of the Dresden fire-bombing, whose haunting stories anchor the book in history.

''There was a silver explosion," his grandfather Thomas recalls, ''all of us tried to leave the cellar at once, dead and dying people were trampled, I walked over an old man, I walked over children, everyone was losing everyone, the bombs were like a waterfall, I ran through the streets, from cellar to cellar, and saw terrible things: legs and necks, I saw a woman whose blond hair and green dress were on fire, running with a silent baby in her arms."

In these elegant and vivid sections, Foer reveals how extreme grief stunts our ability to connect with the world. Thomas, whose pregnant lover dies in the bombings, falls mute. He addresses his letters to the son he will never meet, and his sense of guilt and bewilderment is palpable. ''That's all anyone wants from anyone else," he observes wearily, ''not love itself but the knowledge that love is there."

Thomas's missives are peppered with blank pages, or pages that contain a single sentence, in imitation of the notebooks he uses to communicate. Elsewhere, his words cramp into a black mass. The passages narrated by Oskar's grandmother are also oddly spaced, like epigrams. Foer is, I think, trying to represent the rhythms of his characters' thoughts, and the missed connections between them. But why is a writer of his caliber relying on typography to do his job?

Or photographs, for that matter. The book includes dozens, most ostensibly taken by Oskar in the course of his wanderings: keys, doorknobs, birds, elephants crying, and, most shockingly, a man falling from the World Trade Center.

But when I read a novel, I want to be in what John Gardner termed ''the continuous dream." A man like Thomas Schell has a riveting story to tell, after all. We don't need gimmicks to keep our attention; we just need the truth.

In any event, none of these extratextual flourishes brought me any closer to the characters in question. Just the opposite: Their central effect was to remind me how clever their creator is. As for the three pages written in mathematical code, I am at a loss.

Why doesn't Foer simply trust his story? He is clearly capable of writing deeply moving passages, and addressing big themes. He weaves his various plotlines with a deft hand.

Still, it must be said that Oskar's final catharsis is never much in doubt. The book is ultimately a fantasia, an uplifting myth born of the sorrows of 9/11. It is for this very reason that a great many folks will be gratified to read ''Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." But that doesn't mean it should be confused with great art.

To speak of this novel in the same breath as, for instance, ''The Tin Drum" -- the chilling Günter Grass novel from which Oskar derives his name -- is the stuff of marketing, not serious critical assessment. Grass's little boy is irreparably damaged by what he has witnessed, literally disfigured. He tells us his story not for narcissistic gain, not to dazzle or soothe an audience, but to reveal the world in its full, tragic measure.

Steve Almond is the author of ''Candyfreak," ''My Life in Heavy Metal," and the forthcoming ''The Evil B. B. Chow and Other Stories."

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