Jonathan Safran Foer was born in 1977 in Washington, D.C., to a Jewish-American family. When Foer was eight years old, an elementary school chemistry project exploded in his classroom, sending him and other children to the hospital. Although Foer suffered only minor injuries, he faced trauma and anxiety in the aftermath, both from the shock of the event and from witnessing his friends’ injuries. Foer has cited the incident as formative in his development both as a person and a writer, and some critics have connected Oskar’s search for normalcy and safety after his dad’s death in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to this incident from Foer’s own life. Foer attended Princeton University, graduating with a degree in philosophy in 1999. While at Princeton, he took a course with acclaimed writer Joyce Carol Oates, who encouraged his work. He transformed his undergraduate thesis into his first novel, Everything is Illuminated, which launched his reputation as a rising star of contemporary literature and won numerous awards. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, his sophomore effort, was published in 2005. Foer has said that he writes because he’s lonely, and books make people feel less alone. He currently teaches creative writing at New York University and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is set against the backdrop of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which had a profound effect on American culture as the first foreign attack on American soil since the bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II. Hijackers associated with the terrorist group al-Qaeda flew two commercial airplanes into the World Trade Center in New York City, and an additional plane crashed into the Pentagon building in Washington, D.C. A fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers attempted to wrest back control of the plane from the hijackers. Although all of the United States grappled with insecurity and shock after 9/11, New York in particular reeled from the trauma, with both the massive loss of life and the hole in their skyline serving as a daily reminder of the attack. Foer wanted to write about 9/11 because he wanted to make sense of the event in a way that felt apolitical and human. Critics list Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as one of the first so-called 9/11 novels, and some even read Oskar as a metaphor for the American psyche post-9/11.
Foer layers Oskar’s story with that of his grandparents, survivors of the bombing of Dresden in World War II. From February 13–15, 1945, Allied forces carried out a series of bombing raids on the city of Dresden, Germany, as part of a campaign to overwhelm German infrastructure with refugees. The raids began on the night of February 13, and the resulting fires eventually merged into a firestorm. Citizens burned to death in the flames, and many of those trying to escape suffocated from the resulting smoke. That first night of bombing devastated the Dresden city center. Although British and American authorities defended the bombing as strategic, citing the city as a communication and transportation hub, many scholars have criticized the action as cruel and unnecessary. Many believe the Allied forces chose Dresden as a symbolic cultural target, not a strategic one, and note that the primary victims were women, children, and elderly citizens. Artists and writers have used Dresden ever since to ask questions about the costs of war, even if the morality of that war seems clear cut.
Critical reception to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has been deeply divided. While some critics find the book a poignant and moving portrayal of grief, others accuse the book of cashing in on the trauma of 9/11. In particular, some critics found the novel’s flip book ending, which reverses images of a man falling from the World Trade Center so that he rises back up to safety, insensitive toward those who died in 9/11. Oskar has proven to be a divisive narrator, with some readers finding him hilarious and relatable, while others describe him as obnoxious and unlikable. Nevertheless, the book became a New York Times best-seller in 2005, and the New York Public Library chose it as one of their twenty-five Books to Remember from 2005. In 2011, Paramount Pictures and Warner Brothers released a film adaptation of the novel directed by Stephen Daldry and featuring Tom Hanks as Oskar’s dad. Unlike the novel, the film explicitly diagnoses Oskar as having Asperger's Syndrome. However, Foer has stated that he didn’t envision Oskar as being on the autism spectrum, just as more evocative and impressionistic than other nine-year-olds.