It's 10.15 on a Friday morning at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, and the seniors of third-period English class are restless. As they file into a classroom, they glance at a small, tidy man wearing a black sweater and jeans sitting at the front. The bell rings and he introduces himself.

"Hi, I am Jonathan Safran Foer, and I am not a dead author, but a living one." Sniggers, but once they stop it gets quiet. The students have been reading Foer's first novel, Everything is Illuminated, and having the real writer here is a bit like having Catcher in the Rye's Holden Caulfield in as a guest. And then discovering that he is really J.D. Salinger in disguise.

But there is a frisson of something else today that makes Foer's appearance especially loaded. His latest novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, revolves around a 9-year-old boy whose father dies during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Three and a half years ago, the students in this room had just begun their first year of high school when two planes slammed into the World Trade Centre, roughly 400m away. Close enough so that when the towers collapsed, the school windows blew out.

Today, the Ground Zero site is an empty construction pit. In the classroom, the subject of That Day remains an empty pit as well. Sensing their nervousness, Foer reads the opening pages of his two books back-to-back and begins talking about their similarities. Hands go up and eager students kick off a wide-ranging discussion about literature.

In this sense, Foer makes for an unlikely literary celebrity. He wants to be accessible; he wants the class to believe they, too, can project their voices across centuries. Across tragedies if they wish.

It is exactly what Foer has done in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, which writes its way into the still pulpy and bruised heart of 9/11. The novel is powered by a precocious young New Yorker named Oskar Schell, who searches for the lock that will fit a key he believes was left by his father, who died because he attended a meeting at the Windows on the World restaurant.

Oskar copes with his grief by keeping his mind running at full tilt. He invents kettles which talk and writes letters to his heroes, such as Stephen Hawking, and talks to everyone he meets. "You get the sense that, were his mind to stop churning" — Foer says later, sitting in a diner in Brooklyn, where he lives — "he would self-destruct, like beavers whose teeth grow into their brain if they stop chewing."

Once again, Foer is writing about loss and how, under its duress, language becomes a leaky vessel for meaning. Oskar's grandmother and grandfather, survivors of Dresden, whose story unfolds alongside Oskar's, invent a language which fences off things they will not speak about. When that fails, they write letters. When that fails, they are no longer a couple.

Foer cannot help but dramatise this worry in person. He answers questions so deliberately and enigmatically — often with metaphors or stories — that he resembles a human Magic 8-Ball.

Sitting in the garden of the townhouse where he lives with his wife, novelist Nicole Krauss, Foer tries to explain his obsession with erasure. "I remember, as a kid, I used to read the phone book and think that in 100 years, all these people would be dead."

I ask him if he thinks that morbid. "I don't know. I write about things I am afraid of now because sometimes they turn out to be the same things everyone else is afraid of."

Such fears aside, Foer grew up like a lot of middle-class Jewish boys of a certain time: success was expected. The Holocaust was a generation ago. All three children attended Ivy League universities. They were not rich but comfortably middle-class. The brothers are all writers.

Still, despite this support and privilege, something had been lost. This is why during college, Foer took a trip to the Ukraine and imagined his way into his grandfather's shtetl, or village; then imagined himself imagining his way into that past. The interplay between these two activities became Everything is Illuminated.

Though the world now knows this book as a runaway success, it didn't feel that way for Foer, who until four years ago was a receptionist making US$12,000 ($16,800) a year. "I was turned down by six agents, one finally said yes. She submitted it to every publisher in New York. All of them turned it down. I would have just been happy if it was published at all."

Instead, after some revisions and a new agent, the novel became a bestseller and one of the most talked-about debuts of 2002.

However, if that received some of the most laudatory reviews of any first novel in the past decade, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close received a decidedly rougher treatment in New York, before the rest of the country chimed in positively.

I ask Foer how what he makes of these attacks. "I feel we are at a really destructive point in American culture, where we don't just have to criticise something, we have to kill it."

Either way, the response to Foer's book shows he has touched a nerve. Long lines greet him at readings, and letters have arrived from people whose loved ones died.

Take the train back into Manhattan from Foer's house and — ironically, briefly — you can wind up at the scoured-out foundation hole, visible from the windows of the skeleton of a station which was crushed when the towers fell. It is dusty and brown and empty in there.

* Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer, is out on Monday, $35.