I read Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer’s second novel, last spring and it was a reading experience that will stay with me. When it was published a year ago, this was one of the first novels to take as its theme the events of 9/11. The story is told in a somewhat surreal manner reminiscent of the genre known as magical realism. The protagonist and narrator is Oskar Schell, a precocious boy who lost his father when the towers fell that day.
From the first chapter as Oskar rides in a limousine to the graveyard where they bury his father’s empty coffin to the last chapter, when he returns in that same limousine on a dark night to dig up his father’s coffin, Oskar is on an odyssey of encounters that test and shape him and ultimately show him how to be in this suddenly terrifying world, how to embrace life and love in spite of overwhelming fear and grief.
Early in the story Oskar sets himself to the task of finding the lock that belongs to a key he found in his father’s closet. The only clue is the name ‘Black’ in red ink on the tiny envelope the key was in. He embarks on a quest to visit each Black in the New York phone directory in alphabetical order. There are over 200 of them and he estimates it will take over a year to visit each one. Each Black he encounters is uniquely drawn, many of them quite eccentric, and every one living their own story of love and loss and learning to adapt after their world seems to have lost its meaning.
Interspersed throughout are epistolary chapters in which his father’s parents tell their own stories of having lived through and survived the firebombing of Dresden as teens towards the end of the Second World War. His grandmother writes her letters to him. His grandfather writes his letters to his own son to explain why he has abandoned him before he is born. Thomas Schell Sr. responded to the trauma of the Dresden firebombing by attempting to hold himself aloof from ever loving or needing anyone or anything again. Not even his own voice. He went mute and communicates by writing on whatever surface is available and with the ‘yes’ and the ‘no’ tattooed on his palms.
Oskar keeps a scrapbook called Things That Have Happened to Me of pictures he takes with his grandfather’s camera or clips from magazines or prints off the Internet. These pictures are scattered throughout the novel. Included among them are pages taken from a scratch pad at an art supply store on which people have doodled in different colored ink their own names and the names of colors. These and other textual oddities have received mixed reviews. I do not agree with those who were made uncomfortable by them. I did not find them distractions or ‘too precious’ or 'gimmicky.' I found they not only deepened the experience of seeing the world through Oskar’s eyes, but also to held clues that unlocked elements of the theme and the meanings we take away from the story, things that Oskar’s limited perspective could only hint at.
Oskar’s view is limited in several ways. First of all by his youth, but most of all by his grief and fear, from which he retreats into the comforts of his imagination and memory for trivia by taking off on flights of fancy or reciting a litany of facts and statistics in attempts to put distance between his chaotic feelings and the events he is experiencing. Oskar is an example of the unreliable narrator. It is not that he is a liar, just not fully aware when he is acting on mistaken assumptions. Several of the reviewers of this novel admitted having difficulty in suspending their disbelief precisely because they find it hard to believe that a nine-year-old can be so precocious as to wander the five boroughs of New York alone, let alone to have the insight and knowledge that Oskar displays.
I did not have this problem. For one thing, I have never found precocious children unbelievable, as I have encountered too many of them in my life to think that they are so rare that one must always assume that every nine-year-old one encounters is a self-absorbed air-head with no thoughts beyond the next sweet-treat, little memory of yesterday, no concern for tomorrow, and no ability to apply insights gleaned from experience — even vicarious experience. But mostly I had no problem getting past having to believe Oskar was only nine because I never really believed he was.
It was his very name that indicated to me that his age might be other than what he claimed. Why was an American boy given a name with a German spelling? If either his father or grandfather had had the same name it would have been unremarkable, but both of them had the name Thomas. Whether Foer gave him the name to plant a clue for the reader or Oskar himself took it in his attempt to overlay a new persona that might be better able to cope with the new realities of life after 9/11 cannot be gleaned from the text itself.
But I understood from the moment early in the first chapter when Oskar expresses his passion for percussion instruments and talks about carrying a tambourine about with him that he was a literary reference to the precocious Oskar Matzerath of Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum who, born during the height of WWII in Danzig, becomes so disgusted with the obscenity that is the Third Reich and the acquiescence and complicity of the adults of his community to the atrocities and absurdities of Hitler’s regime, that he chooses to stop growing at the moment he reaches three feet tall. He also carried a tin drum everywhere and made a terrible nuisance of himself with it.
My suspicion was confirmed when Oskar requests cups of coffee while declaring that it stunts your growth. The clincher that also indicates his true age is the time his psychiatrist asks him clinical questions designed to discover whether Oskar is experiencing symptoms of puberty. Why would such questions be put by a doctor to a child several years too young to have developed them?
I went looking for reviews of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close specifically to see if this relationship between the two Oskars had been commented on by anyone else. I found no reference to it. But there were several references to other literary allusions to fictional places, people and plots buried in this novel. Almost all of these to writers known for work that borders on the fantastical, absurd or surreal, as is Gunter Grass's.
Many of those allusions I missed because I had never encountered the novels in question. And again, some of the reviewers who recognized these references were irritated by them, even going so far as to accuse Foer of ‘cribbing’ from another novel. I find that irritation to be symptomatic of a lack in the reviewer and not in the novel. A lack of what I am not sure. But I was seriously irritated by their irritation. If I was a name-caller I would call them fuddy-duddies.
Meanwhile, I believe Foer, by referencing these other stories, is not only honoring their creators but attempting to give his readers a key to unlock the multitudinous meanings of 9/11. He is hinting that there are as many meanings as there are hearts in the world but that the wisdom we need to embrace life and not despair in the face of absurdity is never any further away than your own heart opened to the possibilities of love in defiance of fear and loss.
For some links to reviews and resources I encountered in my search (including the fuddy-duddies) visit this post on my blog where links to explanations of literary and historical reference are scattered throughout the post and a list of links to other recourses are at the bottom.