Jonathan Safran Foer, in his second novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, has chosen a vicar to fight the 9/11 demon: nine-year-old Oskar Schell, an inventive (to use Oskar’s own word) child whose father died in the fall of the Towers.
Oskar has a fear of “suspension bridges, germs, airplanes, fireworks, Arab people on the subway (even though I’m not racist), Arab people in restaurants and coffee shops and other public places, scaffolding, sewers and subway grates, bags without owners, shoes, people with mustaches, smoke, knots, tall buildings, turbans.” He carries a tambourine for heartbeat-like comfort. And of course, he is in a state of incomprehensible mourning. Being so young, in his father Oskar lost the icon, that perfect man we’ve all had and, whether through death or growings-up, lost. It’s the man who tells stories. The man who has that unchangable, unmistakable scent. The protector of you, your family, your childhood. When the Towers fell, it’s tough to say what happened to people in common. When Oskar’s father perishes on 9/11, it’s easy to say: Oskar loses his faith in the logic of the world. And so, so do we.
To regain it, Oskar searches for clues to lead him back to his father, in whatever form is accessible. (Such is the struggle for faith.) An accidentally found key in his father’s closet launches Oskar on a five-borough search for its lock. Strangers become media of revelation. A dresserful of old letters leads Oskar to his father’s necessarily empty coffin. The plot mimics the disposition of the post-9/11 world: the every-day is saturated with life-and-death meaningfulness. Senseless, irrationally imaginative, massive deaths–and Foer handcuffs Oskar’s 9/11 to Hiroshima and Dresden–are, to their survivors, as intimate and lonesome as a deathbed passing. Oskar says:
Whenever I want to learn about how Dad died, I have to go to a translator program and find out how to say things in different languages, like “September,” which is “Wrzesien,” or “people jumping from burning buildings,” which is “Menschen, die aus brennenden Gebauden springen.” Then I Google those words. It makes me incredibly angry that people all over the world can know things that I can’t, because it happened here, and happened to me, so shouldn’t it be mine?
He is forced to go beyond himself–literally alone beyond his home borough–to be able to mourn, to claim thanatotic habeus corpus. Oskar (and so Foer) notices that Americans’ reaction to 9/11 has been to become petrified, to fortify, and to bury. He fights this. Oskar (and so Foer again) also notices–but doesn’t quite fight–Americans’ predilection to put 9/11 in the pop culture spin cycle. He keeps an album (”Stuff That Happened to Me”) of pop culture clippings, from the Staten Island ferry crash to Paris Hilton’s indiscretions. But also photographs from the Towers. Of people falling, jumping. They, and other photographs, are included throughout the pages of the novel. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, in the unfinished battle of 9/11 public memory, is most successful when acknowledging the destructive power of instantly broadcast, consumable death and contrasting it with the restorative power of achingly slow, singular, exhausting mourning. In Oskar, Foer places both.
It’s a shame that most reviews, including this one, will have to give short shrift to Foer’s sections written in the points of view of Oskar’s grandparents (his late father’s parents). They’re moving, utterly. As characters, the grandparents are more fittingly clothed than Oskar in their own psychology and history. One doesn’t speak and has Yes tattooed on his left hand, No on his right. The other cares for Oskar so desperately that Oskar yells “I’m OK!” any time his name is called. It’s reassuring, given that these characters could have been mere vehicles for introducing other eras of cataclysm and halting recovery, that their purpose–in surviving WWII as Germans, in having regrets, in the grandmother’s bearing a child they didn’t agree to have–is to produce ultimately someone as kind-hearted as Oskar.
There is also included the “Sixth Borough” myth, told by Oskar’s father before his death, and published as a separate piece by Foer in the New Yorker last year. The myth tells of a beloved but lost New York borough. Its memory lives in stories and minds and in equally mythical clues. There’s nothing to disprove it, not in an optimist’s mind. It’s a fitting example of Foer’s rhetorical method. He gives a frame, often oddly juxtaposed, through which a reader reads the rest. It turns out to be mythmaking, and a willing, unhard heart, that restores Oskar’s and our faith in the world. Foer’s writing in the “Sixth Borough” and throughout Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a strong hand helping to cart out, and open, the baggage of the recent past.
Readers hopefully will remain courageous. His novel won’t be the last to do so.
368 pages | $24.95 | Houghton Mifflin | April, 2005