I was waiting for a flight to Chicago in an airport bookstore, wandering around anxiously because it had been a year since I’d been back to my hometown. As a coping mechanism, I had developed an obsession with reading, and so I was desperate for a new book. After surveying the shelves, a blue-eyed boy on the cover of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) intrigued me enough to reach out and grab it. I knew it was the book for me since I was all ready familiar with Foer’s first novel, Everything Is Illuminated (2002). While flipping through the pages, images of Stephen Hawking and a pixilated image of a man falling from a building stood out to me. In the first few chapters, I felt all the emotions of my recent experiences with loss reciprocated through Foer’s characters.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close illuminates and reaffirms a concept that went unspoken almost my whole life. At some point, all of us will experience loss in our lives – separating with a significant other, a loved one dying, moving away from home, our own death, and so on. But loss isn’t just one moment in time. It’s something that we carry with us throughout our lives. Life is a continuum of emergence and decay, and for most of us, some people will remember the end of our lives. Keep a record of what you’ve lost because burying your past only forces it into a shallow grave and it will eventually be exhumed for revival. And when time has reworked our dispositions, we’ll be able to see differently the most damaging moments of our pasts.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a cerebral vision of how that continuous cycle works on three individuals, whose shared experience of losing a father and son in the World Trade Center on 9/11 roots their intimacy. The culmination of circumstances before this catastrophic event expands into a kaleidoscope of perspectives, alternating among the narratives of Oskar Schell, his grandmother Ms. Schell, and her estranged husband Thomas Schell.
The story begins with Oskar Schell ruminating over inventions reminiscent of his father, like tea kettles that whistle the melody to “Yellow Submarine.” Ideas for inventions that could have saved his father’s life, which particularly resonate with me, fill his sleepless nights. After losing my mother, I’d follow the same downward spiral into the inescapable realm of “what if.” I’d obsess over the details of the days leading up to “the worst day” – the same term that Oskar uses to allude to 9/11. I can especially relate to his weakest moments of self-deprecation. He gives himself bruises to feel better. There were times when I, too, felt the urge to experience physical pain to numb a deeper, more intense ache.
But as a child dealing with loss, Oskar’s intense imagination serves as his primary coping mechanism. After a year of feeling this way, Oskar’s brewing sense of acceptance motivates him to explore the contents of his father’s closet. In an awkwardly placed vase on a high shelf, he finds a key in an envelope labeled “Black.” Oskar’s imagination ignites over the prospect of finding a link to his father’s mysterious life. His fearlessness of the unfamiliar and affinity for strangers set him on a mission to find every person with the last name Black in the five boroughs of New York City.
Ultimately, it’s Oskar’s father who prepares him for the consuming mission. Although Oskar isn’t aware of it, the “Reconnaissance Expeditions” ( life challenges over which Oskar puzzles) mask something as straightforward as interaction with mystery. As an only child living in New York City, he’s prone to develop unhealthy habits of alienation. Simple tasks could turn into hours of interacting with strangers – which is an invaluable lesson for children learning how to function in a modern society. Having been extremely close to his father, Oskar keeps the spirit of the expedition alive. The journey through his loss illuminates a character that is relentlessly ambitious amidst the effects of trauma. He’s the center figure of his family. Without the diligent life lessons that he experienced through the expeditions, Oskar could have been crippled by the idea of roaming around New York City alone. But his father’s influence illuminates an interesting idea that nothing is ever fully lost.
While searching for the elusive key’s lock, Oskar encourages the people whom he encounters to share an intimate story. He wants to believe in the existence of genuine human empathy. Since everyone in Oskar’s family suffers from the same affliction, they unconsciously create barriers between one another. “Every relationship in the book is built around silence and distance,” Foer says. “Extremely loud and incredibly close is what no two people are to one another.” The novel is a harrowing depiction of three characters’ struggle to fill in the gaping holes created by circumstance. It’s only through this consuming ennui that each of them learns how to turn their isolation into something relatable. Foer examines the transparency of communication in the novel, employing the use of typographical play. Halfway through Thomas Schell’s uninterrupted stream of consciousness, the spaces separating lines of type slowly blend into one another, creating a black out of print.
The narratives of his grandmother and estranged grandfather, both of whom survived the merciless bombing of Dresden, echo Oskar’s sense of loss. They experience a similar tragedy, and all of the moments that haunt them manifest as silence. In one of the many letters to the son he never meets, Thomas Schell writes, “Sometimes I think if I could tell you what happened to me that night, I could leave that night behind me, maybe I could come home to you, but that night has no beginning or end, it started before I was born and it’s still happening.” All the things that he can’t explain prevent him from having a relationship with his grandson until after his son dies. It takes an equally heartbreaking experience of loss to go back to his wife, the only person who understands him. Instead of obsessively shutting her out with all of the things about which he can’t speak, or filling pages with a single thought floating in empty white space, his anomaly eventually becomes self-actualized. Since Oskar no longer had an adult male to help guide him through the world, it’s Thomas’ opportunity to redeem a life he had not let himself live.
If there’s any reconciliation between our past and present, it’s our constant ability to self-create our identities in the changing landscape of our world. In this way, I feel a connection with Foer’s characters and honestly believe that they could be real. Their intense longing after losing a parent resonates with me, and anyone who’s felt the pang of learning how to let go should read this incredibly consoling book.