Foer's Book 'Incredibly Close' to 9/11
The truth, though, is that Oskar Schell, the nine-year-old New Yorker, is ultimately too affecting to remain annoying.
For example, the contemplation of how Oskar might train his anus to speak instead of fart is just one of a multitude of Oskar’s fantasized inventions. Another is a birdseed shirt, so that when wingless humans need to “make a quick escape,” birds, pecking at the seed, can lift the wearer away from danger. A third is an elevator which stays in the same place while the skyscraper it serves moves up and down so that “if you’re on the ninety-fifth floor, and a plane hits below you, the building could take you to the ground.”
The fascination with bodily functions is understandable, but why the preoccupation with saving people from mortal danger?
Oskar’s father was at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of one of the Twin Towers, on Sept. 11, 2001. He was killed in the ensuing attack, and Extremely Loud tells the story of Oskar’s attempt to come to terms with his father’s death, sometimes by inventing strange contraptions that might have saved him.
Oskar’s quest often takes unexpected routes. For much of the novel, he follows one clue, a small envelope he has found inside a lamp of his father’s. It holds a key, and outside, the single word, “black” is written. He decides to seek out every New Yorker with the surname Black to quiz them for information, grounding his need to hold on to his father in this tangible search.
Oskar’s goal becomes discovering what the key will unlock, but that goal is irretrievably linked to his experience of the events of Sept. 11. Through Oskar’s search, spurred on by terrorism and fueled by his own character, Foer posits a post-Sept. 11 mentality, formed by the tragedy, but foraging forward in history.
Foer situates the story in a broader history by including chapters narrated by each of Oskar’s paternal grandparents, survivors of the 1945 Dresden bombings. This creates a tension in the novel between a treatment of the terrorism as cataclysmic and unprecedented and an alignment of it with American and world history.
On one hand, Oskar’s post-Sept. 11 life centers around trying to make sense of what has happened: imagining fantastic life-saving devices, taking days off from school, meeting with a psychiatrist, and scouring New York City for traces of his father. And Oskar is not unique in focusing on the tragedy; realities, such as the gaping hole where the towers once stood and the huge number of people personally affected, enforce its claim to universality.
But on the other hand, Foer makes a welcome effort to contextualize Sept. 11, and what saves Extremely Loud from being a kind of ode to its earth-shattering enormity is his presentation of other tragedies as predecessors. In addition to stories about the American destruction of Dresden, there is a transcript of an interview with a Hiroshima survivor, which Oskar plays for a school project, also reporting on the scientific dimensions of the atom bomb.
These comparisons, depoliticized through a child’s perceptions, touch on how the nature of terrorism has changed since World War II more than they evoke a political reading of the United States’ aggressions. The bloody horror of past bombings––both fire and atomic––has been replaced with the impersonal coldness of Sept. 11, many of whose victims, like Oskar’s father, were never even found.
Instead of emerging from the plot’s pivotal events, the incredible poignancy of Extremely Loud derives from passing thoughts or quick exchanges that reveal the sadness, struggles, and strength of the novel’s characters. That Oskar would invent a birdseed shirt reads more touchingly than his sudden decision to dig up the coffin.
Foer’s success lies in the mutual pathos he evokes between the tragedy of Sept. 11 and the worries of Oskar, growing up in its shadow. More memorable than any plot element is Oskar’s familiar embarrassment when he overhears his classmates making fun of his grandmother: “Jimmy Snyder imitated Grandma to the rest of the cast and crew. … Outside, I was cracking up too. Inside, I was wishing that she were tucked way in a portable pocket, or that she’d also had an invisibility suit…”
Foer can mix the trials of growing up with the poignancy of grief because his novel is not a memorial to Sept. 11 in the same way that much of the artwork and writing on it up to now has been. Extremely Loud is not a supplement to the famous photograph of a firefighter who holds a flag amidst the rubble. It is a digested, reflective, and tender reworking of what happened into an active, contemporary context.