Book Reviews

Foer’s Extremely Loud Incredibly Close

A Tragi-Comic Study of a Boy’s Trauma

Jonathan Safran Foer is a Jewish American novelist. He is usually identified in his famous novels - Everything Is Illuminated (2002), Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), Here I Am (2016) and for his non-fiction writing Eating Animals (2009). He was born in Washington, D.C. in a Jewish family. In 1999 he completed his graduation from Princeton University with a degree in philosophy. Joyce Carol Oates was the first author who invigorated him for writing, which Foer himself accepts ones that, “she was the first person to ever make me think I should try to write in any sort of serious way” (Wikipedia). Oates was also his mentor in his thesis writing for which Foer received Princeton’s Senior Creative Writing Thesis Prize. He has been working as an editor for the anthology A Convergence of Birds: Original Fiction and Poetry Inspired by the Work of Joseph Cornell, to which he contributed a short story, “If the Aging Magician Should Begin to Believe”. And the thesis for which he won the Princeton’s Senior Creative Writing Prize transformed into a novel, Everything Is Illuminated, which was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2002. The book earned him a National Jewish Book Award (2001) and a Guardian First Book Award (2002).

9/11 terrorist attack on America has historic significance because of the destruction of the World Trade Center (symbolizes American supremacy) of America. On 11 September 2001 some terrorists from different Muslim countries belonging to the terroristic group: al-Qaida, accomplished this heinous act. And these terrorists used four American airplanes. They used two planes used in destroying the World Trade Center, One crashed into the Pentagon (military headquarters, Washington DC) and the fourth crashed in Pennsylvania. According to investigations almost 3000 people on this day so in the history of America it has come to be known as the black day. The terrorist attacks on American World Trade Center have global impact. No one can deny this fact that the 9/11 event belongs to us all and in some extent all the people of the world have been influenced by it. It has been nearly fifteen years since the attacks on September 11th, and its psychological, physical and mental influence still can be seen on the people of the entire world, hitherto the debates regarding the consequences of 9/11 attacks are quiet emerging in the modern era. It seems that the world is still globally, socially, culturally, and politically troubled and shocked. In fact, there has been a contemporary growth in the last few years of what is being denoted to as 9/11 literature. According to Michael Rothberg, “literature has provided one of the most effective sites for reflection on the meanings of American life after 9/11” (124). It is clear that no one knows what to make of it, or what to say about it different authors have expressed their ideas differently. Different authors described 9/11 event in different perspectives because some of them witnessed the event directly or indirectly, and some experienced its traumatized effect on their own accord.

Foer in his novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close bravely approaches 9/11 and Dresden history and tragedy with funniness, painfulness, and amazement. Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is the, “The most incredible fictional nine-year-old ever created…a funny, heart-rending portrayal of a child coping with disaster. It will have you biting back tears” (Glamer). In this novel the novelist describes the 9/11 trauma from the point of view of a child’s psychology. The novel delineates the impact of 9/11 Holocaust in a daringly funny and precisely innovative way. Many critics praised it unanimously, many also questioned, somewhat fearfully. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close appeared in 2005, primarily after the event of 9/11, but Foer also features the bombing of Dresden and Hiroshima as important subtexts in it. But in his novel Foer delineates the 9/11 trauma tragedy with a tinge of comic relief and his selection of Oskar as the main protagonist suits his narrative appropriately. The rare thing about the novel is that the novelist represents the story in with the amalgamation of tragic and comic element. With the element of comedy Foer gives some relief to his reader. Mostly this kind of tragic comic mixing may be called a kind of temporary relief. Foer starts the novel with the funny thing and ends it with a note of optimism. In this way the novel contains enough comic elements to lighten the overall mood or a serious play with a happy ending.

Trauma is the main theme of 9/11 literature. Trauma theory came into existence with the efforts of Sigmund Freud. Trauma is a kind of mental disorder caused by an unprecedented or unpleasant incidents or event. Many people became trauma victim after the 9/11 event. Cathy Caruth defines trauma, that it is “an overwhelming experience of sudden or catastrophic events in which the response to the event occurs in the often delayed, uncontrolled repetitive appearance of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena” (Verbestel 10). In traumatic condition the victim becomes unconscious toward his present and future because whatever incident the victim has seen keeps recurring in his mind belatedly and he cannot focus on the present situation. This mental condition is also known as the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Caruth says that “trauma, then, is a shock that appears to work very much like a bodily threat, but is in fact a break in the mind’s experience of time” (Unclaimed Experience 61). A trauma victim has to pass process which Lacapra calls “acting out” and “working through” to overcome his trauma. “Acting out” means the trauma victim acts according to his traumatic experiences and in “Working Through” he learns to share his traumatic experiences with others. He thinks of himself as a discoverer, pacifist, freethinker, inventor and adventurer. Besides it, he speaks French with passion, plays the tambourine and designs and makes jewellery and he is also a learner of jujitsu. He tries to compromise with the traumatic event of his father’s sudden and pathetic death during the 9/11 attacks. He finds himself hanging between the gulf of time and consciousness because he used to do everything under the supervision of his father and it is not easy for him to heal the scar on his soul due to his father’s death, he is afraid of his uncertain future that how he will do anything. But he courageously takes the task to find the owner of the key.

Oskar’s whole journey for the key represents his process of acting out his trauma.

In this novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close Foer describes the story of a boy, Oskar, who lost his father in the 9/11 event. He is presented in the novel a creative and talented boy who can do many things. Whose imagines a lot of things like, “What about a teakettle? What if the spout opened and closed when the steam came out, so it would become a mouth” (Foer 1) then he thinks that, “I could invent a teakettle that reads in Dad's voice, so I could fall asleep” (1). It shows that he is badly memorising his father. Some things Foer uses in this novel are properly suited to this little protagonist like, “Another good thing is that I could train my anus to talk when I farted. If I wanted to be extremely hilarious, I'd train it to say, “Wasn't me!” every time I made an incredibly bad fart” (Foer 1).

Some things which Oskar utters in this novel suit his childish nature well. Sometimes whatever he speaks cannot comfortable for a mature person or a mature person cannot speak this things so boldly and frankly as Oskar utters just as One weird thing is, “I wonder if everyone's hearts would start to beat at the same time, like how women who live together have their menstrual periods at the same time, which I know about, but don't really want to know about” (Foer 1). It shows that he doesn’t know what he is saying, but frankly speaks which is not possible for a mature protagonist. He talks about his jujitsu class where sitting in American style, Sensei Mark asked him to “Kick” his “privates,” (2). Oskar says that,  “he told me. That made me feel self-conscious. “Excusezmoi?” I told him. He spread his legs and told me, “I want you to kick my privates as hard as you can” (2). Here it shows his cute and innocent nature which does not seem vulgur or obscene, but makes the reader lough instead. In this novel Foer focuses that sometimes a nine year boy can say so frankly which is not easy for a mature person to speak publicly. This kind of strange activity of Oskar gives a humorous touch to this 9/11 tragedy written by Foer.

Oskar tries to engage himself with a lot of things only to avoid the traumatic memories of his father. He makes a flip book and collects many odd things and images. The most important image is of a falling man, which he imagines that he might be his father. There are two other trauma victims in the novel and they are Oskar’s grandparents. Both the grandmother and grandfather never share their feelings with each other, but both of them freely share their ideas with Oskar.

Oskar used to do all the things with his father. His father was his everything. He misses him all the time. He was very much close to his father. He used to play “A great game” that he says, “Dad and I would sometimes play on Sundays was Reconnaissance Expedition” (Foer 8). He says that sometimes the task his father gave him “were extremely simple, like when he told me to bring back something from every decade in the twentieth century—I was clever and brought back a rock” (8) but “sometimes they were incredibly complicated and would go on for a couple of weeks” (8). And as Oskar used to play this game with his father in this game his father gives him clues and Oskar solved the problems. So finding the key he thinks that it is also a clue from his father to solve a problem.

After one year of his father’s death, he finds a key from his father’s goods. When his father was about to die he leaves messages for his family and Oskar was neat the phone machine when his father calls but due to fear he cannot receive the phone. So Oskar feels guilty for two reasons, first that he did not pick up his father’s phone and second that he did not tell anybody about the messages of his father even not to his mother. So he wants to do something for his dead father. He finds that on there is a name- Black has written on the cover in which the key was put. He decides to search the owner of the key. For his purpose to gain information about the man Black he takes the help of internet. His task was not so easy because The Black is not only the name of a person, but there is a place too in each of New York city which has its name related to the name of Black just as Oskar accepts, “Then I found out that there was a place called Black in every state in the country” (Foer 42). Oskar realizes that this will not bring his father back, but he is desperate to do something, as he indicates himself: “I did a few other searches, even though I knew they would only hurt me, because I couldn’t help it” (Foer 42).

Through this act of Oskar Foer shows that this happens to trauma victims that they want to do something in the memory of the dead person only for the sake of equanimity so that they feel as if they are doing something useful for the lost persons. Perhaps Oskar does it all because he wants to forget his father’s sorrowful memories because after the death of his father, his mind was fed up with lots of troublesome things, “a lot of stuff that made him panicky” (Foer, 36). Even after one year of his father’s death, he still feels long-term effects of traumatic events. It seems that Oskar wants to be engaged with some work to avoid the bad memories this condition of the trauma victim Cathy Caruth calls “the paradoxical nature of trauma” (Caruth Trauma: Explorations 4). Oskar takes the help of Google to find out Mr. Black and finally he meets some persons who help in overcoming his trauma.

There are two main persons with the name “Black” whom Oskar meets and they help him. The first one is Mr. A.R. Black, a solitary elderly gentleman who lives on the floor above the Oskar’s apartment. After meeting Mr. Black he comes to aware about his deafness in this way he sees a pathetic picture when Mr. Black cries loudly only to hear his own voice and starts to lead a lonely life. During his journey he meets some persons and sees their pain and suffering, then he learns to share his sorrow with them this is the stage in which he overcomes his trauma. Abby Black is the second person whom Oskar meets and helps him in finding the lock for his key. She invites Oskar to tell this fact that perhaps her ex-husband, William, knows something about the key. William Black is indeed the owner of the key, but he has nothing to do with Oskar’s father. Oskar meets William and finds out that Oskar's father had bought the blue vase from him as an anniversary present for his wife.

However, Oskar tells William about the five phone messages that his father had left. In the process, Oskar also confesses that his father had called a sixth time, while Oskar was there, but Oskar was afraid to pick up the phone.  Dad left five messages: “one at 8:52 AM, one at 9:12 AM, at 9:31 AM, 9:46 AM, and 10:04 AM.” (Foer 68). Here Foer prove true Caruth’s statement that trauma creates a community that “trauma may lead to the encounter with another, through the very possibility and surprise of listening to another’s wound” (Unclaimed Experience 8). During his quest Oskar overcome his phobia from the voice messages he has developed from his father’s messages. When Abby leaves a message for Oskar he dares not to receive it, but after sometimes he says that. “I pressed the Message Play button, which I hadn't done since the worst day, and that was on the old phone” (Foer 288). And after pressing the button he finds, “Message one. Saturday, 11:52 A.M. Hi, this is a message for Oskar Schell. Oskar, this is Abby Black. You were just over at my apartment asking about the key. I wasn't completely honest with you, and I think I might be able to help” (Foer 288). Though Oskar says that, “Her message had been waiting for me for eight months” (288) but he finds that to receive recorded messages does not bring bad news always. Hence he overcomes his phone phobia or his fear of phone messages. At the end of the novel Oskar accepts that his father will never return when he digs up the coffin which belongs to his father he finds that there is nothing in it. He wants to fill it with all the belongings of his father, but his grandfather asks him that by doing so he cannot forget his father and he cannot erase his father’s memories. At last Oskar goes to his mother and finds that she always cares about him. He says:

I probably fell asleep, but I don't remember. I cried so much that everything blurred into everything else. At some point she was carrying me to my room. Then I was in bed. She was looking over me. I don't believe in God, but I believe that things are extremely complicated, and her looking over me was as complicated as anything ever could be. But it was also incredibly simple. In my only life, she was my mom, and I was her son (Foer 324).

It shows that whatever Oskar was searching he finds it from his mother and that is love, She said, “I love you.” (Foer 325) Finally Oskar finds the substitute of his fatherly love in his mother’s love. Like a mature person he says to his mother that “It’s OK if you fall in love again, then “She kissed me and said, “I’ll never fall in love again.” (Foer 325). It shows that Oskar not only overcomes his trauma, but he also learns to respect other’s emotion. He realizes loneliness of his mother “I heard her crying. I imagined her wet sleeves. Her tired eyes.” (Foer 325). In this way Oskar learns to adore feelings of others too, and finally he says, “I felt in the space between the bed and the wall, and found Stuff That Happened to Me. It was completely full. I was going to have to start a new volume soon” (Foer 325). Thus he overcomes his trauma.

Oskar’s mother is also trauma victim, but she never expresses her sorrow in front of Oskar just for the sake of his happiness. Seeing her not saddened at her husband’s death, Oskar thinks that she does not love her husband. But at the end of the novel Oskar finds that she was deeply hurt after losing her husband. At last Oskar goes to his mother and finds that she always cares about him. He says:

I probably fell asleep, but I don't remember. I cried so much that everything blurred into everything else. At some point she was carrying me to my room. Then I was in bed. She was looking over me. I don't believe in God, but I believe that things are extremely complicated, and her looking over me was as complicated as anything ever could be. But it was also incredibly simple. In my only life, she was my mom, and I was her son (Foer 324).

It shows that whatever Oskar was searching he finds it from his mother and that is love, She said, “I love you.” (Foer 325) Finally Oskar finds the substitute of his fatherly love in his mother’s love. Oskar is the main protagonist of the novel Extremely Loud Incredibly Close. He does some strange things which help him to overcome his trauma and there is no doubt that his strange things give the novel a tinge of comedy. Apart from it Foer also focuses on the traditional morals and the rehabilitated hope in the releasing power of literature which tags Foer as a sentimentalist for its language of trauma and healing.  This novel is Foer’s Masterpiece work because it ends in an affirmative and optimistic tone which is sensitive and hopeful.

Works Cited

  1. Caruth, Cathy. Introduction. Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995. Print
  2. --- Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996. Print
  3. Cvek, Sven. 9/11: Event, Trauma, Nation, Globalization. Zagreb: Filozofski Fakultet, 2009 Print
  4. Foer, Jonathan Safran. Extremely Loud Incredibly Close. England: Penguin, 2005. Print, Google sources. Web.
  5. Keniston, Ann., Jeanne Follansbee Quinn. Literature After 9/11. New York: Routledge. 2008.Print.
  6. LaCapra, Dominick. History in Transit: Experience, Identity, Critical Theory. Cornell University Press, 2004. Print.
  7. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Paper. 7th ed. New Delhi: East- West Pvt. Ltd., 2009. Print, Oxford Dictionary.
  8. Rothberg, Michael. “Seeing Terror, Feeling Art: Public and Private in Post-9/11 Literature.”
  9. Literature After 9/11. Ed. Ann Keniston and Jeanne Follansbee Quinn. New York: Routledge, 2008. 123-42. Print.
  10. Verbestel, Ellen. Trauma and Post-9/11 novels: Foer, McEwan and McInerney. Diss. Ghent University, 2010, Print.
  11. Versluys, Kristiaan. Out of the Blue: September 11 and the Novel. New York: Columbia Uni. Press. 2009 Print.


More by :  Durga Patva

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