Stuff That Happened: Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Nikil Saval



iction and philosophy have had an uneasy time in the wake of 9/11. Perhaps it’s because no intellectual response can match or adequately combat the political response of the Bush Administration, which was swifter, more brutal, and more insidiously deceptive than even the most seasoned members of the Left imagined. In the wake of this ongoing catastrophe, novelists have been apprehensive as to how to respond.  Political life has taken on a cast of sickening clarity. Daily injustice feels wearily familiar. No trauma is foreign; no cruelty unheard of; no political crime beyond contemplation.  In such an atmosphere, could any dramatization of the September 11 attacks be anything but a kind of exploitation?

There was reason to be heartened when novelist Jonathan Safran Foer stepped forward with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. In his first novel Everything Is Illuminated, about a writer’s trip to find his family’s ancestral shtetl, the indulgence of the “roots” quest, with its pilfering from superficial readings of Bruno Schulz and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was tempered by the Thesaurus-inflected English of Foer’s often hilarious Alexander Perchov. What could have been just a gimmick was transformed into an allegory, the truth of the past conveyed through its miscommunication. The book suggested the promise of an intuitive, burgeoning talent able to describe the relationship of one’s self to a difficult, foreign past.

In a recent interview Foer expressed some surprise that most writers had avoided 9/11 and said he believes that it demands works of art, and that to make art from tragedy cannot be bad. The “challenge” is unavoidable. Foer tells the story of the attacks—or, more precisely, their local aftermath—through 9-year old Oskar Schell, who lost his father on 9/11.  The plot concerns Oskar’s trek over the course of eight months to match up a key his father owned to a lock somewhere among the homes of New York; the only clue he has is that the key may have belonged to someone named “Black.”  Oskar hopes that the “key” will “unlock” the mystery of his father’s death—literally, how he died in the attacks—and put an end to his trauma.

Some reviewers were irritated by the child’s precocity, arguing that it pushes well beyond credibility. Oskar is a politically correct child of Manhattan’s Upper West Side; a vegan who takes French lessons and writes letters to Stephen Hawking (Oskar’s favorite book is A Brief History of Time), makes vows not to be “sexist again, or racist, or ageist, or homophobic, or overly wimpy, or discriminatory to handicapped people or mental retards” (87). Oskar never offends – and when he does say something that might be construed as offensive, he covers his tracks: “There was a lot of stuff that made me panicky, like…Arab people on the subway (even though I’m not racist), Arab people in restaurants and coffee shops and other public places.” Does it matter that Arabs make Oskar panicky?  It might have mattered, had Foer raised the issue later but, like most implications or consequences of the attacks, it simply doesn’t come up. In fact, the book’s moral and physical geography only narrow so that it increasingly is only about Oskar’s wanderings, his character becoming a vacuum that sucks out the social and political air from the novel.

Oskar’s believability matters less than the question of his intelligence, and the intelligence of the novel as a whole. As with anyone in the age of Google, Oskar has fields of information at his fingertips (although even here, anachronisms abound – Oskar uses the Internet constantly, but only sends letters, never an e-mail).  He “know[s] a lot about birds and bees, but [he doesn’t] know very much about the birds and the bees”; that is, he knows the terms of human relations, but he doesn’t know how they actually relate.  Apart from sheer youth, Oskar is impoverished of experience by the very way he leads his life.  He keeps a journal of photographs that he calls, Stuff that Happened to Me.  But nothing actually happens. His father’s death, the real and yet undecipherable event around which Extremely Loud orbits, takes place outside the narrative. The photographs are things Oskar collected but hasn’t lived through himself.  Occasionally, they’re pictures taken by somebody else—Laurence Olivier in Hamlet (which Oskar’s school is putting on—he’s playing Yorick, when of course it’s the eponymous, precocious character who lost his father whom he should be playing), or the recurring shot of a body falling from the Towers. Everything Oskar knows is held at a cool distance, like Stephen Hawking’s universe. His knowledge tends towards the scientific, to what can be observed, though rarely by himself.  The one thing he cannot find it out is what actually happened to his father, a brute singularity that convinces him that information alone will not do. Early on he hints, “even though I’m not anymore, I used to be an atheist, which means I didn’t believe in things that couldn’t be observed.”  

It would be a triumph of the novel if Foer counterbalanced this intentionally limited intellect and its great but unexplored suggestiveness, with an operating intelligence that played behind or around the central narrative.  Then we might find that the novel itself has something smart to say about 9/11. But Foer cannot make intelligence, political or otherwise, manifest itself in his novel. The novel’s claustrophobia, much remarked upon, stems from Foer’s inability to disseminate his energies beyond his narrator. Foer is seemingly obsessed with what creative writing teachers emphasize: the creation of a distinct “voice.” As a result, the novel has its own fast-talking voice (and an annoying one at that), but as a whole the work itself suffers from the same lack of experience that one would hope was only confined to Oskar. It is redolent of pure provinciality, a political chauvinism that limits the sadness of the attacks to a single kind of loss – for the kind of person who might have been Oskar’s parent.

Foer must have foreseen this problem; in order to counter it, he interrupts Oskar’s narrative with letters written by his grandparents, which describe in intentionally stilted prose the history of their relationship. They are German survivors of the bombing of Dresden (here, as elsewhere with the inclusion of photographs, he filches from W.G. Sebald). Foer clearly hopes that their letters will inject the novel with needed historical perspective upon the natural history of destruction. But the letters, like most of the novel, belong to no era at all. In a rather obvious trope, his grandfather loses the ability to speak after surviving Dresden’s destruction; his mother fakes an eyesight problem, forcing her to type pages and pages of blank paper (which occupy a solid four pages of Foer’s book). 

Foer claims to be concerned with scenes of what he called “frustrated communication”; Oskar’s speechless grandfather writes the words YES and NO to communicate, with predictable results (“…when I rub my hands against each other in the middle of winter I am warming myself with the friction of YES and NO, when I clap my hands I am showing my appreciation through the uniting and parting of YES and NO”).  Instead of singing in the shower, he writes song lyrics on himself which turns “the water blue or green, and the music [runs] down [his] legs.” 

Despite the flashiness of his prose, these scenes of miscommunication could go into any novel about any traumatic event, insofar as trauma is, well, difficult to communicate.  His grandparents profess things like “I have no need for the past…I did not consider that the past might have a need for me” (78); “Life is scarier than death” (322); “You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness” (180).  These platitudes mean as little in context as they do out of it.  Oskar observes, “Everything that’s born has to die, which means our lives are like skyscrapers.  The smoke rises at different speeds, but they’re all on fire, and we’re all trapped” (245). Admirable for a 9-year old, one supposes, but nonetheless Foer flattens all tragedies into pat aphorisms—Dresden, 9/11, Hiroshima, East Timor, the Spanish Civil War, and “bad stuff that happened in Africa” (154), it turns out, are all basically the same awful thing, and they, you know, make people really sad. 

The book ends with Oskar reordering pictures of the falling body to make it seem as if it falls up, out of the picture, towards the skies.  Some find it inexplicably moving. What it really amounts to is the triumph of fiction’s incredible solace—that is, a solace beyond belief, accessible only in the realm of “faith”—in the face of what actually happens.  Where reasons cannot be discovered, comfort can be manufactured by imagining things as they might never have been. To the extent that September 11 presents a literary challenge, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close deftly skirts it. It is best characterized not by its ambition but rather by its dogged inoffensiveness.  Here is a textbook case in anti-intellectualism, with its proud refusal to seek out what we haven’t understood, striking a safe stance against implicating matters by dealing with hard questions.

Fiction so simplistic is an escape from understanding, not an aid to it.  Something else is demanded from this tragedy; perhaps not art at all—at least, not as Foer practices it. Critics have largely let Foer slide on the question of September 11. Why? Writers in the United States are schooled in the idea of creating a successful “voice,” in portraying a certain character or rendering new a certain stock situation.  They learn these notions of craft and plotting in the service of entertainment, which led Susan Sontag, for one, to complain that the philosophical tradition is largely divorced from the production of novels in America. “The notion of an intellectual in most Americans' minds," Sontag said, "is so impoverished, that it's separated from that of a writer…For American writers, simply to avow that they have the education, or the cultivation, that they very often have, is something that isn't done -- they're like politicians who want to adopt a folksy accent.”  Foer’s novel is only the latest example. Headlining events alongside writers with more complex political ideas, like Lewis Lapham, Salman Rushdie and Don DeLillo, Foer is clearly out of his element.  “In America right now,” he has said, “we use words like 'smart' to talk about bombs. American rhetoric is grounded in ideas of capital-G Good, capital-E Evil, and it's very clear who is on which side. But in a book you can do just the opposite. You can use all lower-case words.”  This sort of preciousness riles one when, within the discourse of a serious situation where indeed lives are at stake, more articulate, more intelligent voices need to be heard.