Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Take A Sad Song And Make It Better
Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, is written using very casual language and follows the stream of conciseness narrative of a young boy named Oskar. Oskar’s extreme curiosity and childlike innocence lead him to observe, question, and comment on everything he sees, prompting him to make many allusions to figures and ideologies in popular culture. These references allow the reader to connect the things Oskar learns to his or her own life and culture, making the book very relatable and causing the reader to become even more emotionally invested in it. They also encourage the reader to take time to think about the meaning behind many things in our pop culture that have become mundane and allow the reader to see these references through a completely different point of view from their own. For example, Oskar ponders the lyrics to “Eleanor Rigby” by The Beatles and says “It makes me start to wonder if there were other people so lonely so close. I thought about ‘Eleanor Rigby’. It’s true, where do they all come from? And where do they all belong?” (163). I have heard this song countless times throughout my life but never grasped the full extent of its meaning until Oskar used it in reference to people who walk through life terribly alone and do not have anyone ever reach out to comfort them. Oskar’s observance of these people indicates that, despite his intense suffering, he is still capable of empathy.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close deals with deep themes such as loss, abandonment, and regret and leaves the reader with many powerful messages to consider long after the novel comes to a close. Nearly every character in Oskar’s life is trying to cope with the death or loss of a loved one and focuses nearly all of their energy on figuring how to continue living without that person. Some characters-such as Mr. Black who turns off his hearing aids after his wife’s passing and Oskar’s grandfather who loses his fiancé, unborn child, and parents in one single horrifying night and proceeds to lose his ability to speak and withdraws from the world- refuse to move on and wallow in their grief. Oskar’s mom and grandma, two women who have suffered enormous loss but continue to love those around them and carry on the best they can, contrast these characters. For most of the book Oskar finds himself straddling these two worlds and reactions to grief. He is unwilling to let his father go and is terrified that if he starts to laugh, as his mom does with Ron, that he will lose the connection to his father. By the end of the novel, Oskar is able to understand his mother’s approach to grief and accepts that he can “be happy and normal” (323) while continuing to love, miss, and remember his father. This is a reflection of Foer’s personal philosophy on loss as he reminds readers that it is not wise to focus all of one’s energies on the past and forget to enjoy the present.
The final chapter is appropriately entitled “Beautiful and True” due to Oskar’s acceptance of the truth and the beauty in his acceptance. When Oskar tells his grandfather that he plans on digging up his father’s grave they converse, “’Why would you want to do that?’ ‘Because it’s the truth, and Dad loved the truth.’ ‘What truth?’ ‘That’s he’s dead’” (321). It is no secret that Oskar and his father love science and the truth- the first chapter is laden with random facts that Oskar is proud to know- but it is not until this moment that Oskar accepts the truth that his father will never return and he must figure out a way to live life without him.
In addition to enjoying the present, Foer uses Oskar’s grandma to illustrate the importance of appreciating loved ones and expressing one’s love. While recounting the night before her sister’s unexpected death his grandma says, “I had never told her how much I loved her… I thought about waking her. But it was unnecessary. There would be other nights… Here’s the point of everything I’ve been trying to tell you, Oskar. It’s always necessary” (314). Foer reminds readers how quickly and unexpectedly a loved one can be taken away and tries to persuade them to be grateful for each breath and each person they love.
The final images of the novel are the most poignant and heartbreaking. The original picture shows a man that has chosen to jump to his death instead of burning in one of the two towers hit by the attacks. However, if you flip through the images backwards, the image becomes suddenly hopeful as the man ascends through the air and looks like he is flying. This shows that Oskar is moving forward in his grieving process. He is choosing to look at his situation through a more positive lens and is essentially “taking a bad song and making it better”, something he claimed to be unable to do in an earlier chapter.
The Use of Multiple Voices in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Foer uses three different narrative voices to bring life to his story. The first and most prominent, as well as the one used to narrate the ongoings of the present day, is that of Oskar Schell. The other two, which serve mainly to buoy Oskar’s story and explain the past, are the voices of the boy’s Grandmother and Grandfather. These different narrators each respond to the story’s integral tragedy, and express themselves- both to the reader and to the other characters- in very different ways.
Oskar’s grandfather, Thomas Schell Sr, is likely the most perplexing character in the book, who is truly characterized by his inability to speak and the highly apparent fact that his mind is stuck in the past. His lack of human communication embodies and defines how he express himself in the book. His narration seems quite normal at first, however it soon becomes apparent that this complex, flowing train of though is being laid down in the form of a letter to his son. This is how the reader gains insight in to Thomas’s thoughts. These letters are the only time that the he communicates his true feelings and articulates thoughts about his life. Yet, as the reader sees, he is never able to send them, and thus his thoughts are stuck forever inside his head, never to be shared with another human. In communication with others, his day book notes are rarely longer than 5 words, which means he is able to avoid any meaningful conversation. Even in written “talking” with his wife, he only discusses factual information, and never touches on his past or his feelings. It seems that Thomas can only accommodate one-way communication: letters to his son, never to be read; short, impersonal written commands, and factual communications which need no response. This lack of human connection characterizes Oskar’s grandfather, making him truly appear as a broken man who cannot maintain a relationship with anyone in the present. This, it is revealed, is because he is a man living in his tragic past.
The loss of his parents, his first love, and his son are the events that define Thomas’ life. After those childhood deaths, he closes up to the outside world, isolates himself from those near to him, and avoids meaningfulness in interactions with other humans. Even as the rest of the world moves on, Thomas lives perpetually in the past, leaving a dysfunctional shell in the present. His mind is so stuck in Dresden that he cannot think anything of the present or future. When he arrives back in New York after his 40 year absence, he has no plan and a complete inability to react to his new surroundings. Later, after gaining some form of closure by buying his letters in his son’s grave, he tries to leave but realizes he is incapable to making decisions in the present, and as such is neither able to stay nor leave. His withdrawing reaction to these scarring losses exposes the empty, dead character of a man who can no longer live because of how removed he is from the world around him.
Though she commands a large amount of “screen time,” we seem to know the least about Oskar’s Grandmother. Because of her complete lack of deep expression to anyone, including the reader, and the fact that she holds her pain inside and away from other characters, she appears in the book almost oblivious to the happenings around her, seeming conspicuously normal in very abnormal circumstances. Even in her own personal letters to future Oskar, she reveals virtually none of her deep thoughts about her past or present situations, purposefully avoiding any discussion of the tragedy that has surrounded her life. As Oskar noted, he knows very little about her, despite spending much time in her company. Instead of dwelling on her past losses like Thomas, she does the opposite and expresses herself through love and time with the people she does still have- namely Oskar- while avoiding the past altogether. Because she avoids expressing any feeling at all, it is harder to see how she has responded to the tragedy in her life. But upon further examination, we see that is it just this lack of willingness to face the past that defines her self-expression and her relationship with personal tragedy. She appears to have buried her sorrows so deep within her, she does not even recognize that they exist. She shields Oskar, the reader, and herself from the loss she has experienced, affecting her from within yet showing very little on the outside. This is what creates the loving yet distant grandmother Oskar knows, and the broken soul fixed patched with band-aids that tied Thomas to reality.
Finally, the voice of Oskar rings the loudest and most fully throughout the novel. Our best ways of understanding his character, and how he expresses himself most strongly, are through his actions and thoughts, rather than through his words. His response to his father’s death is the creation of a void within himself which needs to be filled by his thoughts and actions in order that he may be whole again- or at least closer to it. This need and the things he does to fulfill it are what bring his character to life. Oskar’s wide emotional spectrum and jumping thoughts are most directly expressed through his actions- going through his Dad’s belongings to strengthen his memories, searching for the lock to bring him solace, giving himself bruises when he was disappointed in his actions, or yelling at his mother for not grieving the way he did. His honesty, longing for connection, and hopeful, childish mind were also exposed through his conversation with the Blacks, expressing himself far more freely with them than with his own family. Lastly, he expressed himself to the reader in the emotional outpouring he experienced, whether in thought, language, or action. In this way, we gained a fuller picture of Oskar than we did of his grandmother and grandfather.
Oskar’s response to the loss of his father was far more unique than that of his grandparents. He neither lived in the past nor blocked it out- instead, he actively sought to continue his relationship with his father and his father’s memory through his actions. We see that through his search for the lock, his compulsive letter writing, his emotional withdrawal from his family, and his active, often self-inflicted depression, he is trying to grow closer to his father, or complete his memory of him as a person to gain closure. Oskar needed to become closer to his Dad in order to let him go and accept death. Once he felt as though he had done his father right in death, Oskar was ready to face life once more with the memory of his father whole and cemented firmly in his heart.
Catharsis and the Other: Defying Alterity in Fight Club and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
The theory of “othering” or alterity states that people attempt to define themselves not by who or what they are, but by who and what they are not. Defining oneself by means of othering, however, can be problematic as, by definition, doing so seems to limit organic individuality, only deriving meaning by establishing comparisons. In both Fight Club and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, the main characters are searching for a kind of healing or catharsis, and both of them find such relief in investigating the “other” and how alterity plays a role in self-identification. However, both texts treat the “other” slightly differently: in Fight Club, alterity as a coping mechanism is rejected completely and the “other” is embraced as the self, turning the concept of the “other” into a necessary means to an end, whereas in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, the “other” is something to be avoided entirely because it disallows individuality.Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club, hereafter referred to as simply the narrator, is in search of relief from his numbed, consumer-driven life, finally finding such reprieve when he embraces the “other” he created for himself. In Tyler Durden, the narrator personifies everything he is not. As the narrator begins to discover that Tyler is not a real person but rather a manifestation of his desires, Tyler informs the narrator of his composition: “All the ways you wish you could be, that’s me. I look like you want to look. I fuck like you want to fuck. I am smart, I am capable. And, most importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not” (01:48:45-57). The pronouns in this passage make its alterity all the more apparent—Tyler and the narrator are still considered to be separate personas as evidenced by the opposition of the “you’s” and “me’s.” The sentence structure here also implies some sort of balance between the narrator and Tyler, situating them as perfect opposites and prime candidates for alterity. Tyler claims to outdo the narrator in the arena of looks, love, and even freedom; for everything that Tyler does well, the narrator is tragically incompetent. While Tyler might originally function as the narrator’s “other,” embodying everything that the narrator desires to be but is not, the film’s final scenes show the narrator embracing the “other” as himself. That is, the narrator commits the ultimate act of rebellion against the “other” by becoming the “other.” In the movie’s penultimate scene, the narrator sees Tyler holding a gun and says, “I can beat this. This isn’t even real. The gun isn’t even in your hand. It’s in my hand” (02:04:46-56). The narrator looks down and the gun that was once in Tyler’s hand appears in his own. As the narrator discovers how to synthesize himself with the character of Tyler, he defies all convention and, instead of contrasting himself with an “other,” he assumes the persona of Tyler. The scene continues as the narrator shoves a pistol into his mouth, to the protest of Tyler, who asks “Now why would you want to go and blow your head off?” The narrator answers as someone who has rejected alterity as a self-identification method and embraced the “other” as himself: “Not my head, Tyler. Our head” (02:07:12-19). By contrasting the pronouns “my” and “our,” the narrator is confirming that there is no longer a distinction between himself and Tyler, but rather that they are the same person. The narrator’s decision to pull the trigger can be read not as an attempt to eradicate the “other,” but as an attempt to synthesize himself with the persona of Tyler Durden. After all, Tyler drops to the floor with a bullet wound protruding from the back of his skull, while the narrator ends the movie with a definitive change in character, responding to the name “Mr. Durden” and adopting Tyler’s leadership role—a position he had vehemently resisted for the majority of the film. In identifying with and essentially becoming his self-made “other” by the film’s close Fight Club’s narrator completely rejects conventional notions of alterity and, instead, becomes that which he is not supposed to be. In the context of Fight Club, the “other” then becomes something to overcome, an obstacle to true catharsis. While creating Tyler Durden as his “other” was a necessary action for the narrator, his objective by the end of the film is to combine his own persona with that of Tyler’s because each the narrator and Tyler in themselves only represent half of what the narrator needs to be. By reconciling himself with his “other,” the narrator becomes full-functioning and capable of showing emotion, as evidenced by him reaching out to Marla as the buildings of credit card companies collapse before them. The narrator was incapable of showing Marla true affection until he reconciled his persona with that of his alter ego, suggesting that overcoming the “other” makes one more whole.Alterity plays a slightly different role in Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Oskar, the nine-year old protagonist, is constantly battling with two “others” throughout the novel: his deceased father as well as his absent and mute grandfather. In an attempt to reclaim his own life and the possibility of a future after the untimely death of his father, Oskar resists the comparisons made to his father and grandfather because they are associated with abandonment and the past. Yet, time and time again, Oskar’s mother as well as his grandmother compare him to unavailable men:“Mom?” “Yes?” “I doesn’t make me feel good when you say that something I do reminds you of Dad.” “Oh. I’m sorry. Do I do that a lot?” “You do it all the time.” “I can see why that wouldn’t feel good.” “And grandma always says that things I do remind her of Grandpa. It makes me feel weird, because they’re gone. And it also makes me feel unspecial.” (43)The comparison to his father is painful for Oskar, making him feel “weird” and “unspecial,” though he does not actively seek to be unlike his father or his grandfather and, therefore, does not embrace the idea of the “other.” Instead, Oskar rejects alterity completely because he does not wish to define himself in relation to either his father or his grandfather. Rather Oskar tries to find catharsis by developing his identity unaffected by the influence of an outside comparison. Oskar, who is trying so fervently to push through the past into the future, finds the fact that he reminds others of the past not to be a source of solace, but rather of frustration and tension. Oskar could rebel against this comparison, insisting he is not like his deceased father or his absent grandfather and, in doing so, invoking the identity of the “other.” However, he neither embraces nor rejects the comparison, but wants to define himself without the aid of alterity because with otherness comes expectations. Oskar’s main goal in the text is to overcome the tragedy that was his father’s death, and any type of comparison, whether it be one based in similarity or contrast, serves as a hindrance to his recovery. As Oskar roams the city searching for the “Black” that knew his father, he meets Ruth Black, who likens Oskar to her dead husband: “‘He loved the next thing that would change life. And he was always coming up with wonderful, crazy ideas. A bit like you,’ she said to me, which gave me heavy boots, because why couldn’t I remind people of me?” (252). Even though Ruth’s description of her husband is overwhelmingly positive, Oskar resists the comparison, feeling the proverbial “heavy boots” tugging at his feet. Being compared to other people establishes expectations—in comparing Oskar to her dead husband, Ruth Black inadvertently aligns Oskar to her husband in every way, disallowing his own individuality. The pressure of being like someone else is too much for Oskar; he simply wants his own identity, illustrated in his poignant question, “why couldn’t I remind people of me?” Oskar wants to rely on himself and himself alone for his identity; comparisons to other people simply hinder his own self-discovery because they establish precedents that he is uncomfortable or unwilling to satisfy.The “other,” in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, then, occupies a far more threatening position than it does in Fight Club. In order to achieve some sort of catharsis and secure a sense of individuality, Oskar must reject alterity completely and develop organically. Comparisons to his father and grandfather establish a precedent that Oskar resents, since both men abandoned their family in some way. Instead of defying the comparison to others and embracing alterity—instead of defining who he is by proving who he is not—Oskar resists the entire concept of alterity, preferring his identity to be a self-administered and self-contained development. Whereas in Fight Club the “other” and the self synthesized into one, Oskar views the “other” as a threat to his individuality and resists comparison in order to avoid any type of derived or contrived identity.Utilizing the “other” as a form of literary identification is both embraced and undermined in the texts Fight Club and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Both texts explore concepts of identity and what, exactly, constitutes the individual and while they both arrive at different conclusions about the utility and purpose of the “other,” they recognize the complexity of identity and create within their respective frameworks the opportunity for alterity to affect catharsis in some way. Whether that effect is positive or negative seems to depend almost wholly on the character and how they view the development of their own identity.
Protection Through Language Barriers in ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’
Instances of failed communication occur extensively in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. In some cases — Oskar and his mother, William Black and his father — increased communication would improve the way characters deal with trauma and loss. However, much of the time, limited communication between characters actually acts as a safety measure against undesirable knowledge. One example of this occurs partway through Oskar’s journey, when Oskar finds himself unable to communicate with the Spanish-speaking woman, Feliz, in Agnes Black’s old apartment. He grasps that Agnes died during 9/11, but his inability to understand Spanish protects him from the answer to “‘Did [Agnes] have any kids?’” (Foer 196). Feliz’s long response suggests that Agnes probably did have children, but because of the language barrier, Oskar escapes the damaging idea of another parent-less child. Oskar’s interaction with Feliz illuminates Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’s central idea that language barriers protect people from unnecessary and harmful knowledge.
Oskar has positive associations with Greek simply because of its nature as a foreign language. He and his dad listen to someone speak Greek on the radio, “which was nice” (Foer 13), even though they “couldn’t understand what he was saying” (Foer 13). Since he primarily associates Greek with his absent grandfather, he immediately speculates “‘Maybe that’s him we’re listening to’” (Foer 13). Oskar’s inability to understand Greek allows him to feel closer to his grandfather and protects him from the unnecessary information that the voice on the radio belongs to a stranger. This fantasy would not be possible if Oskar could translate Greek into English. Though Oskar wishes to understand Feliz’s words in a way he does not with the Greek reporter, the barriers between the languages serve the same purpose: to protect him from unnecessary and harmful information.
Oskar develops an obsession with breaking language barriers that hinders his ability to move on from his father’s death. When he cannot understand Mr. Black and Feliz’s conversation, he “[gets] angry” (Foer 196). In response, Oskar invents “a book that list[s] every word in every language” (Foer 316), stating that it makes him “incredibly angry that people all over the world can know things that I can’t” (Foer 256) just because of his limited language. The repeated usage of the word “angry” pushes Oskar’s desire to break language barriers past the realm of harmless curiosity and into one of negative fixation. His fixation drives him to go to great lengths to translate phrases from foreign languages into English. For example, when he wants to learn details about his father’s death, he must “‘go to a translator program and find out how to say things in different languages, like . . . ‘people jumping from burning buildings,’ which is ‘Menschen, die aus brennenden Gebäuden springen’’” and then Google the foreign phrases to locate websites with “‘videos . . . of bodies falling’” (Foer 256). Learning these gory details inhibits Oskar’s ability to move on, evident through his repeated references to them during the rest of the book. After learning that Agnes Black died during 9/11, Oskar’s mind immediately places Agnes and his father into the roles of jumpers pictured on the foreign websites, “You saw in some of the pictures that people jumped together and held hands” (Foer 196). This rapid connection proves that access to the websites keeps Oskar focused on his father’s death and prevents him from moving towards acceptance. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’s final pages comprise the very images of a jumper Oskar finds on a foreign website, suggesting that his journey ends with him still fixated on his father’s death. The unnecessary and harmful images Oskar finds through breaking language barriers cause him to dwell on the irreversible tragedy of his father’s death with no effective strategies for moving on.
Shortly after meeting Feliz, Oskar comes across Fo Black, who also “didn’t speak very good English” (Foer 239). Fo avoids the stressful experience of living in new place by choosing to move from one Chinese-speaking community to another. “He hadn’t left Chinatown since he came from Taiwan, because there was no reason for him to” (Foer 239) suggests that Fo feels uncomfortable with living in a culturally unfamiliar place. By staying in a Chinese-speaking community, Fo utilizes a language barrier to protect himself against potentially harmful culture shock. Staying in Chinatown also enables him to evade unnecessary information about the city he inhabits. Fo conflates the abbreviation “NY” with the Chinese word ny, thinking all “I love NY” memorabilia means “I love you.” It most likely comforts Fo to think that his new home promotes the positive message “I love you” all over the city. When Oskar clarifies the real meaning of “I love NY,” providing Fo with unnecessary information, Fo “look[s] confused, or embarrassed, or surprised, or maybe even mad” (Foer 239). Fo’s jumbled emotions reflect how Oskar may have felt had he understood Feliz’s answer to “‘Did [Agnes] have any kids?’” (Foer 196). Oskar’s description suggests that breaking the language barrier leaves Fo worse off, indicating that subjection to unnecessary information can be harmful.
Oskar ultimately admits that the book he invented in response to his encounter with Feliz, which lists “every word in every language,” would “not be a very useful book” (Foer 256). He may mean that the book seems impractical because of the time and effort it would take to locate a specific word. However, another possible interpretation could be Oskar registering the risk of possessing too much knowledge. This interpretation shows Oskar exhibiting growth; though he remains enthralled by some detrimental information, he at least comes to realize that knowing everything is not always beneficial.
Foer, Jonathan Safran. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Print.