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.
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