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Reader’s Den: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, Week 4

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This is the last week of our book discussion of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. In my first post, I mentioned that it is a post-9/11 novel, published in 2005, but during the past month of discussion, I haven't focused on that aspect of the work. The book talks about Oskar's reaction to the 9/11 tragedy and his father's death at the World Trade Center as well as the reactions of his mother, the people Oskar interviews while trying to find the lock for his key, and various other characters. Foer's intent is to describe the aftermath of 9/11, rather than the event itself, although he uses some details of the event in his story.

EL&IC was somewhat controversial when it was first published because it was relatively soon after the event and feelings were still fresh and painful. For example, the last photos in the book showing a body falling from the Towers, even though it is designed as a flip book to show the body falling upwards (Oskar's attempt to reverse the tragedy), were too graphic for some. As I read, I was reminded forcefully of things from that time that I had forgotten, such as the many signs posted for missing friends and relatives, hoping they were still alive, and the empty casket burials. I don't know what my reaction to the book would have been if I had read it when it was first published, but I expect it would have been more emotionally intense. I don't know how a non-New Yorker or anyone who was not in NYC during the event itself would react to this book. Nor can I imagine what the reaction will be ten years (or more) from now when a teenager who wasn't born at the time reads it. Perhaps the key to what establishes a novel as definitive of an event is how powerfully and effectively it evokes an emotional or visceral response, one not based on personal memory but a kind of collective emotional truth.

In the first post I noted that the definitive novel about 9/11 has not been written yet, while novels immortalizing other wars and events have been identified. Here's an abbreviated list:

Alternate titles - The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer, 1948, From Here to Eternity by James Jones, 1951, and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, 1961

Alternate title – The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, 1990

As a point of interest, I've noted the dates of the wars as well as the dates the books were published. What might be interesting is to see how many of the authors actually served in the wars. Please let me know if you have any other suggestions for the list.

In an interview with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Foer answers the question of the significance of the title to the book itself. In his view, the book deals with love and war, both of which are loud and close, yet many of the characters are silent and distant, (see Week 3 post). Foer hopes the book causes the reader to feel loudly and closely its messages about love and war and the pain of loss. In my opinion, the silence and distance of many characters in the book emphasize feelings that are the exact opposite of the title. For example, Oskar is looking for closeness and afraid of it at the same time, as are his grandparents. It is ironic that amidst all the noisy events there is an internal core of silence, that while some characters are reaching out for love, others are putting up walls to avoid closeness.

After reading EL&IC, I think its overall theme is loss, including dealing with loss, fear of loss (especially loss of love) and fear of dying. There are so many examples throughout the book. While Oskar is dealing with the loss of his father, his grandfather is still mourning the loss of his beloved in the Dresden bombing, and his grandmother is mourning the loss of her family in the same disaster and the distant relationship with her husband. These fears transmute into a fear of living that manifests itself in two different ways, inactivity (the grandfather abandoning his son before birth) or extreme activity (Oskar's prolonged search throughout New York City for the lock for his key). Either way of attempting to run from life and its fears ends in a circle. No matter which path you choose in running from your life, you eventually come back to the same fears and the need to confront them. In other words, it is through living that one overcomes the fear of living. Oskar found the lock for his key, but the solution wasn't what he was expecting. He worked through his loss and his fears indirectly by searching for a last message of love from his father, by living in loving hope instead of withdrawing. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “Where there is love there is life.”

I hope you enjoyed EL&IC and the discussion. In January Reader's Den will explore The New York Stories of Edith Wharton. Mixed Bag: Story Time for Grown-Ups and Mixed Bag PM are also featuring stories by Edith Wharton in January. Have a wonderful holiday and please join us in the New Year.

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