Saturday, March 14, 2009

Turtles all the way down: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

I just finished reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, and it's my new favorite book. I don't even know what to say- any attempt would just be "a raid on the inarticulate/ With shabby equipment always deteriorating" (gracias Eliot).

I guess I'll try. Bare with me.

Things I loved about this book: the characters' honesty/openness/intimacy with the reader, Oskar's idiosyncrisies, his frankness, the grandparents' narrative, the fact that Oskar has so many questions about so many ridiculous things, his inventions, Oskar's business card, the fact that he writes to Stephen Hawking, the fact that Stephen Hawking writes back, the fact that so much of this book is about words and what they can do, or can't do, what they fill and can't fill, Mr. Black in 6A and Oskar's turning on his hearing aids for him, the sixth borough, the fact that it almost all takes place in NY and I know the places he talks about, that Oskar asks the pretty women he meets if he can kiss them, the expressions "heavy boots" and "Jose," the fact that he asks William Black if he forgives him for not picking up the phone, everything.

I think what I love about Oskar, and probably what other people love about him too, is that his voice is the adult child voice. Honestly, he's too smart for a real 8 or 9 year old, but that doesn't matter. He gives voice to the child in the adult and allows anyone reading it to be as simple and endearing and curious and confused and pained as Oskar- without any adult pretention or need to be grown-up. I mean he might be a real 8 year old too, but I definitely think he does the child-in-the-adult thing.

I don't know what to make of the fact that Thomas Schell is virtually a complete void, but also the center/addressee of each narrative. It's sort of like As I Lay Dying in some way (and even though I like that book a LOT, this one is way better). At least in As I Lay Dying, though, the dead body is actually IN the coffin- and we hear from her- even if only once. I guess taking Thomas out- or having his role in the narrators' lives essentially be empty- is because words are more important for the speakers than for who or what they're speaking about? I dunno, his parents are always talking to him- Oskar is always wondering about him and looking for him; we discover these characters in their speaking to/about Thomas. He's sort of the hole they dump their words into (and I guess this is literal, too, at the end) in their trying to figure things out, to put things in place.

I like that Foer juxtaposes the suffering caused by the bombing of Dresden and the 9/11 attacks. I wonder if the generation that went through WWII ever really recovered from it- or if anyone really ever recovers from any war, or attack. They wound so so deeply. I feel like the 20th century- and I guess even the 21st beginning with the bang of 9/11 - is just scar after scar after scar after scar, and each new wound makes the world look at all the other scars it has, which even though "healed" are still pink and ugly and gave the world extra skin-- like a sick joke of a souvenir gifted by history. Even our generation- even if we were young when it happened- we've got a pink blob of extra skin from 9/11 and we'll always see it when we take a shower or go to the beach- long after they build the freedom tower and set up memorial museums. I'm not really sure what to make of all that.

Obviously there's a lot more to say, and probably deeper things, but these are my initial impressions and thoughts.



  1. First of all, thanks Maura for posting this. Also, I recommend that everyone reads this book.

    Regarding the post, I think it is a valuable observation that you made concerning ELIC's connection to As I Lay Dying and the concept of a "coffin character", so to speak, around whom the narration is centered. Equally interesting is that Thomas is entirely absent. As I write this, I am thinking that it might not be a coincidence that he is addressed in the narrative at different points as father, as son, and as ghost. This could be a little farfetched, but the novel could be read as a story about the loss of God. He is the hole the narrators dump their words into, as you said. He is not really real any longer in the reality of a secular world.

    Anyway, that's probably importing too much religion onto the story. We could tackle it from another angle, however, and come up with a similar reading. If we start from Nietzsche's observation that God will be dead once language is dead, we can view the narrative as a celebration of words and communication as a buttress against the project of deconstruction that Nietzsche prophesied; but the reversal of the narrative (read the end of the story, it is bone chilling) simultaneously gives credence to the powerlessness of words, words that ultimately cannot forge some kind of salvation, or serve as a remedy for death. Death is experienced literally by Thomas, but also it is experienced by Oskar and his grandparents in their isolation. In this sense, the novel at its core deals with the question of whether words are ever robust enough the gloss over the fundamental lack that defines every human life. Can words ever fill the emptiness of an infinite abyss, of the chasm between death and life? Between solitude and communion? At its most brilliant moments, Foer's narrative humbly brings these questions into the open.

    These are my initial reactions and thoughts concerning your post. I also have an essay that I wrote for class last semester that I want to look over. Maybe I will combine it with this comment and make some sort of a coherent post. For now though, I was wondering, Maura, if you could say something about whether the ending, the way Foer executes it with the reversal of narrative and images, is really indicative of any kind of hope. Does it not seem that Oskar is devoid of hope at the end? That he has given up? Carolina, I know you have read this book as well; please jump in on the conversation.

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  4. Francis,
    First, thanks for responding.
    I think your first observation about the absence of God/Thomas being father, son and ghost is actually not so far-fetched, especially when you wed it to the rest of the conversation on language. What I'm thinking is that if we see Thomas as some representation of God, albeit faint, the fact that the other characters fill him with their words, and so fill God with their words... well, let's just say lots could be done with that. What initially came to my mind, though, was that language has replaced God and become Language. What I mean is that Language, with the capital L, is being looked at as THE THING that can still provide meaning, that can manifest meaning, and is not merely the medium through which meaning is conveyed, its source being elsewhere. Language holds within it the source of meaning, here- it is the origin of meaning; or at least that's one claim being made. This might be especially true for a world where God is at best irrelevant and ultimately absent and vacant. (It would be interesting to see how "In the beginning there was the Word" could enter here)

    As far as the ending, I really have to admit I did not see it that way. Granted, I see your point about the reversal of the narrative admitting the defeat of language in some way, but I'm not really sure it's as simple or singular as bone-chilling despair. In fact I didn't get despair at all. If anything, only sadness.
    I talked about this with a friend of mine. She said something really smart and I think very characteristic of this book:
    The problem with language and writing etc is that you're always going to fail- words are never going to completely or purely carry what you're trying to say, [or like you suggested, “fill the emptiness of an infinite abyss, of the chasm between death and life, between solitude and communion”]. That being said, the goal isn't to succeed in the face of inevitable failure but rather to "fail better."
    So, to your question of "whether words are ever robust enough to gloss over the fundamental lack that defines every human life" - no, they can't. but by way of the inevitable failure there can be created something beautiful and even helpful. And, ideally, we wouldn’t have to gloss over that lack, but rather, this helps us look it squarely in the face.
    I think that's what this book does. It clearly has no intention of positing that language is perfect OR useless, but rather explores how powerful it can be and how futile. And the ending reflects that. You could say that the reversal of the narrative is an erasure of each character’s history and thus an avoidance of life/reality/etc (the whole project was useless and language is futile), OR you could say it's that Oskar -and the grandmother- are now finally able to begin again after engaging in the cathartic process of writing/speaking/wording out their experience. In some way, they are healed through language, and the pain and the wound are no longer crippling. Language has enabled them to integrate their pain into their selves, and has made it something internal to them. And I think at the ending you might say we start to see that pain as something that builds them up, instead of breaks them down.

    I want to revisit the grandparents' narratives and look at them more closely, just by themselves. I also think more can be said about Thomas being a coffin character. I'll let you know what comes of that work.

    and yes, please, Carolina- join in!
    and anyone else, too.

    sorry for the delayed response

  5. Hey, this is emily. I just read the book at Maura's recommendation and really loved it. It's so, so painful and if nothing else, it gave me heavy boots for not feeling more when the towers came down. It just didn't seem real until I read this book...Just a few things I thought when I finished it. Yes, Francis, it did seem almost despairing to me, the way that Oskar rewinds everything that happened. But it is honest and I think it is right for this reason. The thing that struck me is that his grandmother does a similar rewinding of the past and ends up with darkness, after the light and the apple and the flood and dresden (p. 313). But the interesting thing is that after she says darkness, she says Oskar and this echoes what she said at a previous point, on page 232, about Oskar. She says, "When I looked at you, my life made sense. Even the bad things made sense. They were necessary to make you possible." And this is perhaps something that Oskar can't see yet because he is a kid but it seems to be a theme of the book: that people are wounded, that life is hard, harder than death but that love is there, in that, with the man who buys I heart NY shirts because he thinks it means i love you, or Ron and the mom who need each other, or the woman who lives on top of the Empire State Building because she wants to see her husband's spotlight again. I guess the question that I'm left with at the end of the book and i think the question that all the characters live with is: can love be saved? is it just loss? Is it all death, as Oskar sometimes proposes? This book makes me realize that I need Christ because he saves what I love, when I'm not brave enough to love, like when Oskar couldn't pick up the phone to talk to his dying dad,or like Thomas Schell whose life was immobilized and who never knew his son because he feared the loss of one more person whom he loved.