The exploration of what it means to be human is heavily focused on in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. The story follows a nine-year-old boy whose father died in the 9/11 attacks as he struggles to find some reason behind it, wondering along the way about existence and, more importantly, human emotion. All humans experience a range of emotions, from happiness to anger and everything in between. One of the most prominent human experiences is loss and the grief that follows it.
The grieving process presents itself in many ways, and it is different for everyone. Through examining the text via formalism, which focuses solely on the text itself and not on the author on any other element, it becomes clear that the varying ways of mourning and receiving closure are well represented. The setting, plot, and structure used in the text all tie together the examination of grief as part of what it means to be human-everyone deals with grief, but each person must find a way to do so. The novel is set in New York City, NY.
However, the timeline of the story is not entirely set in stone; the telling of events is fragmented, switching between different time periods and chronologies. There are three narrators: Oskar, whose telling of the story occurs shortly after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001; Oskar’s grandfather, Thomas Schell, Sr. , who tells his story through letters (to “my unborn child” and “my child”) written between 1963 and 2003; and Oskar’s grandmother, who also writes letters (to Oskar) in 2003.
The distinction between the narrators becomes clear further into the book, as they differ greatly in structure and grammar. By having three different narrators telling about their respective sources of grief at different times, the meaning of the work is reinforced — everyone experiences grief and loss. The three narrators do, however, share one common source of anguish: Thomas Schell, Jr. , Oskar’s father. When he dies as the second plane hits his building, Thomas leaves behind Oskar, with whom he had a special, loving relationship, shown predominantly through Oskar’s flashbacks.
Being a typically busy-minded child, Oskar remembers all of the great things about his father and how “being with him made my brain quiet. I didn’t have to invent a thing” (Foer 12). Simply enough, being with his father made Oskar’s life a bit easier to live. As for Oskar’s grandmother, she felt especially sorrowful as she recalled finding out that her son had passed, telling Oskar that “I wanted so much for it to be me under the rubble. … It was as simple as wanting to take his place. And it was more complicated than that” (Foer 232).
She merely believes that if it had been her in the accident instead, Thomas would still be alive, but that is where it gets complicated as she says, because she herself would then be dead in his place. This is an example of how heartache can cause a person to think irrationally, something explored often in the whole novel. In a similar irrational fashion, Oskar’s grandfather experiences his grief through false hope for a better future, as “l assumed she would come pick me up and everything would begin to make sense, we would mourn and try to live … We would forgive ourselves” (Foer 269).
Like his wife, Oskar’s grandfather feels a clearly unreasonable sense of longing, driven solely by all of the regret and remorse associated with losing Thomas. The different types of grieving caused by one common thing supports the idea of the text once again. Loss can hit people in a number of ways. That loss puts a heavy strain on everyone that person knew, who then struggle to gain understanding. Being understood is tough, especially for a child; Oskar, specifically, seems to be much different from other children. Throughout the telling of his story, Oskar even presents as seeming mildly autistic.
He has created a binder called “Stuff that Happened to Me,” which includes several seemingly random images, such as Stephen Hawking, turtles mating, an image of NYC with Central Park removed, and more (Foer 53-67). He mentions and looks at this binder often, and the repetitive thing that only he may understand is characteristic of autism. He-much like other autistic children, also has difficulty understanding the emotions of others and noticing his surroundings, such as when “I shook my tambourine the whole time, because it helped me remember that even though I was going through different neighborhoods, I was still me” (Foer 88).
He doesn’t realize that that is not what everyone does, and though it may calm him, it may very well irritate others. Oskar, whether he is on the autistic spectrum or not, clearly looks at the world much differently than others, and his inability to appropriately handle emotions makes it much harder for others to understand his grief. This is especially true for his mom and Oskar makes that clear to her as they discuss Thomas’ death, telling her that “he had cells, and now they’re on rooftops, and in the river, and in the lungs of millions of people around New York, who breathe him every time they speak! .. But it’s the truth! Why can’t I say the truth! ” (Foer 169).
Since the meaning of the story is that everyone deals with grief differently, it is also important to touch upon the impact that has on their surroundings; in this case, Oskar’s personality is a very important plot point in the story that determines how he deals with it and how others respond. One aspect of the structure of the text is the fact that there are images throughout. Many times, the images shown are things that Oskar is seeing himself at that point in his storytelling.
For example, when he is at Abby Black’s house, he sees a photo of an elephant’s eye crying blood, which is then shown (Foer 95). When Oskar is at the art supply store trying to find information about the word “Black” on the envelope, he mentions a pad of paper people test pens on, and instead of describing it, it is shown (Foer 45-49). The images are most likely used because Oskar cannot quite describe things the exact way that they are, which may be important to him—to get his exact point across, and nothing less.
The images also help to see Oskar’s world just as he is seeing it, which is part of understanding him better. Some of the most important images in the whole novel are of the man falling out of the World Trade Center. At the end of his story, Oskar took the photos and “I reversed the order, so the last one was first, and the first was last. When I flipped through them, it looked like the man was floating up through the sky” (Foer 325). Oskar then recounts what would have happened if everything actually had been in reverse order that day.
In the end, all that matters to him is that “we would have been safe” (Foer 326). This is how Oskar inevitably ends up handling his grief. He tries to imagine that his father could actually be okay by reversing a morbid scene and making it into something good. He regained some closure earlier on in digging up his father’s empty coffin so his grandfather could leave his unsent letters inside, and Oskar’s final way of learning to live with his father’s death is through believing there was some way (albeit an impossible one) for his family to be back to normal.
Each person has his or her own way of mourning. Quite a few of these are touched upon in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, explored through certain aspects of the plot, the setting, and how the book is written. By examining the text through a formalist criticism approach, focusing just on the text itself, the meaning becomes clear. Oskar faces his grief and learns how others do the same. This is, of course, just a part of what makes Oskar, his grandparents, his mother, and everyone else around him human.