book by Jonathan Safran Foer
annotation by Stephanie Quinn Westphal originally posted 7/10/09
When I first began to read Jonathan Safran Foer’s second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I didn’t care for his writing. I found some of his stylistic tics annoying, especially the way he repeats phrases, ideas and images, overstates the nine-year-old protagonist’s brilliance, and gives too many examples of a particular idea. But once I became captivated by Oskar Schell as a character, I became engaged in his story. As the novel progresses, Foer seems to settle down into the world he creates and uses his ambition and talent to great and moving effect.
One startling and ultimately profound thing Foer does in this novel is break the edges of the frame. He uses photos and other visual devices embedded in the text in inventive ways, including to visually recreate the stepped process of coming to an epiphany, and as a cinematic device that mimics movement (via a backwards flip book). On the simple, rather straightforward level, Foer inserts a photo of the façade of an urban apartment, which makes the reader feel as if she’s standing next to Oskar when he looks out his window to see his grandmother’s apartment across the street. The author also employs other visual methods for directing the reader to previous portions of the novel, not just in a mental reassessment of what’s been read, but also in actual thumbing through of the pages. He uses blank pages, pages with only one sentence in the middle of the sheet, and pages with names written in different handwriting and colors to make us stop and step away from the text for a moment, and then to reenter it with new awareness. He halts the fictive dream, makes us think about it, and then calls us back into that dream, albeit with a slightly altered perspective. By incorporating such visual elements in his text, Foer expands on some of the ways in which fiction traditionally works, giving us a richer reading experience.
Through his inventive and deliberate juxtaposition of photographic images with the written text, Foer also makes them work in tandem on a more symbolic level. The author inserts a close up shot of an old person’s turned up hands, with “No” written in the palm of the left hand and “Yes” on the right hand (but inverting them so that the photo of the right hand is on the left page and vice versa). The person’s thumbs are gnarled and his fingers show the wear and tear of a long life. By including the photograph of a real elderly man’s hands deformed by arthritis and speckled in age spots, Foer makes that detail more powerful to the readers. I found it interesting that Foer didn’t place that photo early on in the book when the narrator first describes the grandfather’s hands. Seeing the image later added retroactively to the description’s impact.
Directing the reader’s attention, and specifically, her conscious awareness of the path her eye follows, seems to be a central objective of Foer’s style and structure. The author’s deliberate orchestration of our eye movement and thought processes creates a meta-text, a text that occurs above and between the physical pages of the book and that is more than simply an adjunct to the printed text appearing on the pages.
One of the central threads in the novel is the series of phone messages that Oskar’s father leaves from the Twin Towers on the morning of 9/11. He listens to his father’s messages in a state of near paralysis, fueled alternately by hope and dread. When the buildings collapse and it seems likely that his father didn’t make it out alive, Oskar conceals the evidence of the phone messages from his mother. He buys a matching phone, redoes the outgoing message, and then hides the original phone, with the messages on it still intact, up in his closet.
Not only does Foer space out the revelation of the individual calls over the course of the novel, but he also echoes this slow unveiling of clues in his placement of photographs and images in the novel. The first photo in the book is of an extreme close up of an old-fashioned door with a glass doorknob and the lock below it (a visual pun, perhaps, of the title?). The perspective is so close that I didn’t really recognize what the image was or register it consciously until later in the text when Oskar finds an old key his father had tucked away in an envelope. Foer seems to be saying that some patterns only “make sense” with repeated viewings and over time. Surely the initially inconceivable and incomprehensible bombing of the Twin Towers qualifies as such an event.
Shortly after we learn of the mysterious key, we watch Oskar start on his quest to find out what the key opens, to uncover symbolically the secret of who his father was and the meaning of his death. Foer then intersperses several shots of the door and the lock in the text; it’s the same door, but it’s either from further away, the keyhole is empty, or the key is turned in the lock. Foer may be playing not only with long shots versus close ups, but also with images of the front of the door in contrast to the back of the door (a theme he plays with in the photos of the backs of people’s heads, something that Oskar talks about). Moving back and forth across the text adds intrigue and the satisfaction of discovery to the reading experience. It also illustrates how dependent meaning or learning is on context. Without knowing about the strange key, much of the import of the photos of the door and keyhole is lost. We can’t grasp it. Foer spaces out the photos the way he spaces out the phone calls from the father, delaying both our gratification and our epiphanies.
Foer also uses body orientation (facing forward, facing backward, looking down at your hands, etc.) to echo the dislocation and sense of fragmentation that Oskar battles against as he tries to reconstruct a coherent worldview after the violent death of his father and the rending of his sense of safety. The author thus recreates in the readers both the sense of being shattered and the compulsive need to reassemble a world of recognizable patterns, even if the patterns must shift a bit to include the new knowledge.
The very back of the novel is what amounts to a backwards flip book that shows a person who has leaped off a building (which we learn is indeed a picture of someone plummeting to his death off one of the Twin Towers because Oskar finds such images on a Portuguese news show and keeps a print out of that horror and others in a folder under his bed). As I flipped through the final photos, I watched the fuzzy body of a man as he miraculously moved up through the air, back towards the moment before that figure – emblematic of Oskar’s father– leaped to his death. Back up to the safety of the tower. Back to a world that was still held together in its old order. This is Oskar’s impossible, but understandable wish. This is the wish of all humans in the face of loss and the inevitable death of those we love and ourselves. In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Foer has created a brilliant, multi-faceted portrayal of this universal human dilemma.
As the novel neared its end, I had a better understanding of the meaning of the title, referring as it probably does to the closeness of Oskar’s apartment to the Twin Towers, the emotional and metaphorical “loudness” of his father’s death as well as the “incredibly close” nature of Oskar’s connection to his father both before and after his death. I found it a flawed, but deeply moving novel, almost triumphant in its tangible recreation of the fact that fiction and stories are at their very best still only approximations of reality, just as photographs are translations of light. It’s the best we can do as humans to empathetically step into and convey another person’s experience, and it is enough.