Originally published in the Jerusalem Post (April 22, 2005).
On September 9, 2001, two days before tragedy struck New York, a museum haunted by another catastrophe opened in Germany.
The Jewish Museum Berlin is architect Daniel Libeskind’s magnum opus, a mesmerizing, spatial consideration of life and death, its contradictions and coexistence. The museum commemorates 2000 years of German Jewry, and Libeskind understood that a building filled with artifacts couldn’t properly represent the German Jewish experience. The annihilation of German Jewry needed to be integrated. Thus, central to the design is a series of five "voids," empty passageways, viewable but inaccessible. The voids cut through the museum, contrasting absence with presence, weaving nothingness into somethingness.
The dialectic between absence and presence, nothing and something, is the foundational line of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, as well. In the follow up to his successful debut, Everything Is Illuminated, Safran Foer introduces us to Oskar Schell, a wildly precocious nine year-old.
Oskar is a quirky character, too smart for his own good. He dresses in white and has a business card that identifies him as an inventor, a jewelry designer, a Francophile, and an amateur entomologist. He is a playful, if somewhat solitary boy.
But Oskar’s childhood is shattered on September 11th when his father is killed in the World Trade Center attacks. When Oskar finds a key hidden amongst his father’s belongings, he tries to cope with his loss, to get closer to his dead father, by searching for its lock. The search takes Oskar all around the city, into the lives of other New Yorkers, themselves navigating life’s difficulties and disappointments.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close features two other narrative strands: letters written by Oskar’s paternal grandmother and grandfather. Oskar’s grandparents are survivors of the Dresden fire bombings of 1945. They reconnect in New York after World War II and marry, but their lives are defined by this calamity. Oskar’s grandfather is the more paralyzed of the two. He was rendered mute by his experiences and communicates with a notepad and pen. He leaves his wife when she becomes pregnant with Oskar’s father. His letters are addressed to this son he never knew.
Oskar’s search for the elusive lock anchors the novel, providing a narrative arc and even comic relief, but the grandparents’ letters give the book its meat. The themes of absence and presence, which hang above the surface of Oskar’s story, come to the fore in these letters.
Between Nothing & Something
"Only a few months into our marriage," writes the grandfather, "we started marking off areas in the apartment as ‘Nothing Places,’ in which one could be assured of complete privacy, we agreed that we never would look at the marked-off zones, that they would be nonexistent territories in the apartment in which one could temporarily cease to exist."
But in the face of tragedy, absence and presence, Nothing and Something, resist independence.
"[A] friction began to arise between Nothing and Something, in the morning the Nothing vase cast a Something shadow…at night the Nothing light from the guest room spilled under the Nothing door and stained the Something hallway."
There are two polar responses to catastrophe: Nothing and Something–creation in spite of destruction and disengagement in deference to it. Both grandfather and grandmother recognize this dialectic and both understand that as long as they are alive they cannot adopt just one of these poles. Still, they are inclined in different directions. In one of the most powerful passages in the book, Oskar’s grandmother confronts her husband in the airport as he’s preparing to leave her. They converse by pointing to pre-written words in the grandfather’s notepad.
"I pointed at, Don’t Cry.
He pointed at, Broken and confused.
I pointed at, So sad.
He pointed at, Broken and confused.
I pointed at, Something.
He pointed at, Nothing.
I pointed at, Something.
Nobody pointed at, I love you."
An Untraditional Narrative
Safran Foer employs many visual tools in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Photographs, illustrations, and typographical stunts are scattered amongst the novel’s pages. While some of these might be gratuitous and distracting, many buttress the novel’s themes.
In the grandparents’ letters, the visual devices appeal to our sense of space. The grandfather’s missives are tightly packed, with no paragraph breaks, except for the pages that reproduce his notepad–single lines surrounded by whiteness. Oskar’s grandfather is an extremist in his response to tragedy. He has outbursts of creativity and moments of extreme disengagement.
Oskar’s grandmother also struggles with the dialectic between Nothing and Something, but she is more measured in her approach. Her letters are oddly spaced, either one sentence to a line or with multiple spaces between sentences. Oskar’s grandmother does not deny the spaces left in her life by tragedy nor does she let them overpower her. She integrates them into her engagement with the world.
Interestingly, she is less successful in her engagement with herself. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close includes several blank pages, representing the grandmother’s memoir–a work composed with the spacebar alone.
Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum acknowledges that there’s nothing simple about destruction. Aside for the five voids that run through the museum, Libeskind planned five comparable "voided voids," spaces outside the museum that would parallel the indoor voids but be accessible. To further complicate matters, only two of these voided voids were actually built, and the three absent ones are marked with stones. Libeskind’s building evokes the contradiction that death solicits for the living. It appeals to the way what isn’t annunciates what is, the way absence and presence are forever intertwined in conversation and combat.
In an irony only history could get away with, Libeskind was chosen to design a memorial for the attack that occurred two days after his Berlin museum opened. His World Trade Center design also contrasts absence and presence. It features a 1,776 foot "Freedom Tower" situated next to a gaping foundation that survived the 9/11 attacks.
Yet in contrast to the Berlin museum, there’s something oddly unsophisticated about the WTC memorial. As the art critic Noam Elcott has noted, "Libeskind’s Jewish museum fuses absence and presence in an irrevocable pas de deux: the building’s (once) unnamed voids and voided voids call each other into question and, with them, the ambivalent presence and absence of Jews in Germany. The WTC proposal, on the other hand, projects monumental absence (the foundation) against monumental presence (the ‘Freedom Tower’), transforming an open wound into clichéd metaphors and proper names–easily identifiable and so easily resolved."
For Jonathan Safran Foer, there’s nothing easily resolvable about 9/11. Thus absence and presence, nothing and something, battle each other throughout his 9/11 novel. Like Libeskind’s Berlin design and unlike his WTC design, Safran Foer navigates these two extremes in a plurality of ways, never neatly, rarely consistently.
In the face of tragedy, absence can be overwhelming. For Oskar and his family there are times when it is. But Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is ultimately an optimistic book. At the novel’s end, in a scene that brings a living family together in a cemetery, a final void is filled. Love and sadness, life and death, mingle together in a serene moment that defies reconciliation yet embraces hope.