Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Jonathan Safran Foer's 9/11 novel explores the dialectic between absence and presence.

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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 Plot

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."

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Daniel Septimus

Daniel Septimus is Executive Director of The Sefaria Project. Previously, he served as Chief Executive Officer of MyJewishLearning, Inc.