J.S. Foer’s "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"

Sensation mongering or an aid to coping strategies?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010

33 Pages, Grade: 1,2










Visual realization of the plot, the family constellation and the degree of damage iv
Directory (penguin books 2006)


When following the mainstream media one can be easily overwhelmed by the devastating pictures of breaking news. Often one feels as if the television script department cuts the top stories into shape so that they fit a pre-organized Hollywood-like dramaturgy. Unfor­tunately the top stories relating to a high profile event like 9/11 concern politics, war and economics only. Very little is heard about the bereaved family members or children like Oskar because they are not relevant for the production of high ratings figures. Maybe this is why Foer chose to put the focus of his book on this underrepresented group, showing that the life of a nine year old boy from New York City can indeed fulfill our standards of today’s sensational journalism and therefore being extremely loud and in­credibly close. It appears to be impossible to discuss literary work without paying atten­tion to the author, the reliability of the narrator or to conduct a profound analysis of major action-moving themes and metaphors. All these efforts mainly aim at one thing only and this is to “unlock” the author’s possible intentions. Various scholars like John Updike, just to mention one besides many others, have commented on Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close from a literary perspective, so I will try something new but not yet totally different. It is an attempt to produce a balancing act between a literary discus­sion with a scientific approach as backdrop. Now you may ask what it might be that is “scientific” about Foer’s book but without going into detail at this point, I would like to draw your attention to the common denominator of the main protagonists. In one way or another they are all emotionally disturbed and show major PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) symptoms. In times of ongoing wars and possible densification of natural disasters like most recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile show or others caused by a cli­matic change, a demand for large scale disaster management is emerging and with it the need to treat the affected population. As we can see in the book the problem of coping with traumata is generation-spanning. Studies conducted by the WTC Medical working group show alarming numbers. Even seven years after 9/11 about 13% of lower Manhat­tan residents reported symptoms of PTSD, which is three times higher than would be expected if the World Trade Center (WTC) attacks had never occurred (WTC, 2008). But who is taking care of these people?

New York is home to 1,457 practicing psychiatrists. According to 2005 Census estimates, New York has a population of 8,143,197 which gives it a specialist to resident ratio of 1 psychiatrist for every 5,589 residents.[1]

Keeping the 13% in mind and proportioning it with the specialist to resident ratio, one can easily deduce that 1 psychiatrist has approximately 726 patients suffering from PTSD besides his regular walk-in customers with all the their luxury caused oversaturation psy­choses. Of course special WTC related programs have been launched but nevertheless it appears that there can’t be enough psychologists for a large scale disaster like 9/11 or any other catastrophic major event and even if there were, not everybody could afford them. Maybe some directly affected people consult medical books but this might not appeal as an option to the general mass. Consequently other ways must be opened up for socially disadvantaged, those being left alone without an appointment and lack of interest in pro­fessional articles.

So I would like to bring Foer’s book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close back into effect and ask if it can be possibly seen as some sort of alternative or even as an introduction to coping strategies. But maybe it is nothing more than another example of today’s sensa­tional journalism as one might deduce from its gonzo-headline. That remains to be seen.


On the surface Jonathan Safran Foer’s jumpy 326 text-page-narrative Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the one of a nine year-old intellectual precocious New York boy named Oskar, who has a seemingly insatiable thirst for knowledge, and who had an intense rela­tionship to his dad. Even though he is much ahead compared to the peer group his age he gives his house key out to strangers, plays the tambourine[2] and likes to correspond with Stephen Hawking, Ringo Star and Jane Goodall.

Soon we learn that Oskar’s father dies in one of the two collapsing towers of the World Trade Center on the 11th of September 2001 and that he leaves five messages on the answering machine, making Oskar indirectly the immediate but unwilling deponent of his death. Unable to deal with his father’s final words he buys an identical new phone and hides the old one with the five messages in his drawer.

About two years later he finds a key, accidentally though, which launches an eight-month clue-finding quest through New York City with the primary aim to find the owner of the key but also hoping to find more answers about his father’s death and with it being able to make peace with it.

Throughout the novel Oskar meets various people who have to cope with their own problems but it is through them that he learns dealing with his loss and those five mes­sages that he carries around as a well protected secret.

Ultimately, he succeeds and with the help of William Black the key’s destiny is affirmed. Complected with Oskar's search are the life stories of his grandparents who provide a broader understanding beyond Oskar’s point of view. By means of letters the perspective is zoomed out until we learn about their trauma caused in the allied bombing of Dresden in February 1945, the complicated love story that is intertwined with it and their acciden­tal reunion and separation in NYC followed by another reunion on the day of the funeral of Oskar’s father.

Foer leaves us with a family history of three generations reunited through a tragic event.


In order to understand Foer’s narration it is indispensable to know about some basics in trauma psychology. Large scale disasters usually take a huge toll on human life but be­sides that and for our concerns even more important, are the adverse psychological side effects. Our focus is to be put on mental health conditions that are associated with two high profile events which are on the one hand the bombing of Dresden in 1945 and the destruction of the WTC on September 11. In the following table the impact of Septem­ber 11 on the people of New York is shown. The red column indicates that even two to three years after the impact 13% of NYC’s residents seem to suffer from PTSD, which is important news for our analysis, since it is the time where Oskar’s story is set. As we will later see, Oskar belongs to the unlucky 13% group.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 1: WTC Medical Working Group of NYC, Annual Report 2008 (modified)

As known from scientific literature cataclysmic events can cause various kinds of trau­mata such as Disorders of Extreme Stress Not Otherwise Specified (DESNOS), which people show that reside in war zones or that are susceptible to constant stress like Oskar’s grandparents during World War II. Other forms of traumata are Acute Stress Disorders (ASD) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders (in the following abbreviated PTSD). Subsequently I would like to talk about the symptoms of PTSD and its relevant coping strategies. Besides the Acute Stress Disorder (ASD), Agoraphobia[3] and others, PTSD belongs to the group of Anxiety Disorders. They all have an inappropriate anxiety in common. In order to explain what I mean by inappropriate anxiety I will provide you with an example. Imagine you hear a loud, sudden and unexpected noise. Now try to remember the feelings inside you. You might remember an increased heart rate, an acute sense of focus trying to determine where that noise came from and muscle twitching. Your body is put in a state of anxiousness reproducing a survival-ensuring instinctive phenomenon called ‘fight or flight’ (or freeze) in order to protect ourselves from a dan­gerous situation. This anxiety becomes a problem when it occurs without any probable stimulus or when it should occur but simply doesn’t. By definition of the Statistical Ma­nual of Mental Disorders (APA 2000), PTSD always follows a traumatic event which causes intense fear and/or helplessness in an individual. Typically the symptoms devel­op shortly after the event, but may take years. In literature symptoms are described in various ways but I would like to focus on those that are interesting regarding to our character analyses. Major symptoms therefore include obsessive thoughts that come along with re-experiencing the trauma through nightmares in which affected people are put in a state of anxiety again. Changes in sleep habits can evolve. Especially young children might want to talk about the topic again and again, ask questions and entangle others in discussions. That can be seen as a natural attempt to rid oneself of the unnatural tense­ness that people suffering from PTSD experience. This is what we can sum up with the term ‘re-livin£. A second component can be called ‘avoidanci, where the individual avoids situations, people, and/or objects which remind him or her about the traumatic event. People concerned can also develop forms of phobias such as agoraphobia. The third and final component can be called ‘hyperarousal and includes a possible higher arousal in gen­eral, increased irritability towards friends and family members, hyper vigilance or simply a heightened startle response (APA, 2000). It is also worth mentioning that PTSD often co-exists with other psychological disorders such as depression. Other changes in beha­vior may be compulsive repetition, an increased activity level, anger outbursts, and changes in appetite and decreased interest in usual pleasurable activities (GURWITCH et al. 2002).

When talking about a prognosis, people suffering from single impacts have very good chances to recover, whereas the healing process for people exposed to prolonged stress (DESNOS) runs into difficulties. Nevertheless their prognosis is considered as being moderate. Before I am going to talk about coping strategies I would like to draw your attention to the fact that not only age and intellectual capacity play an important role in the impact-work up-process but also a person's personality and its social environment. For our analysis this is important since Oskar is only nine years old and according to GOODMAN et al. (2002): "Traumatic events experienced before age eleven, are three times more likely to result in serious emotional and behavioral problems than those ex­perienced later in life”. Even though, according to STUBER et al. (2005): "Relatively little is known about the progression of psychological sequelae in populations of children after disasters", trough Oskar, the main protagonist, Foer gives us an idea how the 40% of New York City's affected school children[4] might have felt in the aftermath of Sep­tember 11.

After we have learned about the magnitude of this event for the New York population the single most important question is yet to be answered: How do they cope?

Coping is obviously something that depends on many personal factors such as the above mentioned intellectual ability, the social background, the time and intensity the affected person is exposed to the trauma-causing abnormal event and whether or not the person has come by the trauma in a direct or indirect way.

As we will see in the book, some people make use of rather odd coping strategies but in general, people may go through a wide range of normal responses. In psychological lite­rature things like practicing relaxation methods, increase of positive distracting activities and talking to other people for support are mentioned as well as cognitive behavioral therapies and pharmacotherapy with antidepressant selective serotonin reuptake inhibi­tors (SSRI’s), mood stabilizers and anti-anxiety agents (WTC Medical Working Group’s Annual Report 2008). Depending on the severity of the case it is the objective of the attending psychologist to fine-tune his patient with a mixture of psychotropic drugs to prevent him from suicide or to ensure a general health-related quality of life (HRQOL) for his patient. A gentler approach and free of adverse reaction to treat PTSD is called Somatic Experiencing introduced by the famous author PETER A. LEVINE in 1997. It is based on observations of animals and their recovery reaction from survival ensuring freeze-, fight- or flight situations in the wild. In these situations their autonomic nervous system (ANS) is aroused but afterwards fully discharged by an inherent capability to self­regulation so they can keep on going. It is obvious that animals cannot afford to be di­agnosed with PTSD or any other form of trauma since their survival depends upon their operative readiness. In accordance with his famous book Waking the Tiger, LEVINE ex­plains that due to the lack of opportunities we forgot how to discharge our previously aroused ANS. Human trauma related symptoms might be a result of a dysregulated au­tonomic nervous system. Therefore Somatic Experiencing attempts to restore this capacity and release physical tension that remained in the body after an abnormal situation. Face to face sessions using felt-sense experiences and focusing techniques are utilized besides others (LEVINE 1997). However some people who don't have the opportunity to receive prop­er treatment, lapse into negative coping strategies such as the excessive use of drugs or alcohol, continuous avoidance or social isolation.

This little digression into Anxiety Disorders and its coping methods does not intend to be exhaustive but should provide us with an over viewing framework to tackle the up­coming literary discussion of the book.


When creating a story, the author has to think of how to convey his message. He has to appeal to the imagination of his readership and for that he needs a suitable frame. This endeavor isn’t probably easy to come by since our today’s western society, that has too much of everything, unfortunately suffers from a phenomenon called oversaturation, a topic that Foer describes in his new socio-critical book Eating Animals. All the same I will analyze parts of that frame and carve out how Foer managed to tickle our worn out senses. In any way Foer has a walk-over because he utilizes a topic for his story that ruled the beginning of the 21st century. The incident on September 11 created, besides an in­human profit motivated guerilla war in the orient, among fear, grief and horror, various feelings in every possible part of this world. Even thus it is astounding how sensitively Foer introduces us to that topic. Brutal truth in a Roland Emmerich-style only befalls us when we read the scenic presentations about the Hiroshima bombing (p. 187-189)[5] as well as the horrific, and from a to­day’s political standpoint total unne­cessary, allied area bombing of Dresden in 1945 (p. 210-215).

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 2 Intimateness of Oskar's social contacts

The story is made accessible to the reader in a continuous zoom-in zoom-out kind of way which seems confusing at the beginning but makes total sense at the end. After all one feels not confronted with a single terroristic event, but part of a tragic, but yet beautifully arranged family story. When looking at the intimateness of Oskar’s social con­tacts one could think in a concentric way as seen in the figure above with Oskar in the middle of it and his remaining family around him. According to the degree of trust they are either placed in one of the inner circles or in an outer one. The awkward thing in Foer’s story is, that the residents of a big metropolis like New York City do not just live their lives as detached and anonymous as one would expect. Instead one gets the feeling that due to the 9/11 incident almost everyone, represented by the “Blacks”, is or at least feels somehow involved and so becomes part of a big family. This can be seen on page 287 when Peter Black, whom Oskar just met, offers him to hold his baby, which is a gesture of enormous trust. This is why the “Blacks” provide the next major social room (Figure 1) for Oskar similar to a social safety net, and additionally propelling the plot forward with further pulsating life substance. If one disregards the trauma causing stimu­lus, we can experience a beautiful story about a boy that exceeds his emotional bounda­ries with the help of his closer and farther related social environment (Figure 1). Howev­er, he doesn’t completely surpass all expectations and Foer leaves it up to our imagina­tion to find out, whether or not Oskar’s remaining emotional imbalance comes back into place, even though there are some signs that he recovers. Not least Oskar says it himself: “I didn’t understand why I needed help, because it seemed to me that you should wear heavy boots when your dad dies, [...]” (p. 200). Oskar once again outsmarts his sur­rounding adult world and even those of us who believe the book is incomplete because we cannot witness the main protagonists complete healing in a sugary DreamWorks Animation like end. Oskar relies on his natural senses that seem to correlate with the teachings of Gautama Buddha’s Four Noble Truths which say, that suffering is a necessary part of life (TSERING 2005).


The visual writing style in Foer’s story has been discussed profoundly among profession­al and personal reviewers. Although KUMAR (2005) has an ambivalent opinion about the use of „gimmicks“, she admits to the fact that they might also “[...] allow the reader to creatively participate in the novel”.

In fact most of these visual aids make the reader feel as if actually holding items the pro­tagonists handle themselves as seen on page 52 when Oskar said: ”I pulled out Stuff that Happened to Me, [...], and I flipped through it for a while,[...]”. This passage is followed by 15 pages with various illustrations, obviously taken from Oskar’s book. Only to some of those the reader can make a logical connection but others make us, to say it with Oskar’s words, think: ”What the .?” Let me just give you one example. On page 55 we can see a picture of the gravedigger scene from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This is a foreshadowing moment to the chapters on page 142 Heavier Boots where Oskar actually plays Yorick and page 315 Beautiful and True, when Oskar, his grandfather and Gerald, the driv­er dig up his father’s grave.

In her work CANDACE (2008) presents a quotation taken from the New Yorker by J. Updike that shows that he too is of two minds about the topic of these “neo­experimental novels”. Albeit he likes the visual ending and calls it “one of the most cu­rious happy endings ever contrived, and unexpectedly moving”, he heavily criticizes Foer for using a “hyperactive visual surface” to cover up a certain hollow monotony in his verbal drama. Yet more “single-laned” is OPPENHEIMER’s criticism from 2005 who comments on the use of mixed media as follows: “I think this is a terrible mistake. One great pleasure of reading (I thought we all had agreed) is taking the words on the page and creating from them images in the mind”.

I think I am not totally wrong supposing that he belongs to that group of aged conserva­tive readers who are discouraged because they are not at ease with the inexhaustible in­formation overload of internet and television media. Once again CANDACE (2008) argues in the right direction saying that critics of his style “may simply not be used to-or respect­having anything other than text in a novel”. She continues saying that “It is not surpris­ing that older critics and readers, who have grown up reading books primarily text and illustration, will not be used to the interactivity of Foer’s design”. After having presented so many opinions about Foer’s picturesque style I would like to come in with my own. I believe that CANDACE (2008) was quite lenient with Foer’s critics because I wouldn’t say that they are not used to a postmodern visual writing style but that they simply didn’t understand the book. On page 8 and 9 Foer explains via Oskar’s voice the important father-son-tying game “Reconnaissance Expedition” and its peculiarities: ”[...] that’s how tricky he could be”. By using the visual writing style Foer makes us part of this clue finding game where “[. ] no clues is a clue” p. 8 and pages of seemingly meaningless numbers can be transformed via T9[6] and a mobile phone into meaningful text. Foer seems to derive pleasure from being cunning in his way of conveying sophisticated in­formation or making it accessible to his readership as one can experience not only in his book but also when visiting is rather odd homepage for the Project Museum on www.jonathansafranfoer.com /index2.php.

For that reason I wouldn’t agree with the professional considerations from the NoveList Book Discussion Guide published in 2007 by the EBESCO web portal that suggests that “Some graphics serve as simple illustrations“. To me almost all visual means contribute to complete the psychological profile of the characters rather than distracting the faculty of imagination or they serve Foer to play “Reconnaissance Game” with his readership. Let’s take the densification of letters until the page becomes black and illegible. On the one hand it could mean, that Oskar’s grandfather just ran out of paper like some argue but if one takes into account that this happens right after Oskar had played his father’s last message (p. 280) from the answering machine the gradually sfumatoring text could also describe the overwhelming feelings that the grandfather experiences when he hears his sons last words. The final black page on p. 284 represents his empty feeling inside, that cannot even be described by Foer considering that he doesn’t only have to cope with the death of his son but that he has a heavy predisposition from World War II, which I will talk about in more detail in the chapter dealing with main characters. A new curiosity that I would like to point out can be found on page 317. It is a list of names written on tombstones, that Oskar passes looking for his dad’s grave. I took the effort to look them up online and I was surprised about the outcome. I couldn’t find a reasonable connec­tion to all of those nine names but Diana Strait is actually the name for a geographical water way separating two islands, similar to the Bering Strait. Morris Cooper can be ob­viously linked to the Mini Cooper. Helen Stein surprised me as being a clinical psycholo­gist being part of a project to enhance coping strategies for trauma and John Fielder is Colorado’s major nature photographer (Note that Oskar always carries a camera with him.). Maybe those are pure coincidences but with Foer one never knows. The last visual aid I am talking about can be found in chapter 10 ranging from page 208-216. Besides his realistic description many red markings in the chapter catch the reader’s eye. Since Oskar explained to us that his father used red markings in the New York Times to score either mistakes or to give him signs we can assume that Foer uses the red markings here to show that the whole bombing was simply wrong (from a political point of view), that the red ink is used symbolically for all the blood that was shed or simply to emphasize the dramatic event. I would like to seal my discussion and conclude: Foer’s style, form and content built a perfect unit that is in some parts confusing but also stimulates connective thinking and makes the book unique in its way.


Usually it is relatively easy to get an idea of a book’s structure. You just open the book and turn a couple of pages and there it is: the directory. In Foer’s case this is different because as just mentioned in the previous chapter, his book goes without it.

This contributes to the fact that once you started reading, you believe that it is the ama­zingly capable Oskar that would guide you through the book as a first person narrator. Also some interior monologues like: “What I really wanted to tell him was [...]” (p. 3) and interspersed incomplete sentences in a stream of consciousness form “What the?” (p. 2) come quite natural. Yet you might wonder how limited his point of view really is, since he is only nine years old but seems to be equipped with general knowledge beyond his age. A more detailed discussion on that matter can be found in the character analyses of Oskar in the upcoming chapter ‘Selected Character Analyses Related to Mental Stability.

It is already in Chapter two, that you are surprised because it starts with a letter to some­one’s unborn child and one starts to wonder if this is a flashback and whether or not the unborn child is Oskar. Up to that point we have two first person narrators even though one cannot be certain, to whom that second voice belongs. In chapter three it is again Oskar’s invigorating voice who guides us through the chain of events before in chapter four the third first person narrator introduces herself, also in the form of a letter dated September 12th, 2003.

With a directory it would have been easy to see that each of the two narrators contributes four letters that are slotted in between Oskar’s parts of narration. Some like BAIRD (2007) argue that this creates a “dissonance between the main plotline and the subplot involving the backstory of Oskar’s grandparents [. ]” but I would disagree and rather say that it was intended to stimulate page turning. Up to chapter four the reader is intro­duced to a strangely intellectual child and the personal histories of two other first person narrators. One wonders in what way they are connected and curiosity keeps you reading. At this point I would like to unveil the structural secret[7]. Foer’s narration is comprised of 17 neatly alternating chapters in which his grandmother’s chapters are always named “My Feelings” and chapters from the grandfather always as “Why I’m not where you are”. Only Oskar’s chapters have content related titles such as “Happiness, HappinesF (p. 187) in this case concerning the game that Dr. Fein plays with him and his current inability to think of happy things.


[1] The Numbers are taken from Health Grades - a leading independent healthcare - ratings - organization.

[2] note the link to G. Grass: Die Blechtrommel. Oskar Matzerath who decides not to grow anymore on his 3rd birthday and who reports about the adult world from a child-perspective.

[3] Agoraphobia is the anxiety about being in places where escape might be difficult or embarrassing or in which help may not be available should a panic attack develop. Typically situations that invoke anxiety are avoided and in extreme cases, the person may never or rarely leave their home (APA 2000).

[4] Numbers taken from GIBBS L. & SKYLER, E. (2008). Adressing the Health Impacts of 9-11. Report and Recommendations to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg

[5] All following numbers in round parenthesis without further reference relate to Foer*s book Extremely Loud & Incredi­bly Close, published by Penguin Books 2006

[6] T9 — means text on 9 keys and is a system to simplify text input into a mobile phone

[7] In the section ‘Appendix’ you can find the complete directory including page numbers.

Excerpt out of 33 pages


J.S. Foer’s "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"
Sensation mongering or an aid to coping strategies?
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald  (Anglistik)
The US Justice System
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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PTSD, anxiety disorders, coping strategies, Dresden 1945, visual writing, 9/11, character analyses, metaphors, symbols, narrators, large scale disasters, disaster management, somatic experiencing, Postmodernism, depression, J.S. Foer, extremely loud
Quote paper
Thomas Thieke (Author), 2010, J.S. Foer’s "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/153531


  • Dshamila Müller on 8/4/2010

    Die Arbeit hat mir sehr geholfen, besonders die ausführliche Analyse der Metaphern. Ich wäre auf einige Interpretationen gar nicht gekommen...Der eingebrachte psychologische Aspekt komplettiert die Arbeit. Konnte mit Hilfe der Arbeit auf jeden Fall beim Prof punkten!

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