Table of contents
2. Oskar as the victim of the circumstances
3. Oskar’s identity as the constructor of the narrative
4. The child’s consciousness and the representation of the trauma
5. Through the eyes of the child: intermediality in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
The representation of the events of September 11, 2001 had been widely criticized for different reasons: due to the disturbing nature of this art, negative media attention and the traumatized public the latter was meant to be the target audience commemorating the tragic event, but on the contrary, refused to advertise the terror of that day. Even the course of time had barely changed the situation. Aside from the domestic criticism, the international community also blamed the American artists for the alienation (due to the Islamist nature of the attackers) and inability to produce ethical art (Duvall and Marzec, 382-383). Although the representation of 9/11 still remains a highly disputed topic in the society, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, drew attention of the public in its attempt to picture the events of the 9/11 through the perspective of the child, Oskar Schell.
The issue of trauma had been discussed by various authors both in form of theory in fiction, yet this still remains a very complicated topic to write on, which balances on the verge of being disrespectful to the feelings of those concerned. Yet Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close manages to discuss the aforementioned topic with the extreme precision and efficiency, mainly due to the careful choice of the narration tone and the media, which allowed to deliver information on such a sensitive topic.
Thus, the research focus of the paper can be expressed as follows: the child narration as the indispensable tool for the accurate representation of the traumatized memories. This paper’s accent is mostly on the trauma triggered by the events of 9/11, as they are of the immediate importance to the main narrator, Oskar, yet the study does not exclude references to other tragic events mentioned in the novel. Therefore, the implications of the research concern the overall study of trauma and its representation in the literature through the perspective of the child, based on the case of the Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
The theoretic foundation for the research can be found on the verge of several disciplines – Advanced Literary Studies, Psychology – Trauma Studies in particular, and Cultural Studies. The novel is analyzed in several dimensions – basic forms and functions of the literature, its implications in regards to the trauma studies, and the overall impact of the novel in terms of the post 9/11 discourse and the trauma literature in general. The literature includes both Western European and Anglo-Saxon writers, who, due to their cultural closeness, were most affected by the post 9/11 discourse. The methodology of the research is centered in the interpretative group of methods. The study is qualitative and is based on the interpretation of the primary text with the assistance of the scholarly articles in the aforementioned disciplines and theoretical approaches. The systematic and holistic evaluation of primary and secondary sources allowed to gather data and proof for the study, develop the efficient line of the argument, as well as prove it using the case study of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
In the following, I will firstly address the conditions, which led to the traumatization of the young Oskar Schell, and lay out the foundation for the narration technique used by Foer. Secondly, I will focus at the identity of Oscar and the formative influences on it, and proceed to the evaluation of the child narrator as the relevant medium for trauma representation. And thirdly, I will address the intermediality in the novel to reinforce the argument about the invaluability of the child narrator in the traumatic discourse. In the conclusion, I will assess the influences of 9/11 on the public discourse and analyze, how the use of the child narrator in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close allowed Foer to efficiently demonstrate the effects of trauma on the individual in the most ethical way possible.
2. Oskar as the victim of the circumstances
The tragedy of 9/11 had been a platform for both American and international discourse. It had drastically transformed how the humanity looked at the airline safety, on-board security, intelligence and architecture. There were many industrial changes, but there was also a change of heart: American people reunited in the grief, rediscovered their patriotic feelings and joined together in the mourning over the victims of the most massive modern tragedy on the U.S. soil (Daewes, 518).
The attack on the September, 11, 2001 had taken lives of innocent people, too, but what is more important – it had been as prompt and unexpected, as the events in Dresden and Hiroshima. The United States have never taken the responsibility for their actions before – and although the roots of the attack are still not completely clear, and are contested with several conspiracy theories – this was essentially the same thing: the massacre, aimed at the policy change (Duvall and Marzec, 381).
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, although focused on the events in the aftermath of the 9/11, in course of the narrative introduces the reader to two other tragedies in the world history: the bombing in Dresden in February 1945, and the nuclear attack on Hiroshima, in August 1945 (Daewes, 529). Both bombings were performed by the American air force and were claimed to “free” the world from the axis of evil. Nevertheless, the loss of the civilians in both cases was beyond any measure, and the impact on the world media has been massive.
There is only one great difference between the representation events in Dresden, Hiroshima and New York – the latter had been the better documented out of all together, and probable the most well-documented disaster in human history. This human tragedy was aired on media all over the world, and later became the spotlight of the art community attention. As Daewes phrased it, there were two motives for the creation of a big volume of the 9/11 literature: one, the demand for the detailed information “to make sense of the incomprehensible”, and two, impossibility of closure – lack of the coherent official version of what happened (Daewes, 519).
This theoretical background fits the case study of Oskar Schell in the Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: as the boy engages in the quest of the lost lock as the desire to gain more knowledge of his father’s life, he looks for the answers that he needs to “close” this episode of his life and let go of the events of the day his father died. As Uytterschout describes it, the Oskar’s overactive imagination is the by-product of the trauma (“Extremely Loud Tin Drum”, 186). He further compares the boy’s search with a “wild goose chasing around across the five boroughs of the New York City” (ibid.): the traumatic past took over the Oskar’s life and transformed it to the quest to find answers.
It could be speculated that if Oskar was a grown up, he would spend time trying to investigate what was 9/11 – the terrorist attack, the government-staged mayhem, or something else. But as Oskar was still not interested in politics – as we know, he did not even know, who Winston Churchill was (Foer, 153), his only way to start letting go of the father’s death was that he found out more about his last minutes and thus start letting go of this tragedy.
Having seen no actual body, Oskar could not stop wondering how his father died: “I want to stop inventing. […] There were so many different ways to die, and I just need to know which was his” (Foer, 257). The abovementioned “impossibility of closure” here has to do with the fact that the narrator is a child, and he desperately needed to know, how it all happened. Foer further elaborates on this, when he mentions how the boy has to use a dictionary to learn more about different ways to die on Google. “It makes me incredibly angry that people all over the world can know things that I can’t, because it happened here, and happened to me, so shouldn’t it be mine?” (Foer, 256). This desperate desire to answer his personal question hits the wall of the lack of public information with regards to 9/11, and motivates the boy to synthesize needed information.
Safer accurately describes it through a perspective of ”postmemory” – the process of connecting the dots not through recollection, but the “imaginative investment and creation” (Hirsch, 22, as appears in Safer, 112). Thus, Oskar’s desire to know how his father died is not just the part of the traumatic experience, but the general need to “remember and repair” (ibid.). Oskar himself says that “anything that could bring me closer to Dad was something I wanted to know” (Foer, 293).
The overwhelming feeling of personal loss in this situation has roots deep in the public sector – his father was a victim of a terrorist act, which had no specific targets, and thus Oskar suffered the loss twice – as his father died unexpectedly, and he had no possibility to know how it happened, as well as he could not see him for the last time during the funeral – and he had no clue why. He did not even like the idea of having the funeral – because there was no corpse: “how incredibly empty it [the coffin] was” (Foer, 321), and when he later involves in the digging up of the coffin, he wants to fill it with something (ibid.) – which figuratively tells the reader that Oskar is ready to fill on the hole in his soul and find “closure”.
This is essentially how the young person, who does not yet possess enough expertise about the international politics, and enough levels of influence, is looking for the way out of the depression: instead of blaming the American politicians for mingling abroad, and the Islamist attackers for choosing this extreme punishment for the United States, Oskar is looking for his personal solution to fill in the hole in his soul (Foer, 71). He became the victim of the conditions, his father – a casualty of the bigger chess game. And although the search for the answers was quite methodical and thorough, Oskar is still a kid – who invents the “Reservoir of Tears” – a drain for tears, which would be connected to every pillow in the New York City, and which will allow to asses, how sad the people in the city are by determining the level of tears in the reservoir (Foer, 38).
It is curious how Oskar’s quest for finding answers, or rather two of them close at the beginning: first, the search for the lost lock, which finally ends among one of the first entries on his list of Blacks (Foer, 295), and the second – the search for the answers of how his father died, close when the boy returns to the graveyard, the funeral site (ibid., 318). This is when the aforementioned concept of the “postmemory” fully explains how Oskar, by synthesizing facts about his father’s death, was enabled to dim down the grief and let go of the loss. The ending of the story is represented by an improvised flipbook, where one of the “falling men” returns to safety (Codde, 250). This is a sign of the possible rehabilitation of Oskar’s mind and his embracing the fact that his father was gone. This cannot be called a closure – because the boy is still obsessed with the pictures in the “Stuff that happened to me” putting them together, reversing their order, but it was definitely a beginning of one.
Foer’s narration technique of the trauma transfer through the eyes of the child had been a brilliant choice for the representation of events in 9/11. Complimented by the possibility to explore the tragedies in Hiroshima and Dresden, and thus the consequences of the U.S. politics on the international scale, it allowed the reader to trace how this experience echoed in the lives of the American people, looking through the perspective of one of the victims (Saal, 455). The story of Oskar allowed the author to explore the emotional, personal side of the trauma, received in a large public tragedy.
3. Oskar’s identity as the constructor of the narrative
Oskar, the main narrator, had become the centerpiece of the novel with a very sensitive content, which needed appropriate medium to be clearly articulated to the reader. Foer created the nine-year old, who possessed outstanding intelligence, and was able to communicate to the reader in the coherent vocabulary. His precocious and inquisitive nature allowed the author to present a very entertaining tone of the story, which compensated for the gruesome nature of the book (Saal, 461). But to understand the power of Oskar as the main narrator, one needs to look in the formative factors, which influenced his image in the book, and the functions that he covered in it.
The relationship between Oskar and his father is absolutely one of the determinative moments for the behavior of the boy. The father is ranked #1 in the list of his favorite things (Foer, 73), and Oskar greatly cherished the moments they spent together. This may be one of the reasons why Oskar took away the answering machine with the recordings of the last messages of his father – not only because the boy said he was ashamed of himself for not picking up the phone: “That secret was a hole in the middle of me that every happy thing fell into” (Foer, 71), but also to the great extent because he was wondering why his father mentioned neither his name, nor the fact that he loves his son (Foer, 256).
Therefore, the phone, which Oskar took away, was the attempt to save one last memory of his father to himself, and here the guilt for what he had done is a lesser evil than remembering the last words that he spoke to his father: “he kissed my forehead and said goodnight, and then he was at the door. ‘Dad?’ ‘Yeah, buddy?’ ‘Nothing.’.” The boy probably wanted to tell his father how much he loved him, and as he was unable to do it that night, he was also unable to pick up the phone when Dad called for the last time (Foer, 301). Although later in the narrative Oskar makes an assumption that the last phone call that Thomas made ended at the exact moment the tower collapsed (ibid.), Oskar still needed to dig up his father’s grave and fill in the hole in his soul (287) to finally find the “closure” and realize that his father is gone.
Oscar’s identity is also very much influenced by the relationship with other members of his family, and can be described as another circle in the story – as earlier referred to the search of the lock and the experiences at the graveyard. At first, Oskar was tightly embedded in the family relationships, but as the trauma comes in, the boy drifts apart in some kind of anger that they survived. One of the most significant moments is when Oskar tells his mother that if he had an ability to choose, who would die, he would choose her (Foer, 171). The boy was driven by the process of anxiety and inability to control death, which resulted into him trying to demonstrate, what would happen if he could.
Generally said, it was one of his attempts to create something, but this time, instead of a curious gadget, it was a way to hurt his mother, who was trying somehow to move on from this tragedy together with her son. By making her feel the so-called “survivor guilt”, Oskar transferred the blame for the death of his father on her. But with the flow of time and realization that his relatives were trying to make the transition in the new life, without one of the parents, less stressful, he starts feeling respect and love for them again. (Uytterschout, “Extremely Loud Tin Drum”, 186).
Having reconciliated with his family, Oskar opens up a link between three tragic events of the human history recited in the Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – the stories of Dresden, Hiroshima and New York. Repeatedly characterized by his mother and grandmother, as the reminder about Thomas Schell Jr., Oskar essentially became “a compensation and a substitute for their relatives who perished […]” (Wardi, 27). Therefore, the boy essentially represents three generations and acts as the guide in the novel, establishing the link between the fragmented narratives of verbal and visual information. This makes his main function, foreseen by Foer, and delivered by the precocious, detailed-oriented and slightly obsessive-compulsive nature of the boy.
- Quote paper
- Nicky Jan (Author), 2017, Terrorism an the Child narrator. 9/11 through the eyes of Oskar in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/488876