Aporia in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" by J.F. Foer

American Studies

Term Paper, 2016

17 Pages, Grade: 2,0



Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Adaptation Theory

3. Aporia- Representing the Unspeakable
3.1 Representation of Aporia in the Novel
3.2 Representation of Aporia in the Movie

4. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

After a traumatizing event it is psychologically well-known that adequate words are hard to find in order to express emotions and fears. As an example, 9/11 was not only a world-changing tragedy; it also influenced and radically changed the personal lives of many, having to cope with loss and trauma. Looking at post- 9/11 fictional novels, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a story about nine-year old Oskar who has lost his father in the World Trade Center on the day of the attacks. It describes his journey through New York City, trying to find a lock belonging to a key he found of his deceased father. Interpreting the novel as a trauma narrative, the story evokes themes of loss and coping, not only of Oskar but also of his mother and grandparents. Because mourning oftentimes leads to aporia, Jonathan Safran Foer employs a wide range of stylistic heterogeneity, representing the unspeakable in numerous ways throughout the novel. As a form of adaptation, the novel has experienced a transformation into a movie. Subsequently it is questionable in how far the unspeakable is conveyed within the movie and which strategies are therefore employed.

In this essay, adaptation theory will be shortly analyzed as means of familiarization with different media. Following this, the representation of the unspeakable will be regarded in its depiction within the novel in order to compare in how far aporia can be overcome within the movie. Finally, major differences and similarities will be revised in order to process the value of the different genres.

2. Adaptation Theory

“More than half of the plays currently playing on Broadway and in the West End are adaptations, (..) more than half the studio films produced by Hollywood during the past decade are adaptations, and (…) many popular television programs are, in fact, adaptations” (Wetmore 627). This large range underlines the fact that, when talking about adaptation, it becomes necessary to fundamentally understand its theory, or as Emig puts it: “adaptation needs theory, but at the same time adaptation cannot and must not rely on one theory or even on one clearly prescribed set of theories” (14). Therefore one should not forget that there are always several different ways of interpretation. Being regarded as a modest intertextual phenomenon in the beginning, Emig states that adaptation studies need to broaden their horizon and include “media transfers and interactions that distinguish adaptations from mere rewritings” (15). As a consequence, intermediality is one of many different forms of adaptations across media and genre, still multiplying with new technological inventions nowadays. By means of limitation, this essay will focus on filmic adaptations of books. It is a widespread phenomenon that people often argue about a movie being worse than its “parental” book or vice versa. Back in history, adaptation studies as well as the audiences agreed and “assumed the superiority of the original” (Wetmore 625). However, today researchers come to the agreement that a piece of literature always has plural meanings which an adaptation can “translate into a new work of art” (Nicklas and Lindner 2) and thus enrich the meaning of the original.

According to Hutcheon, adaptation can therefore in general be seen as “an acknowledged transposition of a recognizable other work or works [and] a creative and interpretive act of appropriation/salvaging” (8). Thus, adaptation is just as important and valuable as its original, or as Hutcheon puts it: “it is second without being secondary” (9). As one can see, it is also possible for the adaptation to have its own, new elements, in comparison to only being a copy of its original. Due to Nicklas and Lindner, the adaptation only “signals a relationship with an informing source text or original” (5) and does therefore not need to have too much in common. Wetmore basically has the same opinion, stating that an “adaptation is thus an ‘original’ work in and of itself, especially if its audience has no reference to which to compare it for fidelity (626). He further states the adaptation being a “derivation that is not derivative” (628) and argues that the audience’s knowledge of the original may or may not be important, but changes the perception of both (628).

Considering it as such, adaptations can be seen as repetitions with variations (Whittington 405). The producers use the book as basis or foundation and furthermore construct something different and new. According to Emig, this process can thus be seen as a “double process of interpreting and then creating something new” (17). Especially when adapting a long piece of literature to the screen, it is impossible to adapt every detail. Also the mode of representation changes, as inner feelings and emotions can usually be expressed easier within literature as in a movie. Yet, the point of view plays an important role and will be analyzed within this essay, as “shifts in the focalization or point of view of the adapted story may lead to major differences” (Hutcheon 9). Hence, Nicklas and Lindner point out that the quality of adaptation is a creative and metaphoric process, as “material is broken up to become part of a new living organism” (6). However, filmic adaptations also induce several advantages compared to literature. Hutcheon points out, that language is not the only way to express meaning or to relate stories. Visual and gestural representations are rich in complex associations; music offers aural “equivalents” for characters’ emotions and, in turn, provokes affective responses in the audience; sound, in general, can enhance, reinforce, or even contradict the visual and verbal aspects. (23)

It is apparent that many different aspects have to be taken into consideration when analyzing adaptations. As aporia is usually closely related to emotions and the general state of mind, it will be interesting to see how the difficult aspect of emotions within trauma characters will be displayed in both the book and the movie. Certainly, “being shown a story is not the same as being told it” (Hutcheon 12).

Moving on, it is important not only to consider adaptation as a creative enrichment of cultural capital but also to focus on economic interests. Nicklas and Lindner state that “commercial interest creates an increasing cooperation between film and book industries” (8). As a result, filmic adaptations are not only made for social reasons but oftentimes simply out of economic interests- as “there is money to be made” (Hutcheon 5).

Nevertheless, adaptation “always involves both (re-) interpretation and (re-) creation; this includes both appropriation and salvaging, depending on your perspective” (Emig 17). This underlines the fact that it is important to analyze both variations independently, as perspective plays an important role. Of course we know the prior text, but still the adaptation should not be seen within its shadow but as independent material. It will be interesting to see what happens to the reader or the audience “when a text moves from telling to showing” (Sadoff 172) and in how far both literature and film are able to help people with coping and to overcome mourning. According to this, filmic adaptations can surely be seen as a medium to customize the message of the book, as movies make it more accessible for a wider range of audience.

Although, according to Wetmore, the trend has always been about “moving text into visual images and then removing the text from the marketplace” (632) we want to regard both as equally valuable. Of course, this is only of importance if someone has read the book as well as watched the adapted movie. Additionally, as audience members, “we need memory in order to experience difference as well as similarity” (Hutcheon 22). As a result, differences often only stand out when there is a brief span in between both. Interestingly, Hutcheon argues that “literature will always have axiomatic superiority over any adaptation of it because of its seniority as art form” (4). In this essay, however, the book will be analyzed first, simply due to reasons of availability and appearance- the book was published first and the movie is in this case its adaptation.

3. Aporia- Representing the Unspeakable

3.1 Representation of Aporia in the Novel

When regarding Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, it becomes clear that the author plays with a mix of visual and verbal representations. Without even having to read the book, simply by flicking through, one comes across a whole set of pictures and graphic illustrations, which will be analyzed step by step in this essay. As Eßmann notes, pictures take hold in our memories and strike us sustainably (39). Furthermore, he argues that the written word seems to lose its importance, as mostly pictures remain in our memories instead of urging newspaper headings (39). Who does not remember the picture of the second airplane crashing into the tower? It is this influential force of pictures which Foer employs within the novel, making Oskar cope with his experiences and his trauma and simultaneously influencing the reader notably.

As the main narrator, Oskar has just tragically lost his father in the towers of 9/11 and it quickly becomes clear that he is suffering trauma, haunting him as a survivor. Already the first page of the book displays a picture of a lock, alluding at what is to come and what the reader can expect from the story. In the first chapter of the novel, we get an impression about Oskar’s mixed-up personality. Oskar imagines a teakettle being able to whistle or even to read in his father’s voice (Foer 1), alluding at his “traumatized mind” (Le Cor 3). Throughout the novel, Oskar’s vivid and overactive imagination remains, presumably as “a by-product of trauma” (Uytterschout 186). His imagination even reaches this far that he begins to invent gadgets which are “meant to rescue people from all sorts of dire straits” (Uytterschout 193), eventually trying to find a cause for his father’s death. Clearly, Oskar hopes to find something that could have prevented his father from dying, which does not make it rare that a lot of his inventions would help when being stuck in a skyscraper (Foer 2-3). As already mentioned, his imagination remains within the entire story, reaching its climax in the end. It can be seen that the final pages of the novel are constructed as a flipbook, which shows a person falling up, instead of down, a skyscraper. Oskar states that, when flipping through the pages, it “looked like the man was floating up through the sky” (Foer 325). This is his way of representing his feelings when being at a loss of words. He has reversed the order of the pictures, trying and wishing to thereby reverse his father’s death. However, when talking about (media-) effects of images, one needs to pay special attention to the picture of the fallen man. The initial image, published in the New York Times the next day, “was removed altogether from the media, becoming a kind of taboo image”, as Le Cor argues (5):

In the most photographed and videotaped day in the history of the world, the images of people jumping were the only images that became, by consensus, taboo-the only images from which Americans were proud to avert their eyes. (Le Cor 5)

Maybe it was exactly this taboo what made it so important for Oskar to have the picture, as he wanted to find a reason for his father’s death, without anything being hidden from him, not even reality. Similarly, Oskar compares the falling body to a falling cat (Foer 191), which always safely lands on its feet when falling off an object. Due to his sense of experimentation and imagination, Oskar wishes his father could have had the same abilities.

After having read the novel, it becomes clear that the flipbook is part of Oskar’s scrapbook, called “Stuff That Happened To Me” (Foer 325) into which he sticks pictures he comes across during his day, which are also represented on several pages throughout the book (Foer 53-67). Saal argues, that “while Oskar cannot talk about what happened on September 11, he nonetheless begins to make sense and work through his wound by assembling photos and images in his scrapbook” (460). Again, it becomes clear that the pictures help Oskar to find a sense within his aporia and overcome his pain, especially regarding the fact that children basically see the world in pictures. Codde states that children “take these mental snapshots” (250) in the way they perceive the world around them. As a result, while “September 11 was the most visually documented event in human history” (Codde 250), Oskar seems to use his pictures in his scrapbook as a sort of counter-movement against all the negative pictures of September 11 for his soul. Although he has never actually lived those spectacular moments within his scrapbook, his images count as experiences.

Interestingly, it is not only that Oskar feels unable to talk about the tragic day, in addition he cannot even name the day by its date or name, as he always calls it “the worst day” (Foer 11). Saal additionally states that besides his bouts of depression, his panic attacks, his sleeplessness, and self-inflicted pain, Oskar remains “unable to speak about what he calls ‘the worst day’ of his life” (460). This highlights Oskar’s fears and underlines his “desperate attempt to communicate the central traumatic instance of his young life” (Codde 247).

The novel thus encourages us to seek both “emotion and knowledge” (Gleich 163) from the pictures, as they inform us on the one hand and make us feel affected on the other. As a reader, these images make us simultaneously feel “closer to and more distant from real-life suffering” (Gleich 171), as we feel empathy for Oskar and his family but at the same time cannot imagine such a tragedy being able to happen to us.

Another set of pictures found within the novel are pictures Oskar takes on his journey to find the Blacks (Foer 98). Interestingly, they are comparable to portraits but nevertheless are taken from the back instead of the front. They are thus “symmetrical opposites of the flyers of the missing people whose faces were posted all over New York” (Le Cor 6). Again, Oskar gives the reader room for interpretation as he is unable to directly represent his feelings and thoughts. Oftentimes his photographs and pictures seem like a sort of puzzle, wanting to be solved by the reader. As Oskar seems unable to talk about his set of emotions, it could be seen that he creates several alternative ways of representation. Another mode is displayed with the jewelry Oskar makes for his mother, as he translates his father’s last words on the answering machine into a Morse code and turns them into a bracelet for his mother. However, although she is very delighted about his gift, she probably never understands his message conveyed, as “no understanding or communication follows” (Codde 245). Still, the bracelet does not remain the only silent message within the novel. As already mentioned, Oskar seems to have a large imagination. Therefore, similar to him making disguised gifts for his mother, he imagines his father having left clues for him to solve. Always having played scavenger hunts together before his father passed away, Oskar reads his father’s circling of the words “not stop looking” (Foer 10) in a newspaper as a covert message that “he has not completed his mission” (Gleich 169). These words finally convince him to go on his journey through New York to find the Blacks, although he never mentions a word to anyone of his family.

However, the novel does not only consist of Oskar’s point of view but contains a lot of different narrative voices. Besides Oskar’s first person narration, both his grandmother’s letters to Oskar and his grandfather’s letters to Oskar’s father are included in the novel. Saal points out that while this “heteroglottic structure of the novel invites us to compare and contrast Oskar’s experience with that of his grandparents, it also frames these cross-references to the pain of others from Oskar’s point of view, which opens and ends the novel as a whole” (470). Both his grandparents seem to have a similar problem of presenting their feelings as Oskar does. As an example, Oskar’s grandfather has lost his speech several years ago, claiming that “words simply fail to capture these shattering experiences” (Codde 242). Having lost the love of his life in war, he subsequently lost his ability of speaking. Regarding this on a medical basis, Saal insists that “physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it” (453). Consequently, he has the words “yes” and “no” tattooed onto his palms in order to facilitate communication (Foer 260/261). Additionally, he employs a little notebook to express what he wants to say, which can also be found within the novel (Foer 137-141). This renders the book more vivid and realistic, reading the grandfather’s notes as if he has actually just written them. Interestingly, his probably most important and striking letter “Why I’m not where you are” is dated two years after the “worst day”, on 9/11/13. Already the first pages begin with notebook entries and pictures, apologizing for his speechlessness (Foer 262). Within the letter, however, there are plenty of graphical as well as typographical illustrations in order to express his feelings because, similar to his grandson, it is too hard for him to talk about his emotions, even in letters. Besides crossed-out words (Foer 268/273) and two pages full of numbers, (Foer 270/271) the letter compromises from page to page into smaller letters, ending up in a page full of black ink (Foer 284), “blotting out the grandfather’s account at the end of the chapter” (Le Cor 7) and thus materializing his lost capacity to speak. Again, Foer leaves room for the reader to interpret the grandfather’s feelings, as he himself seems unable to express them.

On the other hand, not only the grandfather has to cope with trauma, so does Oskar’s grandmother. On the evening of 9/11, her trauma is obviously displayed while watching TV, hoping to learn anything about her son (Foer 230). At first sight, she simply keeps repeating the pictures she sees on TV, alluding at being in a kind of trance. The repetition of bodies falling, planes going into buildings and buildings falling thus, according to Gleich, functions “as a means of satisfying the reader’s compulsion to repeat” (170) describing these pictures one line for each image. Furthermore, the repetitions function as emphasis, smashing the pictures into our heads and conveying the unspeakable.


Excerpt out of 17 pages


Aporia in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" by J.F. Foer
American Studies
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Anglistik American Studies)
Graduate Seminar American Studies- 9/11 in American Literature and Popular Culture
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Jonathan Safran Foer, American Studies, 9/11, Aporia, unspeakable
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2016, Aporia in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" by J.F. Foer, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/538778


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