Still ‘Incredibly Close’ to the pain of 9/11
Genevieve Coleman | Friday, September 10, 2021
As we approach the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, I wanted to think back to a story that has stuck with me since I read it three years ago: Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.”
The novel’s protagonist, Oskar Schell, is a nine-year-old boy determined to keep the memory of his father — a victim who worked in 1 World Trade Center — alive by going on a truly heartwarming journey through New York City.
Before he died, Oskar’s father sent his son on “reconnaissance expeditions,” which allowed Oskar to explore the world around him and develop social skills by interacting with the people he came across along the way. While Oskar suspects these are his father’s motives, he doesn’t let it stop him from enjoying solving the mysteries that his father created for him.
On the day of the attacks, New York schools send their students home early and Oskar is at his apartment; there, his father has been leaving messages on the answering machine. Haunted by his father’s descriptions of his environment, Oskar hides the machine, so his mother doesn’t have to hear his father’s last words.
A year after 9/11, Oskar is still struggling with his grief, wearing what he calls “heavy boots.” One day, he searches his father’s closet for something when he knocks over a vase, which shatters and reveals a key hidden inside. Searching for who the key belongs to takes Oskar all around the city and introduces him to a community of supporting characters who are living through their own unique experiences with grief.
The novel is interspersed with the story of Oskar’s paternal grandfather, who dealt with unspeakable losses during World War II and leaves his family because he doesn’t know how to cope. Eventually, Oskar and his grandfather are reunited, and together they learn more about each other and share in the loss of Oskar’s father.
At the end of his journey, Oskar doesn’t receive closure from finding who owned the key, but instead finds a way to begin to realize that he is not the only one who wears heavy boots — the tragedy of 9/11 encompasses the city. Those in this community, like Oskar, should continue loving those they lost, so their boots don’t completely weigh them down.
Rereading the book and reflecting on this momentous anniversary, I was struck first by Oskar’s narrative voice. It’s refreshing when an author allows children to speak authentically, and Oskar is one of the most genuine characters I have ever read.
Oskar uses such unique metaphors to depict the world he is living in. Though at times this disguises his grief, when the reader can piece together how Oskar sees his life their heart breaks for him. Oskar’s honesty both deepens the collective grief that the reader feels on behalf of Oskar and brings levity to a moving story.
One thing that I noticed that is not necessarily a central part of the novel is that Oskar doesn’t hide his fear of Arab individuals, though he notes that “he is not racist.” While 9/11 created deep misunderstandings of the Muslim community, reading the novel through a contemporary lens asks the reader to consider what this apprehension means after years of senseless violence against Arab Americans, who live in a country that professes the freedom of religion.
Though Oskar’s loss is a very personal one, the novel also offers readers the chance to reflect on their own losses on 9/11, even years later. Due to Foer’s extraordinary writing, Oskar’s grief seems fresh every time the reader experiences the novel, which lends itself to my final words: Even after 20 years, the tragedy of 9/11 is so deeply profound to our country and its people. Grieve and comfort the grieving, and know that in the end, love will keep us strong.
Title: “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”
Author: Jonathan Safran Foer
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Genre: Historical fiction, coming-of-age story
If You Liked: “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” “Here I Am”
Shamrocks: 5 out of 5