The Book Club

Jonathan Safran Foer vs. Günter Grass

Dear Meghan,

Perhaps “charmless” was too harsh a judgment on poor Oskar. Though I complained about his insensitivity to others, I found it impossible to remain stoic in the face of his heartbreakingly ridiculous “inventions”: a device that broadcasts the sound of one’s heartbeat for the world to hear, an ambulance that flashes “Goodbye! I love you!” when it passes someone the patient knows, a giant portable pocket, though he knows all this is futile: “In the end, everyone loses everyone.” These are manifestations of Oskar’s desire to make up for a missed opportunity to communicate with his father, and they reveal the canniness of Foer’s choice to tell the story of 9/11 from a child’s perspective: A child can get away with a level of sentimentality that an adult would never be permitted. We haven’t discussed the role that sentimentality—or perhaps I should just say emotion—plays in Extremely Loud, and it’s a topic I’d like to return to, because I know it’s an important part of my own ambivalence about the book. It’s hard to take a coolly critical stance when you have to stop every so often to wipe your eyes.

The inventions also literalize things that are elusive, making intangibles tangible; Oskar’s relationship to language is similar. We’ve talked about the book’s typographical antics, but its idiosyncrasies extend on a deeper level to the language of the novel. Like Alex in Everything Is Illuminated, certain characters in this book speak in a kind of code: Oskar uses the expression “wearing heavy boots” when he means that he is sad, “zipping up the sleeping bag of myself” for closing himself off, and many others. This is a way of refocusing our attention on expressions that we take for granted; it resuscitates dead metaphors and thus short-circuits cliché.

But the book’s relationship with cliché is—that word again!—ambivalent. Take Oskar’s grandmother, who in my opinion is the least plausible character in the book—yes, less plausible even than the grandfather who somehow loses his ability to speak, one word at a time, after the bombing of Dresden and has to carry on conversations by writing in a blank book. Like so many immigrants, she views idioms as her vehicle to becoming a true American and scours newspapers and magazines for them: “Chew the fat. Blow off some steam. Close but no cigar. Rings a bell. I must have sounded ridiculous.” (Perhaps, but her method was obviously successful: If she so much as speaks with an accent, it’s not apparent.) Oskar himself, for all his verbal inventiveness, frequently falls back on intensifying adverbs, the kind your high-school English teacher told you were meaningless padding: He tells practically every woman he meets, for instance, that she’s “incredibly beautiful.” The novel’s title is deliberately vague, but enough things are described as “extremely” this or “incredibly” that to make one wonder whether the subtle subversiveness of Oskar’s language is just another mind game, no more profound than writing “purple” in green ink—another of the novel’s typographical amusements.

Oskar’s quirks are, paradoxically, even more opaque when you consider one of their sources: The Tin Drum, Günter Grass’ great epic about the city of Danzig (now Gdansk) during World War II. Grass’ book, too, is narrated by a child named Oskar—in this case, he is a child who literally never grows up, his growth stunted at age 3—who witnesses cataclysms in his beloved hometown and carries around a tin drum (the antecedent of Foer’s Oskar’s tambourine) everywhere he goes. But if there’s a purpose for this connection beyond the surface similarities, I’ve missed it. My only guess is that it’s intended to forge a literary link between the story of 9/11 and the novel’s backstory of the Dresden bombings, a subplot that does not feel organically connected. The passage in which Thomas Schell Sr. describes the bombing echoes one of the most famous and most extraordinary passages in The Tin Drum, in which the line between real horror and fantasy shivers and finally dissolves:

Inner City and Outer City, Old City, New City and Old New City, Lower City and Spice City—what had taken seven hundred years to build burned down in three days. … In Breeches-maker Street, the fire had itself measured for several pairs of extra-loud breeches. The Church of St. Mary was burning inside and out, festive light effects could be seen through its ogival windows. What bells had not been evacuated from St. Catherine, St. John, St. Brigit, Saints Barbara, Elisabeth, Peter, and Paul, from Trinity and Corpus Christi, melted in their belfries and dripped away without pomp or ceremony. In the Big Mill red wheat was milled. Butcher Street smelled of burnt Sunday roast. The Municipal Theater was giving a premiere, a one-act play entitled The Firebug’s Dream. … Needless to say that Lumber Market, Coal Market, and Haymarket burned to the ground. In Baker Street the ovens burned and the bread and rolls with them. In Milk Pitcher Street the milk boiled over.

Other critics have admired Foer’s description of the Dresden bombings, and indeed it contains some beautiful and horrifying moments. But I found the reminder of Grass a distraction from Foer’s undertaking. In general, I thought the entire Dresden section was less successful than the shtetl sequence in Everything Is Illuminated, which plays a similar structural role in that novel. While Foer’s shtetl was obviously nonrealistic, its atmospherics were rendered in Technicolor. His Dresden, on the other hand, has no distinguishing characteristics; we could be anywhere. I also could not get past the peculiar typographical game being played out within the segment about the bombings, in which commas, spelling mistakes, and other random phrases are circled in red ink—a reference to Oskar’s father’s daily habit of picking out the errors in the New York Times. This is, as you say, “an incredibly whimsical book about immensely serious things”; when it tries to be both at the same time, it fails.

I was also uncomfortable with the whimsy of the book’s finale, which I found less conclusive than you did. You’re right that one of Foer’s underlying themes is the importance of expressing love despite the impossibility of adequately doing so. But, trite as that letter from Oskar’s grandma can be (and I found it equally implausible, by the way, that she would give up her comfortable perch across the street from her beloved grandson’s apartment to join her estranged husband at the airport), I was confused that the book’s ending seems in some ways to negate it. This, I think, is what you found “tinny”: the novel’s closing suggestion that even if you’ve missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to express your love, as Oskar has, you still can find a way to make amends for it. At the end of the novel, Oskar learns that the terrible secret that animates his actions over the course of the book is, like so many guilty childhood secrets, not so terrible after all: He believes that he robbed his father of the opportunity to speak his parting words, but in fact there was another phone call that he hadn’t known about.

More problematically, Extremely Loud ends with an elaborate and, I thought, puerile fantasy of turning back time. Critics have been oohing over the novel’s final visual sequence, a “flip book” that reverses the order of a series of photographs showing a body falling from the World Trade Center so that it appears instead to be rising. I found this the book’s most egregious example of inappropriate whimsy, but I also wondered about the aesthetic stance that it implies. Does using such a dramatic nonverbal gesture to end a novel as language-obsessed as Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close indicate a failure of confidence in fiction—a desire to let pictures, finally, take precedence over words? More generally, what did you make of the mysterious photographs scattered throughout the book and the explanations for them that are eventually offered?