The Book Club

The First Significant 9/11 Novel

Dear Ruth,

Jonathan Safran Foer’s new novel Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is the first work of fiction I’ve read about Sept. 11—a “first” I’ve been anticipating and dreading. As of last fall, a significant 9/11 novel had yet to appear, as you noted here. Now a slew of them is arriving in bookstores, including efforts by Nick McDonnell, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, and Frederic Beigbeder. (I’m not counting Ian McEwan’s Saturday, which is really a post-9/11 novel.) So far, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is the only novel I can imagine lots of people actually reading. After all, Foer’s best-selling debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated, convinced many readers (including me) that an unusually inventive talent had arrived. (Full disclosure: I’ve met Foer several times.) I wouldn’t necessarily have guessed from Foer’s penchant for indelible surrealism that he’d be the first to write a good 9/11 novel, which seems to call for an investment in social realism. Or so I had thought: Whether or not Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a “significant” novel in the deepest sense is what we’re here to argue, but I think we can say it is the first substantial attempt to figure out what it might mean to write a novel about 9/11. The big surprise is that it may involve departing from social realism.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close tells the story of a precocious 9-year-old, Oskar Schell, who has lost his father, Thomas, in the attacks on the World Trade Center. Oskar is a former atheist, an amateur jewelry-maker, and something of a prodigy (“Dear Stephen Hawking, Can I please be your protégé?” he inquires). He wears only white, plays a tambourine, and describes being depressed as wearing “heavy boots.” As a fictional creation, he shares DNA with J. D. Salinger’s Glass family and—more purposefully, I think—with Helen DeWitt’s delightful Ludo from The Last Samurai. Oskar, like many smart children, feels the suffering of others along every nerve of his body, and so it is cataclysmic for him that he alone hears his father’s five increasingly desperate messages from Windows on the World on the answering machine. The remote witnessing has left him traumatized. To cope, he sets off on a fantastical search through New York’s five boroughs for the lock that fits a strange key he found, along with a scrap of paper on which the single word “Black” is printed, in his father’s closet.

As in Everything Is Illuminated, Foer uses history to underscore and amplify our understanding of the present day. Intertwined with Oskar’s picaresque adventures is the epistolary story of his grandparents. As a teenager, Thomas Shell Sr., Oskar’s grandfather, lives through the bombing of Dresden in World War II, during which his pregnant girlfriend is killed. Afterward, he loses the ability to speak, and moves to America. In New York, he meets the sister of his true love, and the two carve out a compromised marriage that is a shivering evocation of the pain of not loving someone enough (and of being too broken to change this)—and that proves to be a source, for me, of many of the book’s more contrived moments (e.g, when the grandmother despairingly asks herself over and over “Why does anyone ever make love?”) Both Oskar and his grandfather are paralyzed by brains they can’t quiet—”it’s so painful to think, and tell me, what did thinking ever do for me, to what great place did thinking ever bring me?” Oskar’s grandfather asks. Both are also stymied by the many obstacles that stand in the way of their quests to connect with other people.

It is no small achievement to construct a rich imaginative world out of the debris of 9/11. In an important sense Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close intuitively “gets” how and why a novelist should write about 9/11: to tell a story about the effects of that day on the imaginative lives of the people who went on afterward; a story in which the events of the day are not merely a lurid plot point but the engine for subtle transformation. To realize how artful Foer is, compare Extremely Loud to Beigbeder’s Windows on the World, which offers up a reconstruction of events that’s oddly flat compared to the nonfiction reconstruction 102 Minutes, by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, currently on the best-seller list. You don’t have to be a philistine to wonder who would want to read something made up about a day whose murky real-life implications we’re still coming to grips with; Foer figured out a smart way to do this, giving us the fresh point of view of a child less attuned to the ensuing political debates than to the expansive bewilderment of his own imagination. Foer’s also thoughtfully juxtaposed an event that seemed to arrive out of the blue with a historical precedent, reminding us that world-jolting events have happened before (and will again).

Having said this, let me register a reservation: Foer has brought us a chimera of a world stranded awkwardly between fantasy and realism. Aristotle famously claimed that a “convincing impossibility” is superior to an “unconvincing possibility.” Impossibility becomes convincing when, through strange alchemy, it becomes a coherent part of the world being described. But where the effects of magic realism seem organic to, say, Gabriel García Márquez’s world, the characters in Extremely Loud can seem self-consciously idiosyncratic—we’re invited to believe that Oskar’s emotionally damaged grandparents deploy energetic aesthetic strategies for dealing with their anomie, including dividing their apartment into zones of “Something” and “Nothing” in which “one could temporarily cease to exist.” So, to start us off, I wonder: Did you think there was a tension between what’s real and invented? Foer’s imaginative flights are essential to the novel, but is there something about writing about 9/11, an event so fresh in the public memory, that resists the appliqué of fantasy?