So I got a lot of reading done this weekend. Like kind of an absurd amount. And even though I could totally space these reviews out over the next few weeks, affording myself some much-needed time to, I don’t know, go outdoors or socialize with other human beings, instead I’m just going to blow it all this week and feel like an idiot come June. Because that’s how I roll.
Up until about last year, I actually had no idea that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (ELAIC) was a novel about September 11. Which is fitting since up until last week I had never sat down and watched 9/11 footage, or listened to the recently released audio of air traffic controllers and others who were on the planes. I may be a sick voyeur when it comes to reality shows and celebrity gossip, but plugging in my headphones to hear the dying words of some unsuspecting flight attendant was not my idea of a productive afternoon.
Unfortunately, after reading ELAIC, I felt it was time to bite the bullet. The novel is so wrapped around the tragedy of that day, and the loss of an individual (though fictional) life in it, that it felt weird to not relive the moment in reality, especially since I had never really done so. Naturally, I saw the towers fall in 2001—though I can’t say my 11th-grade self had any real idea of the event’s impact—but afterwards, with the exception of unavoidable news broadcasts and one overblown Oliver Stone movie, I didn’t pursue September 11. There was no need to: Not a week goes by that the tragedy isn’t invoked in some political conversation or happenstance facet of New York City life—bag checks on the subway, liquids refused from air travel, construction delays in lower Manhattan. To spend even a minute proactively pursuing the now decade-old news broadcasts or man-on-the-street footage felt unnecessary, masochistic even.
Indeed, about an hour into my YouTube torture this weekend, I had to close my laptop. No matter how jaded we get about that day, or how many years and wars and political follies removed from it we are, looking back on the experience is awful. Like, the worst. I screamed at hapless news announcers who continued to prattle on about nothing as the first tower fell, and had actual nightmares about the final 911 call from Kevin Cosgrove, who died in that collapse. I felt sick watching the second plane hit, and cried at footage of people who either fell or jumped to their own deaths (an element of the attacks touched on in ELAIC). Having now lived in New York for several years, I know many people who were here on Sept. 11. Whether they lost loved ones or merely watched the attacks from a proximity much closer than my 200 miles, my heart goes out to them. This is one seriously resilient city.
In any case, what’s interesting about ELAIC is how far removed it feels from the panic of 9/11, the very element so aptly captured in audio and video. While some other novels—Falling Man and A Disorder Peculiar to the Country come to mind—have at least some emphasis on the mob-mentality realization of terrorism in New York, ELAIC’s references to “the worst day” are noticeably without detail, or raw violence. And they’d have to be—the majority of the novel is told from the perspective of 9-year-old Oskar Schell, who is too young to understand much about the attacks except that they resulted in his father’s death (and really, can even an adult claim to “understand” 9/11?) After “the worst day,” Oskar discovers a key in his father’s closet, whose origin he spends most of the book seeking out.
Oskar is an intriguing protagonist. Even before his family is struck by tragedy, the boy is an oddball, and would probably annoy me in real life. The best analogy I could give would be the kid in About a Boy, who has no friends until he starts hanging around Hugh Grant and gets moderately cooler in that “it’s cool to be weird” sort of way. Oskar Schell is very much that kid. The difference is in the melancholy of his idiosyncrasies—fearing subways, hating loud noises, giving himself bruises, etc. It’s a bit heavier than Marcus (of About a Boy) singing to himself or wearing uncool sneakers.
What I found perhaps most touching about ELAIC is that it isn’t limited by being a 9/11 novel, because it’s about more than the attacks. It’s really about death, and the fact that you may lose someone you love at any point, without warning. It’s about the lack of guarantee that the last thing you said will have been the right thing, or that you’ll have adequately appreciated a life before its over, or that you’ll ever get answers to the questions the dead leave behind. Did the book shed new light on a topic so picked over that it would be difficult to do so? Not really. But did it make me feel something, even if that something was sheer discomfort with the permanence of the attacks, or sympathy for all the quirky 9-year-olds left behind to try and understand the unfathomably violent and unexpected deaths of close relatives? Definitely.
TITLE: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
AUTHOR: Jonathan Safran Foer
PAGES: 326 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Everything is Illuminated, Eating Animals
SORTA LIKE: Falling Man meets About a Boy
FIRST LINE: “What about a teakettle?”