Boroughs and Neighbors: Traumatic Solidarity in Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Mullins, Matthew, Papers on Language & Literature
Jonathan Safran Foer's 2005 novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, was released to overwhelming expectation, anticipating both its failure and its success. The novel follows nine-year-old Oskar Schell on a quest to discover the meaning behind a small key left in an envelope labeled "Black" by his father who has died in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Oskar's adventures take him on a literal and psychological journey in dealing with the traumatic loss of his father. In his recent book on Philip Roth, David Brauner has offered an overview of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close's critical reception, focusing especially on the problematic characterization of Foer's protagonist as young and naive, wandering around a dangerous city alone, and seeming a little more precocious than some reviewers find believable. While Brauner's primary goal is to juxtapose the reviews of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close with the reviews of Roth's The Plot Against America, he defends Foer's own argument that "expectations of realism were misplaced" in relation to Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (189). And it seems that arguments about Oskar's believability as a nine-year old are secondary to the more important ideas of trauma, identity, and community. In fact, the novel proposes alternative conceptions of identity that encourage global community across existing identity boundaries, especially those of nation and culture.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close transcends the newly strengthened boundaries of national identity created in the wake of 9/11, positing an alternative conception of community. The novel blurs lines of demarcation between victims, perpetrators, and witnesses of the attack and thus calls to our attention a problematic "us versus them" mentality that typically results in more violence and trauma. Foer contests an "us versus them" reaction to trauma because the self-perceived "us" identity is far more complicated four months after the event than four days after the event. The primary way in which the novel blurs these identity lines is by focusing its gaze on the traumatic U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Dresden during World War II rather than focusing on the details of the attacks on the World Trade Center. In addition, the text views trauma inflicted by "us" instead of on "us" to suggest that trauma can be a unifying experience, one that encourages solidarity across various boundaries of identity. Trauma is not limited by nationality and thus has the capacity to create new identities. Ultimately, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close suggests traumatic solidarity should breach identity borders, not merely reinforce them.
Prior to the events of 9/11, K. Anthony Appiah argued that "The major collective identities that demand recognition in North America currently are religion, gender, ethnicity, 'race,' and sexuality," with a footnote nod to the fact that these differences occur within the framework of nationality (151). I would add to Appiah's argument that nationality experienced a resurgent demand for recognition as a major identity marker in America in the wake of the violence associated with 9/11. I will rely partially here on Amartya Sen's conception of identity in relation to violence. Writing in 2006, Sen suggests that the problem with violence is that it often drowns out the plurality of identity (i.e. the various collectivities mentioned by Appiah) and promotes instead "a sense of inevitability about some allegedly unique--often belligerent--identity that we are supposed to have which apparently makes extensive demands on us" (xiii). Sen's conception of identity and violence is important because it clarifies the fundamental problem of identity I see addressed in Foer's novel. Like Appiah and Sen, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close suggests that all individuals are members of numerous collective groups, such as class, gender, occupation, and religion, but goes one step further and posits an alternative identity that connects individuals in these various, and sometimes opposing, groups. …