In the middle of Jonathan Safran Foer’s superb 9/11 novel, there’s a transcript of a Hiroshima survivor recalling what happened to her the day the bomb fell. More specifically, she recalls the death of her daughter. She says very little about the blast, or the ash cloud, or the cataclysm which befell her city. She omits everything that isn’t personal. Not because she doesn’t understand what happened, or because she doesn’t care what happened to others, but because the tragedy of losing a loved one is a cataclysm in itself. Unexpected death hits us – Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close – like surviving a sudden disaster; the event is shocking, but its life afterwards that’s painful. Missing people can bury you.
The story is about a boy who misses his father. The boy’s name is Oskar Schell. His father died in the attack on the World Trade Centre. In the two years since 9/11, Oskar has become a paranoid, fretful child, unable to ride in elevators, or to take the subway, or to venture anywhere…in case terrorists mount an assault. His only friends are all either family, or pets. He’s about to play a skull (Yorick) in the school production of Hamlet. But then, one day, he discovers a key in a mysterious envelope in his father’s closet. The envelope is labelled: “Black”. Oskar decides to find which lock the key fits. In order to complete this task, he sets about contacting every person with the surname Black in New York.
Oskar tells a story about elephants to Abby Black, the first person he meets on his quest. He says elephants can send out “very, very, very, very deep calls, way deeper than what humans can hear.” Elephants remember their dead, too. In an experiment conducted “in the Congo”, a scientist played the call of a dead elephant to its family members…and they remembered. Instead of turning in fright, “they approached the speaker”. Although Oskar doesn’t know he’s talking about his father, it seems Abby knows, or that she knows how sad Oskar’s story is. In an extraordinary moment, like something Miranda July might have written for screen, Oskar asks Abby if he can kiss her. She declines. But she agrees to let him take her picture, from behind, “which would be more truthful, anyway”.
The extent to which you can know someone, and not know them, is central to the book. One character writes her life story onto blank pages in an, admittedly, fairly forced metaphorical act. But other things are more truthful – like Oskar’s father asking “Are you there?” on an answer machine; or the letter Oskar receives from Stephen Hawking, where he quotes Albert Einstein talking about the universe as a “closed box”. Oskar yearns to know his father, but it’s impossible from the start. The only person he can know is the one who mattered to him. When he finally finds the person whom the “Black” key belongs to, that person tells Oskar a story about the key. There is no key that unlocks Oskar’s dad.
Lots of the book is impossible – there’s a man who refuses to speak because of the Allied bombing of Dresden; a woman who lives at the top of the Empire State building; a cat named after Buckminster Fuller – but it’s all true. Not true-to-fact, but true-to-feeling. If you’ve ever seen Miranda July’s movie, Me and You and Everyone We Know, that feels a lot like Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. As in Me and You, people speak like real people, but they’re also poetic; their words awaken us. One character says, of grief: “it’s simple like a mountain is simple”. And that thought, like many in the book, is as profound as it is unusual. Jonathan Safran Foer has a great writer’s gift for making disparate ideas connect.
Everyone has a 9/11 story. I was visiting Hemingway’s house in Key West. I remember there were lots of other people there, and we were all shocked to be living normally. What had happened that morning was so unreal, so bizarre, it overwhelmed us. We all thought: the World Trade Centre is gone. None of us could comprehend it. When the Towers fell, they disappeared irrevocably, and much too fast. The feeling was that near-death fear, when your body empties. We’d all lost something we’d taken for granted. The difference between us and those who did lose loved ones was (and is) huge. But one thing we do share: 9/11’s imprint. Like Oskar, we carry the Towers in our heads.
And in our heads, they’re saved.