Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - discussion guide
Author: Joanna Richards Keywords:
Bereavement, loss, 9/11, family, communication, relationships, quest
Book title: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Author: Jonathan Safran Foer
Publisher (h/b): Mariner Books (USA); Hamish Hamilton (UK)
Pub. date (h/b): 4 April 2006 (UK); 2 June 2005 (USA)
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Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the story of nine-year-old Oskar Schell, whose father was killed in the Twin Towers in the September 11th terrorist attacks. After discovering a small key among his father’s possessions, Oskar embarks on a quest to find which of New York’s 162 million locks the key fits.
Hiding his mission from both his mother and his beloved grandmother, Oskar takes his field kit (including a Magnum flashlight, Chapstick, plastic bags for important evidence, white gloves and iodine pills in case of a dirty bomb) and sets out across New York’s five districts. Along the way, he encounters many people who bear their own losses.
Oskar’s story is interwoven with letters written to an unborn child, giving the history of two people who suffered the Dresden bombings during the Second World War. Just as Oskar cannot articulate his own grief or communicate his sense of guilt to his mother, the author of the letters unfolds a painful history to his child punctuated by the loss of words, of intimacy and even of space to exist.
Warm, funny and searching, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is about what it is to be human, to face tragedy, to overcome and to love.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the second novel of Jewish writer Jonathan Safran Foer, who was born in 1977 in Washington DC. His first novel, Everything is Illuminated (2002) wasmade into a film, starring Elijah Wood, and shares similar concerns. It also deals with the tragedy of loss, with guilt and with the quest for redemption, centring on the buried history of a Ukrainian Jewish community massacred by the Nazis during World War II. It too faces the challenge of communication – initially through the struggle of translation, but then and more seriously through the silence of those unable to speak of the past.
These themes share their origin in Foer’s own experience. At the age of 9, he was caught in an explosion during a summer school experiment to make sparklers. While he himself avoided its worst effects, he saw his friends set alight and their faces destroyed by the explosion. Foer suffered a nervous breakdown from which he did not emerge until the age of 12, although it would be 20 years before he would be able to speak about the accident.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was among the first novels to deal with the famous attacks on America, already a defining point in world history, although the inclusion of the Allied bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima, along with the different stories of loss of those Oskar meets, reframe tragedy away from politics, nationality and ideology, back to the personal human impact.
Jonathan Safran Foer, ‘My Explosion’, Washington Post Magazine, 13 July 2008.
Suzie McKenzie, ‘Something happened: Suzie McKenzie meets Jonathan Safran Foer’, The Guardian, 21 May 2005.
Questions for discussion
What for you are the strongest themes that come through this novel?
How do they work through the accounts of the different characters (eg, Oskar, his mother, his grandmother, his grandfather and those Oskar meets along his quest)?
The difficulty of communication and the loss of language in times of trauma are dominant themes in the novel. Why do you think Foer has chosen them?
Why do you think Oskar’s grandmother produces thousands of blank sheets of paper as her memoirs, and why do you think her husband lets her? Why do you think Foer has included this episode in the novel?
Oskar and his father talk about meaning and significance (See chapter, ‘The Only Animal’). What do you think of his father’s answer to Oskar’s concern about his own insignificance? Do you find this an adequate answer? Why/why not?
At times, Oskar calls himself an atheist, but he also reflects, ‘Just because you’re an atheist, that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t love for things to have reason for why they are.’ (See chapter, ‘What the?’). To what extent do you think Oskar’s quest to find the lock is a quest for meaning and purpose, and is he successful?
What, if any, answer does Foer’s novel offer us to this question of personal meaning and significance?
What is your view of the way that Oskar’s mother deals with his grief?
What is the way through grief/trauma that Foer proposes with this novel? To what extent do you think he is right? What else would you suggest?
Author: Joanna Richards
© Copyright: Joanna Richards 2010
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