Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Jonathan Safran Foer's 9/11 novel explores the dialectic between absence and presence.

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But in the face of tragedy, absence and presence, Nothing and Something, resist independence.

"[A] friction began to arise between Nothing and Something, in the morning the Nothing vase cast a Something shadow…at night the Nothing light from the guest room spilled under the Nothing door and stained the Something hallway."

There are two polar responses to catastrophe: Nothing and Something--creation in spite of destruction and disengagement in deference to it. Both grandfather and grandmother recognize this dialectic and both understand that as long as they are alive they cannot adopt just one of these poles. Still, they are inclined in different directions. In one of the most powerful passages in the book, Oskar's grandmother confronts her husband in the airport as he's preparing to leave her. They converse by pointing to pre-written words in the grandfather's notepad.

"I pointed at, Don't Cry.

He pointed at, Broken and confused.

I pointed at, So sad.

He pointed at, Broken and confused.

I pointed at, Something.

He pointed at, Nothing.

I pointed at, Something.

Nobody pointed at, I love you."

An Untraditional Narrative

Safran Foer employs many visual tools in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Photographs, illustrations, and typographical stunts are scattered amongst the novel's pages. While some of these might be gratuitous and distracting, many buttress the novel's themes.

In the grandparents' letters, the visual devices appeal to our sense of space. The grandfather's missives are tightly packed, with no paragraph breaks, except for the pages that reproduce his notepad--single lines surrounded by whiteness. Oskar's grandfather is an extremist in his response to tragedy. He has outbursts of creativity and moments of extreme disengagement.

Oskar's grandmother also struggles with the dialectic between Nothing and Something, but she is more measured in her approach. Her letters are oddly spaced, either one sentence to a line or with multiple spaces between sentences. Oskar's grandmother does not deny the spaces left in her life by tragedy nor does she let them overpower her. She integrates them into her engagement with the world.

Interestingly, she is less successful in her engagement with herself. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close includes several blank pages, representing the grandmother's memoir--a work composed with the spacebar alone.

Memorializing Complexity

Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum acknowledges that there's nothing simple about destruction. Aside for the five voids that run through the museum, Libeskind planned five comparable "voided voids," spaces outside the museum that would parallel the indoor voids but be accessible. To further complicate matters, only two of these voided voids were actually built, and the three absent ones are marked with stones. Libeskind's building evokes the contradiction that death solicits for the living. It appeals to the way what isn't annunciates what is, the way absence and presence are forever intertwined in conversation and combat.

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Daniel Septimus

Daniel Septimus is Executive Director of The Sefaria Project. Previously, he served as Chief Executive Officer of MyJewishLearning, Inc.