Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

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

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In an irony only history could get away with, Libeskind was chosen to design a memorial for the attack that occurred two days after his Berlin museum opened. His World Trade Center design also contrasts absence and presence. It features a 1,776 foot "Freedom Tower" situated next to a gaping foundation that survived the 9/11 attacks.

Yet in contrast to the Berlin museum, there's something oddly unsophisticated about the WTC memorial. As the art critic Noam Elcott has noted, "Libeskind's Jewish museum fuses absence and presence in an irrevocable pas de deux: the building's (once) unnamed voids and voided voids call each other into question and, with them, the ambivalent presence and absence of Jews in Germany. The WTC proposal, on the other hand, projects monumental absence (the foundation) against monumental presence (the 'Freedom Tower'), transforming an open wound into clichéd metaphors and proper names--easily identifiable and so easily resolved."

For Jonathan Safran Foer, there's nothing easily resolvable about 9/11. Thus absence and presence, nothing and something, battle each other throughout his 9/11 novel. Like Libeskind's Berlin design and unlike his WTC design, Safran Foer navigates these two extremes in a plurality of ways, never neatly, rarely consistently. 

In the face of tragedy, absence can be overwhelming. For Oskar and his family there are times when it is. But Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is ultimately an optimistic book. At the novel's end, in a scene that brings a living family together in a cemetery, a final void is filled. Love and sadness, life and death, mingle together in a serene moment that defies reconciliation yet embraces hope.

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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.