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Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Discussion Questions


-The influence of the style, format, and medium of the novel:

We’re already working with, what John Updike refers to as a “high plane of inventiveness and emotional urgency,” when thinking about the frequency of Foer’s creative styling in the novel, but what is the affect of such innovations (the incorporations of photographs, the blank spaces, the blank pages, the reverse flip-book at the end, etc.) or what critics, such as Anis Shivani, have referred to as “gimmicks,” in the space of a national psychic wound like 9/11? Foer is adamant about the power of the unspoken, however, we are still faced with text, nonetheless, and a palimpsest, at that— the narrative of 9/11, the “counter-narrative” of 9/11 (as DeLillo would call it), the fragmented narrative of the individual, the narrative of the novel (which divides into three different voices)— what are the pressures of these silences and voices? Why might paper answer more specifically than digital page, if at all?


-The question of Oskar:

What can be done with the character of Oskar? We’re already dealing with a cultural narrative of grief, but then we’re met with the hyper-extended narrative of a grieving child. Critics make very clear their opinion of Oskar as an unreliable narrator and, in many ways, a knock-off of a Bellow or Salinger’s protagonist, but is it possible to press the texture of Oskar’s character into a vehicle for sorting through cultural memories that are, in many ways, just as scattered as the papers and debris falling from the towers? Is it possible to read Oskar as an extended metaphor for the American psyche post-9/11? A “fallen” innocent who must learn to navigate the “Something” and “Nothing” spaces of paranoia and hyper-vigilance, premediating trauma by way of inventions (think TSA, the Patriot Act, etc.)? Or is Oskar simply a character doomed to the space of comic and cuteness relief, which has temporary emotional merits, but few long-term practical ones?


-The role of inversions and paradoxes:

In his interview with Deborah Solomon, Foer says of ELAIC, “Every relationship in the book is built around silence and distance, … Extremely loud and incredibly close is what no two people are to one another,” a statement that indirectly echoes against DeLillo’s assertion in “In the Ruins of the Future” that “The writer tries to give memory tenderness and meaning to all that howling space.” What we sense here is the slant relationship between powerful properties at-stake in inversions and paradoxes and also the creative power available in a traumatized vacuum, a blank canvas— the “Nothing” space of Ground Zero. Along these lines, the curiosity here is: why the inversions, at all? Why the paradoxes? Moreover, why are binary systems (not unlike the ones set in place in ELAIC— “YES/NO,” “SOMETHING/ NOTHING,” “OK/ [NOT OK]”) so necessary to negotiate such spaces?


-The space of language and, in that space, the space of humanity:

DeLillo notes in December 2001’s “In the Ruins of the Future,” “We have to take the shock and horror as it is. But living language is not diminished. The writer wants to understand what this day has done to us. Is it too soon? We seem pressed for time, all of us. Time is scarcer now. There is a sense of compression, plans made hurriedly, time forced and distorted. But language is inseparable from the world that provokes it”—; and Foer notes in February 2005, “Both the Holocaust and 9/11 were events that demanded retellings. The accepted versions didn't make sense for me. I always write out of a need to read something, rather than a need to write something. With 9/11, in particular, I needed to read something that wasn't politicized or commercialized, something with no message, something human”—; two comments which divide into two questions and create a third:

-Given its volume and magnitude, the scope of its ambition and scale of its interest, is ELAIC a novel published too soon or too hastily? Is it a text that is just as brash and bold as its protagonist? If so, what is its ethos as a “9/11” novel, and what is its role in the psyche of its readers? Is its presence a distraction from and nuisance to deeper emotional repairs, or is it an instrument for processing cultural trauma, a text that is wise in its shattered innocence?

-Given the weight placed on language here—DeLillo’s interest in “living language,” Foer’s interest in both writing what he needed to read, and also the absent language in the novel (again, Oskar’s inventions, the grandfather’s YES/NO hands and daybooks)— what is the role of language in the space of trauma? Is language something that must prevail, even if it means talking itself into a corner or to death? Or is it something that must take its time, even if it means losing itself?

-There’s a quality of primal terror and survival response in thinking about reactions to fire, reactions to disaster, reactions to emotional injury and personal loss— what happens to the line of “civilized humanity” in such spaces? Oskar is very adamant on a number of occasions that “Only humans…X”; what is the function of such affirmations in a text (novel and cultural text) defined by chaos and grief?