Home > Close Readings > you ever considered: Oskar Schell's Appointment with Dr. Fein, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

you ever considered: Oskar Schell's Appointment with Dr. Fein, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

you ever considered: Oskar Schell’s Appointment With Dr. Fein

Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, p. 203-205*


A central thematic element in the circulatory system of Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the collective role of inversions, paradoxes, and binaries surfaces at the levels of external narrative and internal language within the text, as a means of opening a liminal space for both character and reader, wherein both figures can negotiate their respective psychic wounding. Specifically, in the instance of character Oskar Schell, the novel’s nine year-old primary narrator, inversions, paradoxes, and binaries are not only built into perceptions of his post-9/11 reality, but they are also central pillars for the language with which he address himself and others. Moreover, within the context of Oskar’s sensibilities for these dualities, the deeper inquiry, among others, that surfaces concerns itself with exactly how these schisms function— what they can offer the traumatized psyche and how the liminal spaces that they pressurize can influence the creation of meaning at a linguistic level, as well as at the level of the imagination, the final query here becoming a point that plays out specifically for Oskar during one of his sessions with his therapist, Dr. Howard Fein.

Over the course of the novel, Oskar periodically references his encounters with Fein, however, it is their meeting and Oskar’s subsequent eaves-dropping on the conversation between his mother and Dr. Fein that unhinges a unique and telling moment for the case of inversions, paradoxes, and binaries in the novel. In an attempt to break through Oskar’s hyper-vigilant conscious mind, Fein tries to play a rapid-fire word-association game with his patient in order to reach his buried subconscious. Oskar is not amused by the game, nor does he proffer any of the common responses that such a game usually elicits, instead taking every one-word prompt to a very literal connection; nevertheless, the game does evoke from Oskar a momentary massive reverse purge of traumatized memory and emotion, as his buried subconscious exhumes itself to announce a second interment. As Oskar prepares to leave, dismissing Fein with assurances of all the ways that he will be fine, he breaks open. “‘I’m gonna bury my feelings deep inside me,’” he says (203). “‘No matter how much I feel,’” he remarks, to Fein’s dismay, “‘I’m not going to let it out,’” a resolution that then prompts a surreal chain of inversions for Oskar, a series of paradoxes built on a personalized set of codified binaries that he has designed and organized for himself in the wake of his father’s death. “‘If I have to cry, I’m gonna cry on the inside,’” he says, initiating the sequence using conditional-cause/ dependent-effect language structures. “‘If I have to bleed,’” he continues, “‘I’ll bruise,’” exterior physical realities turning themselves inside-out and retreating inside the body to locate their intravenous emotional counterparts. “‘If my heart starts going crazy, I’m not gonna tell anyone in the world,’” Oskar asserts, a comment which suggests one of his many formulaic binaries in the word “crazy,” his concern with sonic volume also echoing his earlier concern for the quantitative volume of his feelings and his need to bury them. “It doesn’t help anything,” he then resolves, his polar equations for “help” coming into play here— “help” = care for other people and “not helping” = care for self. Continuing, Oskar confirms this idea in his comment, “‘It just makes everyone’s life worse,’” an extreme notion painfully shaded through the idea of “everyone’s life,” not “everyone’s lives,” a slip which draws out, on metaphysical and linguistic planes alike, the fact that Oskar’s world is divided into two bodies: his and everyone’s. At this moment, the text opens to illustrate how, to Oskar, letting somebody, letting one life down, is to let everybody down, and the failure to save one body is the failure to save every body— a failure that, for Oskar, translates to mean his failure to save his father, an all-or-nothing epistemology not unlike his grandmother’s comment, “‘My life story is the story of everyone I’ve ever met’” (130).

At this moment, Oskar’s inversions break off into silence, as Dr. Fein returns with a sequence of questions meant to address him at an ontological level, to unpack which “you” or “self” Oskar will be if he buries his interior world beneath his exterior world, and, finally, to pressurize the death of Oskar’s father. “‘Do you think any good can come from your father’s death?’” Fein asks, a question speaking directly into the hollow, liminal space between all of Oskar’s binaries. “‘Do I think any good can come from my father’s death?’” Oskar repeats back, his focus drawn to the idea of “good,” an idea, for him, without any possible counterpart or antecedent, a notion whose binary match is “bad;” and “bad,” for Oskar,  is always unconditionally equal to “father’s death.” The equation of the question simply does not compute for him; it breaks his code, breaks his system of binaries, overrules his paradoxes, and cancels out his inversions. “Do you think any good can come from your father’s death?” Fein repeats, searching this time with a keyword of “any,” an attempt to crack open Oskar’s system and force him to examine the space between the epistemological poles he has determined for himself for any signs of any goodness. It is, moreover, a reiterated idea—a double, a clone, a copy—that violates Oskar’s 1:1 comparison ratio for reality and evokes from Oskar a momentary ontological lapse, a moment wherein Oskar plays out one situation in his head, a scene much like a dream rehearsal for a survival circumstance, but enacts another; it is a moment wherein both realties are the real reality on the terms of their own respective inverted dimensions. “I kicked over my chair, threw his papers across the floor,” Oskar narrates, “and hollered, ‘No! Of course not, you fucking asshole!’” a physical and verbal manifestation of energy that unnerves everything that he just determined for himself as part of his personal manifesto of buried expression. The outburst is an extraversion, at both a conceptual and a linguistic level, of every inversion he just outlined, even down to the plain exclamatory syntax and use of the expletive diction he is so careful never to utter, diction that, in this capacity, acts as a type of forbidden word incantation for the release of his buried emotion. This reality aside: “That was what I wanted to do,” Oskar comments, flipping backwards through the space in his head to reach the beginning of the sequence and starting again, an act of revision not unlike the flipbook he later creates of the “falling man” image. “Instead,” he notes, vacillating in the provocative space of Fein’s question and revising realities to prevent further cracking in his system of understanding, “I just shrugged my shoulders.”

Although there is a continuous arc of action at this moment, as Oskar retreats into the hall to swap places with his mother, a rupture has occurred in his system of binaries, a break with his otherwise codified thought, and what follows for him, having been through this experience, is unique by virtue of fragmented language, white space on the page, and photographic image. Pressing his stethoscope to the door of Dr. Fein’s office, Oskar manages to listen in on parts of the adults’ conversation. “I couldn’t hear a lot, and sometimes I wasn’t sure if no one was talking,” he comments, “or if I just wasn’t hearing what they were saying.” To this effect, Oskar is careful to note quantity, volume, and quantity, but he does not acknowledge that the language he is hearing is partially erased by the door, nor does he fully recognize that, therein, the meaning of what he hears is obscured. Moreover, in a space newly haunted by the cracks in his dual thinking, the broken, erased language comes across as complete, and the meaning, however fragmented, translates as a whole, even though represented on the page as textual shards. Additionally, when read aloud, the page that follows Oskar’s outburst reads as a cohesive stream of thought, as dictated from Oskar’s point of view and within his view, the “cracked up” pieces of his inversions, paradoxes, and binaries. “I want to talk,” Oskar hears, falling into the white, muffled space where the language drops off, “that’s not going to be easy” (204). The translation here, for example: “talking is not going to be easy.” The difficulty is not necessarily talking to anyone in particular about anything in particular; the difficulty, as far as Oskar understands here, is verbal communication, an idea that makes sense because, for him, talking is hard, his language, at this moment in the text, suspended in a liminal space between extremes, unsure of inside-outside, crazy-sane, good-bad, up-down—his mind incidentally drifting to graft his imagined understandings of language, as well as his orientations in reality, onto the body of the figure in the falling man image, the final words on the page, “you ever considered,” corresponding, within a vertical/ horizontal reading schema, with the image of the falling man, a semiotics patterns which suggests, among other things of ideas of their own , “you ever considered [liminality].”



you ever considered   






 Image From "Falling Man" Flip-book, copyright Jonathan Safran Foer, 2005**










*Omeka “Literature of 9/11” Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Discussion Question Tie-In: The Role of Inversions, Paradoxes, and Binaries

In his interview with Deborah Solomon, Foer says of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, “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 Don 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, for example. 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 Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close— “YES/NO,” “SOMETHING/ NOTHING,” “OK/ [NOT OK]”) so necessary to negotiate such spaces?  

**Exact image from 205 not available, but reference is the same; this image taken from the flip-book at the end of the novel