I recently finished Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: A Novel by Jonathan Foer, which is very well done. The book is moving and literary, and since it centers on an event (9/11) so recent in memory, very powerful. As this is the first novel reviewed on this blog, I will issue a spoiler warning: if knowing details about the book could ruin the experience for readers (and there is some information in the review that could potentially do this), please read the book before reading this review.
The action I want to write about occurs toward the end of the book, when a crying Oskar (the protagonist) unknowingly meets his grandfather. The grandfather, who is mute and inscribes his thoughts and words in daybooks to communicate with others, has used all his blank pages in his current daybook upon their meeting. In the after-the-fact narration, he writes “I didn’t know how to hold him, I’m running out of room…I wanted to give him an infinitely long blank book and the rest of time,” (280). Clearly, however, Oskar (and every other person), does not have an infinite amount of time. Each individual does not in reality get an infinite blank book to write in (where the text of the blank book is one’s life, and writing in it are one’s actions), and does not have infinite time in which to write and rewrite, live and relive. This is a tragedy, both in the book and in life.
Through most of the book, the reader knows that Oskar arrived home on the morning of 9/11, played the answering machine, and heard five messages from his father, asking for someone to pick up and reassuring whoever might hear. Then, Oskar says on page 301 that he received another call from his father at 10:26 (the World Trade Center building he was in collapsed at 10:28). After the answering machine picked up, his father asked eleven times at long intervals “Are you there?” though Oskar could not bring himself to pick up the phone. “And then it cut off.”
On the last page, Oskar thinks of rewinding time, such that his father would have come backward from the World Trade Center and all the way to the night before he left when he was telling Oskar stories. The nature of time and contingency exposes the gravity of Oskar’s wish.
At root, this is a story about time and contingency. Repeatedly, the story returns to themes about how once something is done, it not being possible to redo it or cancel it. This is, accordingly, the tragedy of life—individuals only get one chance to live, and the outcomes of events in the past cannot be changed. (This truly is a tragedy, though also perhaps the most empowering idea there is—since individuals’ time to live and act is limited, the knowledge provides a strong impetus to live and act).
The grandfather, who has left the grandmother many years before, says “I thought, it’s a shame that we have to live, but it’s a tragedy that we get to live only one life, because if I’d had two lives, I would have spent one of them with her,” (since he left her years before) (133).
Yet, intuitively, life would not be life if it were otherwise. If the grandfather could have had two lives, one to live always with the grandmother, then he would not even have had the same insights—(he might have turned out completely differently, which would make his insight on the opportunity to live a second time null). On some levels, then, wishing that to be so displaces the things one should be concerned about in favor of a disconnected halcyon dream. The truth is much starker. It is life. And time. Rather, it is their limits.