W.G. Sebald Meets Captain Underpants


Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
By Jonathan Safran Foer
368 pages. Houghton Mifflin. $24.95.

To read an extremely different review of this novel, click here.

Iíll begin, at the risk of ruining it for you, with the ending. Itís a series of photos, 15 in all, taken just before the Twin Towers fell. An upside-down man, whose identity is still unknown, leaps to his death to escape the spreading inferno.† You are supposed to, I think, flip through the photos at a fairly rapid clip, as though you were watching a Kinetoscope, except in this case the action runs in reverse. The jumper starts close to the ground and, with each turning page, rises higher and higher. You watch a scene from 9/11 unfold backwards.

I am sure there are any number of high-minded literary precedents for this montage, but the reference that comes most immediately to mind for me is Captain Underpants. I happen to be reading The Adventures of Captain Underpants and the Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman to my four-year-old son right now, and like the other books in the series, it contains a section entitled ďFlip-O-RamaĒókids flip through a series of images to produce a mini-movie.

Now Underpants author Dav Pilkey has not, as far as I know, come up with the innovation of running events in reverse order, but he does, like Foer, use the technique to represent gruesome scenes. "Flip-O-Rama" is always part of a section in his books called ďThe Extremely Graphic Violence Chapter.Ē The pictures depict the child heroes of the series, whose age is probably pretty near to Extremely Loudís protagonist, punching out their enemies, banging them with planks of wood, and then rejoicing at their victory.

I happen to like "Flip-O-Rama." It takes the graphic violence thatís so pervasive in the world and puts it under the heroís control; it makes it harmless, fun, and goofy. Unfortunately, thatís exactly what Foer has done to 9/11. He has taken the ineffable horror of that day and made it tangible in a way the violates the eventís sanctity. Try flipping through those images a few dozen times. The effect is even more inuring than watching the footage of the falling towers over and over again on television, though in this case Foer is not just deadening our senses, he is inviting us to imagine we can undo the World Trade Center attack. Just like with Flip-O-Rama, youíre offered infantile wish-fulfillment.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is imbued with a quintessentially American faith that imagination and the powers of language can heal all manner of grief. Oskarís grandfatherís suffering through the firebombing of Dresden in World War II is equated with Oskarís 9/11 trauma which, in turn, is equated with the nuclear holocaust in Hiroshima. Yes, they all involve a great deal of destruction and civilian deaths, but they are also distinctly different events and their victims occupy different moral standings. But Foer seems so smitten by his purple prose that he believes these three apocalypses can be linked simply because language allows them to be. To hell with reality, ethics, history, and respect for peopleís suffering.

Why does this have to even be a novel about 9/11? Oskar Schell, the nine-year-old boy at the center of the novel, is an idiosyncratic, jaundiced sort of kidóa more or less delightful creationóbut his sensibility is really not all that different from any other well-healed Manhattanite child. His expedition around the five boroughs in search of the lock that fits with the key he finds in his dead fatherís closet does not prompt any particularly profound ruminations on the WTC bombing, terrorism, President Bush, or any of the issues that arose from the ashes of that inferno.

Oskarís struggles mainly concern getting used to the idea that his mother may find a boyfriend and learning to understand that bad things do happen to good people. Foer has said in interviews he wanted to strip 9/11 of all the political rhetoric and focus solely on the grief it caused, but in doing this, he has wiped out both the eventís specificity and enormity. Oskar pretty much would have gone through the same sort of emotional turmoil if his father had died in a bizarre gardening accident.

This may be something of a stretch, but I think an unacknowledged influence here is the late German writer, W.G. Sebald. I say that because (1) Sebald often wrote about the impact of past historical traumas on his characterís present day consciousness; (2) he argued that the Germans had been wrongly victimized during World War II by the Alliesí firebombing raids, which, in so far as he links 9/11ís victims with Dresdenís, seems to be a position Foer embraces too; and (3) Sebald made great use of pictures and historical photographs in his novels. When Sebald employs though images itís part of his commitment to track ŗ la Proust the meanderings of memory. You understand when the photo doesnít gel with what one of Sebaldís characters has just experienced because that is the nature of retrospection, especially when itís been fractured by a traumatic event like the Holocaust.

Foerís use of photos though seem mainly intended to stake his claim as a genuinely experimental writer, which is to say that from the readerís point-of-view they come across as largely gratuitous. Oskar goes into a stationery store and sees on a blotter where customers try out pens and then finds his father's name. We then get not one but four color pictures of the blotter as though Foer sensed his verbal description was not adequate or maybe his readers didnít know what it looked like. We also get pictures of keys, Laurence Olivier playing Hamlet, turtles mating and a cat flying through the air. It doesnít add up to much. Mostly, it serves to give post-modernism a bad name.

There is no doubt that Foer is an immensely gifted writer with huge promise and an amazing career ahead of him. But Extremely Loud is not the book which shows this. It is a hodge-podge of borrowed styles, half-baked ideas, and superficial musings. Unfortunately, it is also intellectually reckless.