A Reflection of the Past in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a Novel by Jonathan Safran Foer

Identity through the Past The concept of the past is one that causes a wide variety of emotions, ranging anywhere from an pleasant rush of nostalgia to an overwhelming sea of sinking memories. Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close involves the retelling of pasts through the concept of collections. Although these compilations of miscellaneous items appear to be simple pastimes, they serve as symbolic reminders of each character’s past experiences throughout life.

The main character of the novel, Oskar Schell, is introduced as a creative boy with a variety of collections, all linked by the idea of his deceased father.

Instead of coping with his father’s death by mourning in his room, Oskar ventures out into the world with his collections to motivate him.

Not only does he manage to add more photographs to his scrapbook and discover an assortment of people named Black, but he also creates a new identity for himself in the process, allowing the past memories of his collections to reform himself.

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Oskar, however, is not the only character that does this. Foer’s novel includes the allowance of multiple figures to reflect upon their experiences and form new identities for themselves; the characters of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close form a capability to create a future by reflecting upon their past.

Mr. Black is introduced in the novel as Oskar’s upstairs neighbor, one of many people the boy meets on his journey through New York City. The elderly man is portrayed as a unique figure in Oskar’s life, characterized by his “red beret, like a French person, and an eye patch, like a pirate” (Foer 152), as well as the possession of a massive catalogue of names in his closet.

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The biographical index proves to be a means of retelling his cloudy past, as he has “lived every day of the twentieth century” (152). Since Mr. Black uses this outdated method to reference names instead of using the Internet as Oskar suggests, it shows that he is a man of tradition. Rather than adapting with the current times, he continues to archaically jot down names and one-word descriptions which correspond with his old age; his collection proves that he is usually not a man of change. Mr. Black claims there is “a card for everyone [he] thought [he] might need to reference one day… a card for everyone [he] ever wrote about” (156). As an elderly man, the biographical index helps to jog his memories, for the assortment of names brings back the fuzzy details of his past as a war correspondent. Due to his profession as a reteller of “almost every war of the twentieth century” (154), the accurate knowledge of names and identities proves to be an essential factor in his writing, and thus, he has written down “tens of thousands… maybe hundreds of thousands” (157) of recollections throughout his years.

However, not only are the memories of the collection limited to Mr. Black, but the index allows Oskar to relive his past. When Oskar visits Mr. Black to inform him about his father’s grave, he is greeted by a realtor with plans to sell the apartment. Rushing to recover the memories of his elderly friend, Oskar searches for the biographical index and finds his own name, labeled with the word “son” (286). With the loss of his own father, Oskar turns to Mr.

Black as a paternal figure, confiding secrets with him, just as he would with a member of his own family. Especially since he shies away from his mother after his father’s death, the elderly man poses as both of Oskar’s parents, giving him guidance and trekking with him across the wide city. By seeing his card, Oskar realizes that the relationship between him and the elderly man is sacred, and regrets not knowing “that [he] wasn’t going to see Mr. Black again when [they] shook hands that afternoon” (286) after he informs Oskar of his departure from the search.

The remains left in the abandoned apartment ultimately help Oskar form memories of his lost friend. Although Mr. Black has physically faded from the boy’s life, the biographical index leaves Oskar to recreate old recollections into new ones. This concept of past turned into present is similarly implemented onto one of Oskar’s own collections. His scrapbook, Stuff That Happened to Me, displays his past of visual memories which offers him comfort in times of current desolation. When Oskar becomes distressed at the idea of locks constantly appearing in New York, he “[pulls] Stuff That Happened to Me from the space between the bed and the wall, and [flips) through it for a while, wishing that [he] could finally fall asleep” (52). In this way, Oskar uses the memories of his prior experiences to induce emotions in his mind, forcing himself to experience his recollections by rummaging through his own thoughts.

Mr. Black’s formation of identity is also constructed, along with his past, by the catalogue of names. Although the index lacks dates, it recreates the timeline of Mr. Black, so that he is able to look back and cite the essential figures of each period in his life. The collection essentially becomes his personal diary, where every entry gradually molds him into the man he is today. As he labels the names one by one, he forms an opinion on the people in his biographical index, choosing each word with care and thought. When the two reach the card of Gandhi, Mr. Black yells out, “Mahatma Gandhi: war!” (157), leading Oskar to question the legitimacy of the entry by refuting, “But he was a pacifist” (157). Instead of labeling Gandhi with a lighter term that the general public may use, Mr. Black chooses a word of violence and destruction; in this way, he personally defines the term ‘war’ and labels the equivalent figures that go with his interpretation.

When Mr. Black creates his own card, he initially writes “war” (158), choosing to identify himself wholly with his profession, especially depicted throughout his talks with Oskar. When they first meet, he shows Oskar his eye patch and tells him, “That’s from Nazi shrapnel… I ended up attaching myself to a British tank corps going up the Rhine” (153). The damage to his eye shows a physical symbol of his dedication to his life as a war correspondent, emphasizing his loyalty and withstanding commitment.

However, Mr. Black undergoes an adjustment in his identity as he crosses out “war” and instead replaces it with “husband” (158) as the years go by. Although he is traditionally not a figure of change, shown through his outdated method of manually writing the names in his biography, the altered word signifies the transition that he undergoes through his life. Mr. Black initially “treated [his wife) as though she didn’t matter… [he] came home only between wars, and left her alone for months at a time” (161). This displays his dedication to a life as a fighting man, where he is depicted as a lone soldier in the fields of violence. However, he eventually realizes that “what [he] wanted was to stay in one place with one person” (161), deciding to abandon his profession to pursue the woman he had fallen in love with. Mr. Black’s dedication as a war correspondent transitions over to his role as a husband, where he carefully puts his wife’s concerns before his, just as he did with war. When he states, “I wish I’d understood myself better earlier” (161), Mr. Black admits to his mistakes in forming an inaccurate identity and regretfully hopes he had more time with his wife rather than with his job. Although the entries made in the biographical index show the gradual forming of his opinions through the different people in his life, the most significant change reflects in his own card, where he finally realizes that his heart lies with the woman he loves.

Just as Mr. Black recalls his past by looking through his biographical index, Oskar copes with the death of his father by reliving the memories they once had together through the Reconnaissance Expedition. After the passing of Thomas, Oskar recalls “a great game that Dad and I would sometimes play on Sundays… [called] Reconnaissance Expedition” (8). Through each assignment, Oskar gains a new memory of a moment shared between him and his father; every item he collects brings a moment that he spent doing something for the man who raised him. By recalling the scavenger hunt that took place when his father was still alive, the boy returns back to his past and finds solace in the physical reminders of his collection. Oskar mentions that “for the last one we ever did, which never finished, he gave me a map of Central Park” (8). Due to the sudden death of Thomas, the search is left open-ended for Oskar, leaving him to find what he believes are the correct items. When the words “not stop looking” (10) are circled in the newspaper, Oskar becomes inspired to keep searching, and eventually discovers a mysterious key secured inside the vase in his father’s room. Through his loss, he begins to associate the cryptic object with the Reconnaissance Expedition, encouraged to seek the final answer that his father had left behind. Although Thomas did not mean to leave the key as a clue for the scavenger hunt, Oskar assumes this because of his imminent desire to keep the image of his father in his mind. He is reluctant to come to terms with the death, and holds onto the object, as well as his entire collection of miscellaneous gadgets from the Reconnaissance Expedition, in the hopes that solving the final quest will finally give him closure.

As Oskar gains inspiration through his collection to relive his past and discover his father’s secret, he also gains a new sense of self during the process. The inconclusive quest of the Reconnaissance Expedition forces Oskar to seek answers through the memories of his father, influencing him to traverse the city in search of people with the surname Black. He gains momentum as he goes through the “names alphabetically, from Aaron to Zyna” (87), forming memories of each unique person as he visits their homes. Oskar essentially begins a collection of Blacks, although they are not formed from physical objects like the Reconnaissance Expedition or Stuff That Happened to Me; instead, he creates an assortment of characters and relationships that allow him to cope with the death of his father. Instead of letting the key remain as a spiritual symbol of his father, Oskar goes out of his way to discover the possible secrets left behind and uncover the reality of the situation. As a realist, Oskar doesn’t let the otherworldly aspect of situations empower his thoughts, just as he believes that his dad “didn’t have a spirit… he had cells” (169). Even the images in Stuff That Happened to Me prove to be concepts of realism, as he visually captures authentic moments in his life and embeds them into a scrapbook of his making. This idea allows him to take the first step in coping, as he reaches out to reality in order to truly understand his father’s death and take action in deciphering the meanings behind his so called secrets.

Despite the similarity in the last names of each person Oskar encounters, however, he finds that the Blacks vary tremendously from one another. For example, when he goes to meet Abby Black, he finds that she lives in “a townhouse on Bedford Street… and that it was the narrowest house in New York” (90). On the other hand, when he visits Mr. Black, his upstairs neighbor, Oskar is shocked at how “his apartment looked exactly like [his] apartment…. But his apartment was also incredibly different, because it was filled with different stuff” (152). The vast journey taken by Oskar signifies the great number of relationships he establishes with dissimilar people across the regions of the city. Whereas he appears to be reserved at the beginning of the novel, he starts to open up through these encounters; he becomes aware of many personality types and gains friends along the way of discovering the answers to the key. His relationship with his mother is especially improved, as he initially hides his true intentions of seeking the Blacks by “[being] as secretive about [his] mission as [he] could at home” (87). However, when Oskar opens up to Ron by the end, it shows that he has created a new identity for himself, finding comfort in his family and perhaps finally receiving closure from his father’s death.

Although Oskar and his grandmother establish a close relationship from the beginning of the novel, the dynamic between Oskar and his grandfather isn’t formed until the end. Oskar meets Thomas Schell in his grandmother’s home, where he discovers that the elderly man is only capable of speaking through writing — a restriction formed by the memories of his dreadful past.

Because of his inability to talk, Thomas writes down his responses in empty books, which he “went through hundreds of… thousands of… they were all over the apartment” (28). The grandfather starts a collection of daybooks, constantly surrounded by reminders of his disability, as well as remembrances of the tragic bombings that caused his lover, Anna, to pass away along with their unborn child. Thomas uses these texts as “doorstops and paperweights… trivets and coasters” (28), keeping them around his home for mundane usage; rather than buying a paperweight or coaster, he uses his past memories as conveniences. This stems into Thomas’ initial reluctance to leave his past with Anna and formulate new memories as he establishes a relationship with Oskar’s grandmother. From the beginning, they create rules with an emphasis on “never (talking about the past” (108). By his reluctance to discuss the harmful nature of his former memories, it shows that Thomas has not yet moved on from the deaths of his loved ones.

When he finally leaves his wife to go to the airport, he writes to his unborn child that he is sorry for “having said goodbye to Anna when maybe I could have saved her and our idea, or at least died with them… for my inability to let the unimportant things go, for my inability to hold on to the important things” (132). Thomas leaving indicates that he blames himself for the tragedies in his life, rather than accusing the uncontrollable forces. Just as he is apologetic for leaving Anna behind, he is also regretful about being unable to leave his past behind and forming a future.

However, a shift in identity is brought upon Thomas as he finds his way back to the apartment shared by the grandparents of Oskar. Thomas returns to the household on the day of Oskar’s father’s funeral, surprising the grandmother after a long hiatus of no communication.

However, despite his unexpected return, all traces of his existence have been erased from the apartment, as “[she] washed the words from the mirrors and the floors… painted over the walls… cleaned the shower curtains… it took [her] as long as [she] had known him to get rid of all his words” (233). The looming presence of his written works has disappeared in the apartment shared by the two, as the past of the grandfather becomes erased as he returns to the empty household; this forces the two individuals to start their relationship from the ground up.

However, Thomas mentions that he “found [his] daybooks from before [he] left, they were in the body of the grandfather clock” (274), signifying that the grandmother did not want to discard every memory of their relationship together. Although the dynamic between the two is shattered from the pause in their marriage, the nostalgia from the old books allows for both characters to reclaim their lost moments.

Both characters appear to be trapped within their pasts, as the grandfather is still unable to forget Anna and the grandmother is unable to throw away Thomas’ writings. In an attempt to move past their rough patch, they find a compromise between the future and the past by going to the airport, a place where there is “not coming or going. Not something or nothing. Not yes or no” (312). The settlement made by Oskar’s grandmother and grandfather is what truly fuels their relationship. As they are unable to continually dwell on the past, as well as move past their disagreements, they arrange to live in a place where everything is constantly changing. They become changed people through the process, forming new identities for themselves where they stand on a middle-ground rather than choosing a firm side. Through the daybooks, Thomas and Oskar’s grandmother are able to reform their relationship so that they survive in a state of perpetual change; their identities become molded through the concept of everlasting shifts.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close offers a unique perspective on the portrayal of the tragedies of 9/11, choosing to focus on the pasts of the characters in the novel through the art of collecting. Through the assortments created by Oskar, Mr. Black, and Thomas, a pattern begins to emerge among the figures, as their harmful past remembrances gradually become coping mechanisms for their current obstacles. Mr. Black uses his biographical index to ruefully recall his lonely past as a war correspondent, then remembers the last years of his life spent lovingly with his wife. Thomas finds memories of his tragic past buried in his apartment through his daybooks, yet he finds consolation in the end as he finally embarks to a place of change with Oskar’s grandmother. Similarly, as Oskar struggles with the death of his father, he looks upon the Reconnaissance Expedition and Stuff That Happened to Me to remember the very last details of the man that raised him. His past allows him to finally reach out to others and go on an expansive journey across New York City, forcing him to meet new people and finally seek an answer that embodies himself as a realist. All of the characters of Foer’s novel are able to reach a point of agreement with their pasts, proving capable of turning their prior memories into ones that embody their futures; the identities of the collectors finally begin to unravel as they embrace the times to come rather than the times that were.

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A Reflection of the Past in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a Novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. (2022, Apr 08). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/a-reflection-of-the-past-in-extremely-loud-and-incredibly-close-a-novel-by-jonathan-safran-foer-essay

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