Monday, February 29, 2016

Heavy Boots and Heavy Hearts: How History Repeats Itself and How Time Does Not Always Heal

In Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, he shows that trauma, and it’s various forms, affect people through both time and situations. To start with, the main character, Oskar, is going through the most recent trauma that people will remember: 9/11. Oskar, an 8 year old boy, loses his father during the attacks that took place in New York. The feelings directed towards him are heart-felt and tear jerking throughout the novel. He struggles with understanding what happened and why it happened to his father. The novel shifts a lot between Oskar, the letters his grandfather wrote to his father, and his grandmother. The plays with time are interesting, since we get a look at the trauma Oskar is going through, the trauma his grandfather experienced in Dresden during WWII, and the his grandmother’s in WWII and the present. The different time periods call on the fact that despite when in time someone lives in, there will always be trauma in someone’s life.

One of the first things I noticed, and found interesting, were the nods that were given to Slaughterhouse-Five. One of the big things that stood out was the repetition that of words that Oskar uses. Whenever he is baffled by something he says “What the.” If he is self-conscious or hurt, he says “Anyways.” The anyways being used felt the same as when Billy Pilgrim would say “So it goes.” These phrases, used continuously through both novels is a means in which the characters try to escape the trauma they experienced. By having a word or phrase that is dismissive of the situation at hand takes away from the trauma they’re experiencing. It helps the reader sympathize with the fact that these are leaving scars, or in Oskar’s case bruises, on our characters and they have to find a way to push through them.

Going back to the idea that trauma goes through most of time and is experienced by everyone, one of the characters that shows one aspect is Oskar’s Grandpa. His grandfather loses his ability to speak, so much so that he has to have “yes” and “no” tattooed on his hand. He’s forced to carry empty books with him in order to communicate. And who can blame him? He loses not only the love of his life in the Dresden bombings, but also his unborn child and family. He’s forced to murder innocent animals at the zoo to keep them from attacking people. He sees the horror of the fire that was unleashed on them and is forced to live on as a witness. In this regards, it makes sense that he can no longer speak; if he were, he’d have to share these things and that pain is too much to bear. When he finally gets together and marries Oskar’s grandmother, she too, is scarred. Instead of losing her voice though, she ends up needing rules with him in order to live a “normal” life. The house has “nothing” and “something” zones, areas in which they can escape when they need to. Oskar’s grandpa accepts these things, and lives with them until it’s too much to bare. He leaves her and doesn’t come back until he loses the son he never met. He tries to get close to Oskar but eventually leaves that idea as well. The trauma he experienced has left him broken, he can no longer get close in fear of losing the others again.

Within the family is also the devastation that Oskar’s grandma has experienced. Her final revelation is that Oskar needs to say that he loves someone, no matter how trivial it may be. However, throughout the novel, she warns in her letters that he must not love anything as much as she loves him. This warning rings true not just because of the loss of her son during the terrorist attacks, but because of WWII and the loss of her family, and the loss of her husband. For her, her trauma is the constant loss of things she loves through time. She loses her family to the fire bombings in Dresden and regrets not being able to tell her family how much she loves them. She can’t remember the last thing her father said to her. She meant to tell her sister how much she loved her the night before she died and didn’t. She constantly talks about her relationship with his grandfather, and how they could never find a way to say they love each other. Her trauma isn’t so much of what she’s seen but what she’s experienced. She loses everyone she loves, which instills fear in her of losing Oskar. In one scene in the novel, Oskar hides from her in the park and sets her in a panic. He follows her from a distance watching her, enjoying the love she emits for him by searching frantically for him. When she finally gives up and heads home, he races ahead and tries to joke with her at her apartment, but fails. She is forced back into the traumas of her past, forced to live with the idea that she lost yet another person she truly loves.

Oskar himself and his journey to meet others is filled with different traumas throughout other characters lives, as well as his own. Despite the fact that he lost his father, he goes on a quest to try and find out why his Dad had a key to a lockbox. Each person he meets, however, seems to be dealing with their own problems. Abigail Black, for example, is going through a messy part of her marriage, which eventually leads to divorce. Mr. Black that lived above Oskar has given up on the world. He chose travelling and war over his wife. When he returned, he only had a few months with her before he passed away. Despite this, and others that Oskar encounters, he is able to help them overcome their trauma or at least bring some joy into their life. The irony is not loss on this situation though. As Oskar helps these people, he is still weighed down, or as he says “has heavy boots” by their sadness. He deals with his sadness by trying to cheering them up and making them happy. By doing so, he takes on their burdens, whether or not these characters realize it.

Throughout the novel, it shows the reader that trauma not only exists through various times in people’s lives, but also different ways it affects them. Foer does a great job at executing this example by having the letters Oskar’s grandparents write for him available to the reader. Each one shows the extent of damage they have and the future it may present for Oskar. Despite his coping, or somewhat lack of, the reader is left to question how Oskar will fair down the road? Will he be like his grandfather and lose his voice? Will he be wary of love like his grandmother? The novel shows the breakdowns people have and various ways of coping over time, and has the reader think about the future. And isn’t that something everyone should prepare for?

Feeding Time

After reading through a summary of M.T. Anderson’s novel, Feed, and Carter Hanson’s analysis of it, “Postmodernity, and Digital Memory versus Human Remembering in M.T. Anderson’s Feed,” I starting thinking about what it means to be human in the first place.

As humans, and only humans, not bionic or even semi-biotic creatures, we have no choice but to be responsible for our own memories and hope for an always-brighter future. The characters in Anderson’s novels, or at least the elite who have the opportunity and means to, have nanotechnology implanted in their brains, often at birth, which keeps them constantly connected to cyberspace. To me, this means they simply aren’t entirely humans anymore, especially in regards to the effects it has on their brains and ultimately culture itself.

Since these characters are constantly viewing a range of information (and advertisements), and their whims can be satisfied by this technology in “no time” at all, temporality does not affect them the same way as it does “full” humans. While some postmodern scholars argue that present time in the postmodern era seems sped up, it still cannot be fully instantaneously gratifying like the world of Anderson’s novel. As humans, the only way we can think of our experiences is through time. Temporality will always be a human concern (at least for those of us without nanotechnology in our brains to relieve that burden from us).

As Hanson mentions, there is a disconnect between mechanical and biological. Humans create technology—technology can only exist because someone has thought of it, used their brains! Humans use technology for their own benefits, but when technology can control human thoughts, several aspects of life will be affected, just as we see in this novel. Technology is not concerned with time, and if it were to control our very thoughts, our creative abilities as humans, then it seems to take over any need to think of time, or perhaps to even think at all. Yet, what makes us human is our ability to think for ourselves in each “present” moment.

Since we will always be concerned with time and its effects, we will always give concern to our past, present, and future. In Hanson’s article, he focuses specifically on the past and the formations of memories. The technology in the brains of Anderson’s characters can store memories to be “relived” later—feelings, senses, and all. They don’t need to use their brains in order to create their own memories since the technology can do it for them in a much more accurate way. However, in doing so, they essentially give up using that kind of thinking—one that defines us as a species.

Postmodern scholars have been very interested in the way in which we create and form memories, often suggesting that postmodern times have caused us to live in an “extended present,” making it hard for us to come to terms with our past both as individuals and a collective society. While forming memories in the postmodern era is much different than it has been in the past, we are still making an effort to do so.

Yes, we may have memories that have been digitized through photos, videos, blogs, posts on social media, and more, but these are all still part of our memories. Hanson quotes Michal Rothberg on the matter: “memory is a form of work, working through, labor, or action.” Each time we think of our past, even if it is by revisiting these archived moments, we are provided with a fresh take on each of these memories every time we interact with their recorded formats. We see them with a different perspective each time, remembering other details or feeling different thoughts about the past. Even with the addition of these formats in our culture that help us to remember, we still must do the remembering on our own. Although with some aid, we are still doing that labor, that work that we are required to do as humans concerned with time.

Even with the help of digital formats to help prompt remembering and forming memories, there are always moments, times, that we cannot or will not be able to archive. While it may feel like some of us are constantly connected to cyberspace and constantly archiving our experiences, it just isn’t plausible to record it all. Unlike those in Feed, we have no way to remember most of our dreams or even all that we do, and I’m not sure that we would want to.

While like in the novel, our interaction with cyberspace can predict the kinds of things we might like to buy online or sites we might like to visit, it is only an extension outside of us, not one that understands our every waking move like in the novel. We can’t record every conversation or the feelings we had in each moment of our past or every mundane task we’ve ever performed. The reason we create memories (and capture those memories through recording them in order to revisit and form memories of them later) is because they stick out to us—they are important in some way. Having all of our memories readily available to us would eliminate that need to work and labor through our thoughts, which is what makes us human.

As Hanson mentions, another aspect of our lives that makes us “human” is that even in this digital age when we can find most anything we want to know fairly quickly, we’re still actively seeking information. Seeking this information, rather than having it readily available to us, like the memories and information that is readily available to Anderson’s characters, means we are still using our brains. While it may take us way less time to find the information we’re looking for than it used to, we are still using our brains for that process of finding information and making connections. These critical thinking skills are the defining feature of human life.

Instead of technology replacing our need to think and remember, I’d be interested to see how technology could enhance our cognitive processes. Since it’s been said that humans only use a portion of our brains, what might it look like if we created technology that allowed us to use the rest of our brains but didn’t do any of the work for us? Just food for thought (to feed your brain!).  

Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Spaces Between Acceptance and Desolation: The Necessity of Love

While Reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I began to have flashbacks of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, particularly the scenes describing Sandra and Yolanda’s emotional breakdowns.

After suffering from “a small breakdown,” Sandra begins to believe she is devolving into a monkey:

Only her brain was left, and she could feel it going…if she read all the great books, maybe she’d know something important from having been human…she said she didn’t want to eat animals. In her own time…she would be that chicken…Evolution had reached its peak and was going backwards (54-55).

Sandra thinks if she could only understand what trailblazers of human expression have thought and felt (Freud, Nietzsche, Darwin, Cervantes, Homer, etc.) she would at last be able to understand herself and make her own path—surely something that many of us can relate to.

Yolanda suffers a similar breakdown following a divorce. Mami says, “She ranted. She quoted famous lines of poetry and the opening sentences of the classics…She quoted Frost; she misquoted Stevens; she paraphrased Rilke’s description of love” (79).  Love is a word, along with alive, to which Yolanda has “developed a random allergy…“[two] words she can use only at a cost” (82). 

Yolanda envisions her words metamorphosing into a huge, black bird… Beak first, a dark and secret complex, a personality disorder let loose upon the world…down it dives towards the one man [Dr. Payne, whom she’s in love with] she wants immune to her words” (84). 

Both Yolanda and Sandra dread what becomes most apparent between Grandma and Thomas Sr. in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close—the nearly complete breakdown of communication and the difficulty of transcending unspeakable loss.

In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Thomas Sr. explains in a detailed letter to the unborn Thomas Jr. how “the silence overtook me like a cancer,” meaning his inability to speak because of the trauma from losing Anna: “her name was locked inside me…how frustrating…how sad…she was the only thing I wanted to talk about…when I didn’t have a pen, I’d write ‘Anna’ in the air” (16).

The death of his first love (along with everything else that was destroyed during the bombing of Dresden) haunts Thomas Sr. throughout his life, and the pain is exacerbated by the living presence of Anna’s sister, Oscar’s Grandma, whom he marries and whose name is never revealed.  Grandma (it feels so weird referring to her as “Grandma!”) too was from Dresden, but she continuously decides to transcend the trauma of her life by actively loving and caring, particularly for Oskar. 

Negotiating “nothing” and “something” spaces in their apartment, among many other rules, tenuously holds the marriage together, but Thomas Sr.’s lack of a will to live and love, fueled by his inability to speak, perpetuate his lonely existence.  In a letter to his unborn son, Thomas Jr., he writes, “I wanted to tell her everything, maybe if I’d been able to we could have lived differently, maybe I’d be with you now instead of here…I’m so afraid of losing something I love that I refuse to love anything” (216).

Oskar’s Grandma frequently tells him not to care for anyone as much as she cares for him, and yet her letter to him, spanning the book and split between four different chapters, explains that saying “I love you to someone you love…[Is] always necessary,” referring to how she and her sister, Anna, were so close that articulating love seemed unnecessary (314).

Grandma is the shining beacon of hope in the novel. After surviving the horrors of Dresden, she took a chance on a spiritually broken, Thomas Sr., practically begging him to marry her; surreptitiously got pregnant, spooking Thomas Sr., who was not ready for a new life—his as well as a baby—and causing him to leave for 40 years; raised her son, Thomas Jr., alone, who became a wonderful father, only to perish during the attacks on the World Trade Center. And after all this suffering, she remains strong for Oskar and accepts Thomas Sr. back into her life, going so far as to suggest moving to the airport with him—a space between yes and no, going and staying, something and nothing.

Like Billy in Slaughterhouse Five, who envisions WWII bombing in a film occurring in reverse, Grandma dreams “all of the collapsed ceilings re-formed around us. The fire went back into the bombs, which rose up into bellies of planes whose propellers turned backward, like the second hands of the clocks across Dresden…spring came after summer, came after fall, came after winter, came after spring (306-307); and Oskar, who reverses the order of the “pictures of the falling body” kept in his Stuff That Happened to Me to make it look like “the man was floating up through the sky,” ascending safely back through the window from which he leapt. He mentally sets the routine of his father on the day of 9/11 in reverse, ending with the thought of “we would have been safe” (325-26).

The meaning of loss eludes us because we cannot grasp the meaning, if any, of death, of life, of whatever exists beyond what exceeds our cognitive capacity i.e., beyond the realm of the senses. Yolanda and Sandra’s crises of identity affected not only their ability to communicate, but to love as well, although their trauma seems miniscule compared to that of the characters in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The loss of loved ones is hard enough to endure, let alone entire cities and nations ravaged by the ignorance that breeds war in its myriad forms. At times, love paradoxically causes more pain than can seemingly be bared, yet without its acknowledgment and communication life loses necessity, loses meaning. Those of us who feel intensely and beg for clarity in the face of infinity remain frozen in neuroses that bend and eventually break us, or make us artistic, like Oskar!

Mislead By a Metaphor

Carter F. Hanson states Nicholas Carr’s idea of “the digital age’s mistaken metaphor of portraying the human brain as a computer and human memory as data” (266), citing:

Biological memory is alive. Computer memory is not. Those who celebrate the “outsourcing” of memory to the Web have been misled by a metaphor. They overlook the fundamentally organic nature of biological memory… The Web provides a convenient and compelling supplement to personal memory, but when we start using the Web as a substitute for personal memory… we risk emptying our minds of their riches… The Web is a technology of forgetfulness. (191-93)

After reading Carr’s commentary, I immediately thought about the increased use of social media platforms—not necessarily the use of the programs, but exactly how we are using them.

A lot of the chatter we hear from those against social media and the immersion of our culture into a “digital age” focuses around the programs themselves. Comments about the time spent on the applications, as well as the idea that most users are oversharing or projecting digital versions ofthemselves, are among the top complaints. What I find interesting about this is, with the exception of selfies and “food porn,” not many are discussing how the digital age is literally replacing memory with social media applications.

Carr’s quote seems to be discussing the transfer of information from physical to technical—how we used to physically search for information (giant encyclopedias, anyone?) and acquire knowledge, as opposed to storing a plethora of information on a server now accessible from our fingertips. Although I think this is an important discussion in and of itself, I am more interested in how we store memories digitally.

For example, the development of photography has evolved similarly to the way we now acquire most of our information. I remember being a young child and visiting my great-grandparents’ homes—smiling for Polaroid cameras while I blew out the candles on my birthday cakes, racing my scooter around the giant tripod camera stand that videotaped the events going on outside—and being fascinated as my grandparents would shake the little piece of paper until an image occurred, or watching as they removed the little tiny cassette tape from the camcorder and placed it into a bigger videocassette that would then be inserted into a VHS player so we could watch the footage again and again through the television. There was a distinction between the memories of being with my grandparents (blowing out the candles and riding around on the scooter) and the memories of collecting the memories themselves (taking pictures or videotaping each individual event).

This distinction can be traced throughout our use of “analog” systems of memory recording. Whether through photographs, videotapes, audio recordings—all of these things required a physical action and a specific tool necessary to complete the job. Does anyone remember recording songs off the radio onto cassette tapes? I used to spend hours in front of the boombox waiting for the perfect songs, all so I could quickly press down the “record” button and watch as the tape would spin in the cassette deck beneath the button. These tapes would accompany me on the bus, on trips with my parents, while I got ready for school or bed—and I have the memories of both creating them and using them throughout my childhood and well into my adolescent years.

This distinction seems to be what is missing with our switch to a digital age. We don’t necessarily have a way of remembering what we’re remembering. With applications like Facebook, we are free to share our photographs and videos, but we do not obtain physical copies of those items. When we take a picture of something on our phone, we don’t have to pay to print out the evidence of that memory. When we post a video to Facebook, we don’t have the obligation of setting up a camcorder with a tripod, and we certainly don’t have to worry about finding the videocassette adapter that can play the tiny little tapes produced by the camcorder.

When Carr claims that computer memory isn’t alive, is there even a way to disagree with him? I could argue that computer memory is alive because humans create and maintain it, and without our need to digitize our memories through Facebook and other social media applications, there would be no need for such programs.

But I’m not satisfied with (nor confident in) that counterargument.

When I log into Facebook and have the option of viewing my “memories,” I do it every time. I read through a list of angsty teenage statuses and pictures with friends and families from past events and try to remember the memories from those moments. Despite having an entire database of the past seven years of my life, I often struggle trying to recreate what exactly happened the day those pictures or statuses were posted. I can’t remember what I felt like the day my grandpa died, but I can tell you exactly what I wrote about him the day after his funeral four years ago. I have lost the feeling of mourning and have replaced it with what I selectively posted for my Facebook friends nearly a week after his death.

In my nonfiction, I’ve spent a lot of time learning about reconstructive memory. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, AlleyDog provides a basic definition: “the process of assembling information from stored knowledge when a clear or coherent memory of specific events does not exist.” Although reconstructive memory can occur when a person has been distanced from an event through time, I would argue that the effect is even more warped through our use of digital memory. Applications like Timehop or Facebook Memories trick us into believing that our memories are authentic, and perhaps even objective. By seeing the photographic or videographic evidence, we believe that whatever we are viewing is the truth. We can’t argue with that kind of evidence, right?

But what happens to our memories when we subconsciously stop using the part of the brain that stores them? What happens to our brains when we trick them into recreating variations of memories that might not actually exist?

When Carr claims that we’ve been “misled by a metaphor,” I cannot help but agree. When the Internet evolves its formatting, or we suffer from a global Facebook crash, will we be capable of recovering those memories? Do we have access to the mental artifacts buried in the corners of our minds?

Epistolarity as a Non-Linear Narrative Technique in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

            Although Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is not an epistolary novel, the “use of the letter’s formal properties to create meaning,” called epistolarity by Janet Gurkin Altman in her book Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form, (4) provides the structure within the novel for Grandpa/Thomas Schell Sr. and Grandma to conduct self-reflective analysis in a nonlinear timeline within the context of the plot. In Epistolary Responses: The Letter in 20th-Century American Fiction and Criticism, Anne Bower states that a character writes letters “to perceive and document her responses” (12) and that “the pen can arm any writing self or character with special offensive and defensive possibilities for moving unsatisfactory relationships into more satisfying states” (5). This documentation and revision make the letter writer “an active respondent to and shaper of his or her past, present, and future” (Bower 9). Bower’s “view of the letter in fiction as a device that opens up response space for the protagonist’s rewriting of self is affected by four theoretical interests, each which is central to contemporary discourse analysis: absence/presence, gendered writing, intertextuality, and the semiotics of reading/writing” (16).    

            To define the absence/presence characteristic, Bower describes “an agonizing pull between here and there, intimacy and separation, bonds and barriers, time present and future (or past and present), the tangible and the intangible” (16).  Letter writers are acutely aware of the gaps between the writer and the addressee; the writer usually struggles to overcome the gaps but may use them to protect himself or herself (Bower 6) or to document his or her existence (Boer 66). Bower also mentions how the nonverbal aspects, such as time lags, frequency of letters, length of letters, and verbosity, emphasize absence and presence (17). 
            The core of Foer’s novel focuses on absences and the characters’ needs to understand these absences; within this core are the letters written by Oskar’s grandparents. The external reader is privy to three of Grandpa’s letters—May 21, 1963 (which is divided into two parts), April 12, 1978, and September 11, 2003—all of which are titled “Why I’m Not Where You Are” and Grandma’s one letter—September 12, 2003 (which is divided into four parts)—titled “My Feelings.” In the 1963 and 1978 letters, Grandpa attempts to explain to his son, once before Thomas is born (Foer 16-34, 108-141) and once when Thomas is almost fifteen years old (Foer 208-216), why he is absent from Thomas’s life. The final letter is written two years after Thomas’s death (Foer 262-284) and is an attempt to explain why he returned. Grandma’s single letter (Foer 75-85, 174-186, 224-233, 306-314) is written in the airport terminal to Oskar to explain why she has left.     
            Thomas Schell, the grandfather/renter, suffers from the absence/presence pull between here, his life in America after World War II, and there, his life in Dresden before the bombing. To explain his decision to leave his child, Thomas writes a letter to his unborn child with the intention of mailing it just before boarding the airplane (Foer 135); however, Thomas intends this analysis to benefit his child and not himself. This attempt at comfort is quickly dispelled when he notes that this letter to his child is part of his daily communication journal, a book that is not special, “only necessary” (Foer 28), which adds emotional distance to the physical distance between father and son. Thomas’s closing further separates him from his unborn child: “I’ll never be your father, and you will always be my child” (Foer 135); in a rare moment of insight, Thomas’s analysis allows him to recognize that he is not responding like a father but that the child will always feel bonded to him.
            To better understand Grandpa, the external reader needs to pair Thomas’s letters to his child with Grandma’s letter to Oskar because Grandma analyzes Thomas’s actions. For example, Grandma explains to Oskar that she knew when she reunited with Thomas seven years after the war that “[h]e was trying to remake the girl he knew seven years before. He looked at me as he sculpted, but he saw her” (Foer 83). Grandma recognizes that Thomas is pulled between the past and present, the here and there. She is also aware that by attempting a relationship together, Grandma and Thomas were “looking for an acceptable compromise” (Foer 84). For years Grandma “needed a child,” and awoke one morning to the understanding of “the hole in the middle of me. I realized that I could compromise my life, but not the life after me. I couldn’t explain it. The need came before explanations. It was not out of weakness that I made it happen, but it was not out of strength either. It was out of need” (Foer 177). Once Grandma’s pregnancy is revealed to Thomas after “it was too late to do anything about it” (Foer 177), Thomas leaves for the airport where he writes his May 1963 letter to his unborn child. The imminent birth of child that would blur the carefully drawn lines between absence and presence, nothing and something, is too much present for Thomas to handle. Rather than understand why he feels a need to flee, to return to his interrupted but non-existent life in Germany, and then to create a new life with a new family, Thomas simply flees and leaves Grandma to create a something of a life out of nothing.

Gendered Writing
            According to Bower, gendered writing includes looking at the gender of the author, the characters, and the external reader and, for epistolarity, examining how personality and personal issues are expressed within the letter format. A novel’s author may utilize purported typical characteristics of female and male writing.  Female writing is characterized by a woman’s attempt to “redefine herself and define others” as well as to “increase [her] power or sense of self through the opportunity to write [her] own truths” (Bower 12).  Whereas female writing can be recognized by its “physicality and emotionalism” (Bower 52), male writing is characterized by a “maintenance of power rather than its acquisition” (Bowe 13).  Men usually reject “the writing of women and [. . .] the writing qualities associated with women, such as discursiveness, multiplicity, and emphasis on personal relationships and community” (Bower 81). 
            Thomas’s letters are examples of typical male writing by their lack of self-reflection. While the title of the each letter suggests an explanation of his affects—“Why I’m Not Where You Are”—Thomas never understands what has caused him to react this way. He lists the events resulted in his absence, but he does not explore the emotions and motivations that caused and resulted in those events because the exploration of the affect system is a typical female style of writing. Thomas maintains his power from a distance by mailing an empty envelope to his son, with the exception of the delivered April 12, 1978, letter. He controls the relationship, or lack of relationship, by writing letters but only sending the empty envelopes (Foer 233), almost a taunt to his son. The one letter that is sent describes the bombing of Dresden and the death of Thomas’s immediate and future families. This letter does contain a rare admission from Thomas, one that has probably taken the ensuing fifteen years to realize: “[I]f I’d said, ‘I’m so afraid of losing something I love that I refuse to love anything,’ maybe that would have made the impossible possible. Maybe, but I couldn’t do it. [. . .] And here I am, instead of there” (Foer 216). For a moment, it appears that Thomas may be reaching out to reunite with his son, but then he retracts that attempt and controls the situation by stating, “here I am, instead of there.” The analysis is unsuccessful again because Thomas does not proceed through the entire process, which results in the restriction of his wants and his ability to achieve his wants.
            Interestingly, Thomas’s son writes on one of his father’s letters in a display of typical male writing. Granpda, in his September 2003 letter, recounts a conversation between himself and Grandma; Grandma states that she never read the April 1978 letter, the only one that was physically mailed, but that her son “was obsessed with it, always reading it” (Foer 277). The external reader has already read this letter on pages 208-216 and has seen the son’s writing. In an attempt to maintain power over a father that he has never met and has had no interaction with, the almost fifteen-year-old son edits his father’s letter. Thomas-the-son circles all the grammar, mechanics, and spelling errors in Thomas-the-father’s letter. In the father’s final letter, the external reader learns along with Grandma that the son eventually located his father in Dresden and visited him there but  is unable to process his emotions, lies about why he is there, and does not reveal himself as the son.
            Grandma’s letter, as well as her autobiography, is an example of typical female writing by its attempt to define/redefine herself and Thomas and the increase in her sense of self. As pointed out in the absence/presence discussion, Grandma analyzes Thomas and explains the reasons behind his actions over the past forty years to Oskar; Thomas’s letters list events, while Grandma provides the insight. Through her self-refelction that has spanned approximately eighty years and that she examines in one letter typed on a single day, Grandma grapples with the issues of love, intimacy, and need, which are typical female issues. Grandma’s realizations include facts that came to define her as a person: she needed a child (Foer 177); she used to feel shame in her relationship with Thomas because she did not want him, but she later felt shy in making a request because she did want him (Foer 179); she wanted him to miss her (Foer 307); she tried to notice everything about Thomas the second time he left because she had “forgotten everything important in my life” (Foer 308); and she loves “not being alone” (Foer 309).
            Most importantly, Grandma’s final realization of herself as a person, and the advice that she deems most important to pass along to Oskar, is stated in the closing to her letter. After debating whether she ever loved Thomas or just loved being needed and not being alone and after recounting how she did not say, “I love you” to her sister the night before the bombing of Dresden because, at that moment, it was “unnecessary,” Grandma states, “Here is the point of everything I have been trying to tell you, Oskar. It’s always necessary. I love you, Grandma” (Foer 314). Grandma redefines herself, after eighty years, as someone who knows that love is necessary and that it is necessary to share that information.
            In intertextuality Bower examines “the ways written texts of any kind resonate against each other” to encourage “a heightened awareness” in the external reader (120). Within intertextuality, Bower examines relettering, her term for the repeated or extensive imitation and/or incorporation of an earlier text that “force[s] both the heroine and the novel’s reader into constant comparisons of texts and contexts” (19). The letter-writing protagonist in a relettered novel is able to use the preceding text to illuminate his or her own condition; working with a previously existing text—quoting it, analyzing its content and form, and discussing its relevance to other texts or to her own life—the epistolary protagonist comes to new understanding of the past (her own and that of the persons in the intertext) (Bower 113-114). In that regards, I have previously discussed the intertextuality between the two letter sets—how Grandma’s letter explains events or the effects of those events described in Thomas’s letters. I have also discussed the intertextuality within the Thomas’s third letter when the son edits the letter in red ink but also rereads the letter obsessively, which spurs him to search out his father in Germany years later. The example that has not been discussed yet is the intertextuality between Thomas’s letters and his journals. All three of Thomas’s read letters are pages from his journals or daybooks that are used for daily communication. Thomas admits early in his first letter that “at the end of each day, I would take the book to bed with me and read through the pages of my life” (Foer 18), but that these same books were never special, “only necessary” (Foer 28) and were left lying around the apartment to be used as doorstops, trivets, insect swatters, or sources of paper to line the bird cages (Foer 28). But as a means of communication, the daybooks were limiting because if Thomas ran out of space, he would have to point to a page with a phrase already written on it, even if the phrase did not specifically address the question or need. For example, when asked, “‘How are you feeling?’ it might be that my best response was to point at, ‘The regular, please’” (Foer 28). Not only does Thomas describe these pages, but these pages are included in the text awkwardly in the middle of the letter so that his daily life continues on interrupting his letter, which shows that Thomas’s full attention is not on the letter and his child. The interrupting quality of the intertextuality mirrors the events that interrupt Thomas’s self-reflection that, in turn, contributes to the unsuccessful attempt at analysis.

            Semiotics, according to Bower, encourages the external reader “to think about whether we read for mastery and knowledge or for intimacy and the sharing of experience” (143-144). Regardless of the plot, examining the semiotics of  “its letter quality makes [the novel] about giving and withholding information, about language’s ability to transmit thoughts and feelings or to mask them, and about how we construct or misconstruct meaning from language and how we are constructed or misconstructed by language” (Bower 135). As has been noted previously, Thomas writes prolifically and even seems compelled to write. When he fills up a journal, as he does in his final letter, he writes over and over the final few pages obscuring the words and even the page itself (Foer 281-284). This act shows that the writing, while he claims it to be an act of explanation or analysis, is more important as a physical act of expression and claiming presence than it is as a tool of self-relfection. Other times, Thomas reports writing while in the shower, writing on napkins, and writing on Grandma’s arm. Grandma reports that after Thomas leaves in 1963, she “erased all of his writing. I washed the words from the mirrors and the floors. I painted over the walls. I cleaned the shower curtains. I even refinished the floors. It took me as long as I had known him to get rid of all of his words” (Foer 233). By erasing Thomas’s words, Grandma hopes to define herself or find the Something in the apartment, which she fails to accomplish through this act of erasure.
            Thomas literally uses his words to create his son when he decides to bury his forty years of letters in the son’s empty coffin. Since the son died in the World Trade Center collapse on 9/11, no physical remains were available for burial, but Oskar’s mom/Thomas Jr.’s wife insisted on a normal funeral. By the end of the novel, after exhausting his quest for the lock to fit a key, Oskar decides that to create a presence of his father that the empty coffin needs to filled “with things from Dad’s life, like his red pens or his jeweler’s magnifying glass, [. . .], or even his tuxedo” (Foer 321). Grandpa/Thomas joins him with two suitcases filled with papers. Thomas explains to Oskar that on the papers are all the “[t]hings that I wasn’t able to tell [my son]” because “I lost him before he died”; he continues to explain that he was “[a]fraid of losing” his son and “afraid of him living” because “[l]ife is scarier than death” (Foer 322). Although Thomas’s words do not describe his son and were never handled by his son, these words that represent the life of a father without his son become the body of the son in death; since Thomas cannot grieve for a son he never knew, he must bury the only part of that son that belonged to him, his unsent letters. The external reader is left to ponder this significance.
            Grandma’s pretend autobiography is another example of language’s ability to transmit or to mask thoughts and feelings. Thomas suggests to Grandma that she write her life story so that “she could express herself rather than suffer herself” (Foer 119). Once Grandma begins typing, it occupies all of her waking time so that they would rarely see one another. Thomas states that “I was so happy for her, I remembered the feeling she was feeling, the exhilaration of building the world anew” (Foer 119-120). “After years of working in solitude,” Grandma presents Thomas with her autobiography, updated to that very minute, but all Thomas receives is two stacks of blank papers. It is this moment, this lack of language production by Grandma, that convinces Thomas that Grandma has not been lying about her eyesight all these years and it is his fault that she has typed blank pages because years ago he pulled the ribbon from the typewriter (Foer 120-124). Thomas pretends to read, makes suggestions for changes, and laughs at funny stories that do not exist. Not wanting to discourage her from an activity that she obviously enjoys, Thomas suggests Grandma now write her feelings; Grandma replies, “Aren’t my life and my feelings the same thing?” (Foer 130). However, in part three of Grandma’s letter, the external reader learns that Grandma’s eyesight is fine; she went into the guest room every day “and pretended to write. I hit the space bar again and again and again. My life story was spaces” (Foer 176). Grandma tried to make Thomas hear her frustration with the living arrangements through her lack of language; her life and her feelings in 1963 were blank spaces. Thomas does not see the lack of language as an attempt at communication. After Grandma stops writing and reengages with life in the apartment, then Thomas creates the Something and Nothing places. Once again, the lack of efficient self-reflection led to a lack of freedom and unhappiness.
            Anne Bower states that “the writing does not stand for but is the action of making value judgments, exercising power, making commitments, taking a social posture, establishing relationships” (24). The epistolary properties of letters make them useful tools for self-reflection, but Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is an example of how the lack of self-reflection can negatively impact the letter writer’s life, as seen in Thomas’s decisions, but also the lives of those around the letter writer, as seen in the effects on Grandma and the son. The hope provided by the novel is that Grandma’s final realization is not lost on Oskar and that he will learn from her lesson without having to suffer anymore losses in his own life.

(This post is a condensed version of my midterm essay for ENG 5010 that I took in fall 2012.)

Altman, Janet Gurkin. Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1982.

Bower, Anne. Epistolary Responses: The Letter in 20th-Century American Fiction and Criticism.
            Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1997. Print.

Foer, Jonathan Safran. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Boston: A Mariner Book, 2005.

Runyon, Kristin A. H. Bel Kaufman's Up the Down Staircase as Epistolary Case Study. MA

            Thesis U of Illinois at Springfield, 2001. UIS Archives/Special Collections: Masters    
            Projects/Theses English. Print.