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.
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.
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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
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