Sunday, May 15, 2011

Oskar's Mom: Searching and Loss in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"

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I'm not big on announcing "SPOILER ALERT!" but be that as it may, don't read this brief piece on Jonathan Safran Foer's 2005 novel unless you're okay with knowing some things that happen in the end of the book.  Or, in other words: Spoiler Alert.

Oskar Schell never considers himself a detective in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  He's not looking for the solution to a mystery, and instead characterizes his travels around New York City as "my search," telling people he meets that he's merely "looking for a lock."  Of course, what we learn throughout the novel is that the search itself gives Oskar a means of carrying on a day-to-day life in the absence of his father.  It gives him a means of ordering and calming his otherwise inchoate body of symptoms (self-bruises, tics, obsessions about 9/11 and clothing and death, etc).  Oskar fears that the conclusion of his search ostensibly forecloses the possibility of proximity (ie: his extreme closeness) to his father.  Once Oskar finds the lock he worries aloud to his grandfather: "I found it and now I can't look for it [...] Looking for it let me stay close to him for a little while longer" (304).  Finding the lock could never have been as important as engaging in the process of endless searching.

Put another way, Oskar's search is not epistemological (it does not seek an end or solution), but rather ontological (it stands a kind of personal justification for his life).  What the book leaves unanswered--and why I think this 9/11 novel offers a frustrating framework for trying to understand the aftermath of personal and historical loss--is whether there is a way to break out of cycles of traumatic (and often self-inflicted) re-wounding.  One key (HA!) way to approach this problem is to consider the role of Oskar's mother in reorienting Oskar's search around the pursuit of a conclusion. 

Whether it seems plausible that Oskar can emerge from his traumatic pattern at the end of the novel depends on a reading of his mother's actions.  Throughout the book Oskar's Mom emerges as the character that seems to have the best sense of how to reorder her world in an attempt to move on from 9/11.  And yet even she finds comfort in a relationship with Ron built upon the shared personal tragedy of spousal loss.  Oskar's Mom--moreso than his grandparents--most fully acknowledges a need for an intimacy based on grief as a means for rebuilding life after loss.  She allows Oskar's search to proceed only insofar as it will not continue indefinitely.  Oskar observes: "My search was a play that Mom had written, and she knew the ending when I was at the beginning" (292).  In other words, part of her own means of coping with the loss of her husband is her ability to manage the coping mechanisms of her son.  She attempts to help break Oskar out of what may otherwise be an endless and purposeless search.

Oskar's proximity to his father entails participation in a constant ordering and reordering of the world, in which solutions are always delayed in the interest of keeping open all possible narratives.  This is the mode of being that he has inherited from Thomas.  Oskar never means for the objects he gathers to build a "case."  Objective solutions do not exist in the world shared by Oskar and his father.  Oskar presses him on this issue in the bedtime story of the Sixth Burough: "I know there wasn't really a sixth borough.  I mean, objectively," he says to his father (221).  And Thomas dodges the point, asking, "Are you an optimist or a pessimist?" (221)  Optimism implies faith in the continuity of the story--in its constant openness to new possibilities.  Pessimism, by contrast, simply means that there is a definitive solution to be arrived at.  Or, in Thomas's words: "There's nothing that could convince someone who doesn't want to be convinced.  But there is an abundance of clues that would give the wanting believer something to hold on to" (221).  His son takes these words as an instruction to accumulate rather than analyze: to go on an endless search for clues rather than a purposeful investigation for a solution to the problem of the key.

The problem here is that Oskar has inherited an inherently symptomatic mode of being from his dad--one that characterized Thomas's melancholic attachment to his own absent father (and the corresponding need to keep open the possibility of his father's return).  The book does not blame Thomas for saddling his son with a neurotic way of inhabiting the world.  This is just the way things are: we inherit broken coping mechanisms from our families and our shared histories.  Oskar's desire for (incredible) proximity to his father would have the potential for endless repetitions were it not for its purposeful orientation by his mother around the satisfaction of a certain narrative end.

That is: the conclusion of the story--the arrival at a solution--at least provides Oskar with a means to express the inexpressable.  He can admit his secret to the last Mr. Black, who in turn forgives him for his inability to speak previously.  In the final scene, we seem to arrive at something like the possibility for moving forward when Oskar's mother reveals her own secret about Thomas's final cellphone call.  Oskar wonders about his mother's emotions as she recounts the events of 9/11: "Was she relieved?  Was she depressed?  Grateful?  Exhausted?"  But at the same time, he thinks of his own, "Was I angry?  Was I glad?" (323)  In a moment of confusion, a new closeness seems to be growing between Oskar and his mom as they share memories of 9/11 for the first time.  It is only now--after the conclusion of the search, that Oskar can think backwards: from the end of what has turned out to be an investigation to the the beginning of his father's story about the Sixth Borough.  The space of shared intimacy with his Mom--of a growing ability to express grief openly--seems to point to the possibility of moving forward.

1 comment:

  1. gorgeous book and comprehensive analysis! foer's merging of text & graphics is done in such a way that it truly enhances the meaning and emotionality - the context is absolutely key to the inferring any depth to the graphics. but, without doubt, he makes it work; the picture you show here and the last few pages with the flip book were some of the most powerful images that i have ever seen (when viewed in the cotext of the surrounding words). foer's commentary on the importance of language is born out in so many ways, through his own use of it within the book, to the grandfather's inability to speak, which makes it all the more devestatingly poignant...