Stuff That Happened to Me”: Visual Memory in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2005)

Elisabeth Siegel


[Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close] is a triumph of evasion, enhanced with dozens of otiose photographs, rainbow colours and typographical devices, whose net effect is to distract the reader (and Foer) from harsh truths. It promises to take you to Ground Zero, but helplessly detours towards the Land of Oz, spending most of its time journeying through the Neverlands in between. (Faber)

Michel Faber’s trenchant criticism of Jonathan Safran Foer’s second novel Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2005) is exemplary of the novel’s reception among reviewers. It was especially its use of visual devices that critics disapproved of. Apart from numerous photographs and colored doodles (45, 47-49), Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close contains red underlining, which indicates grammar and orthographical mistakes and emphasizes information (10, 208-16). Blank pages occur when characters are lost for words (121-23), and black pages when there is not enough space on the page for everything the characters have to say (283-84). Business (4, 99) and file cards (158-59, 286) are reprinted when characters look at them.1 Describing the novel’s multimediality as “typographical gimmickry” (Beck) or “pointless illustrations” (Siegel), reviewers mostly considered the novel’s colorfulness a distraction. No lesser author than John Updike wrote in his review for The New Yorker that “the book’s hyperactive visual surface covers up a certain hollow monotony in [the novel’s] verbal drama.”

Similarly, the magical in Foer’s novel was read as a means to evade the harsh realities after 9/11. Faber’s disparaging references to fairy tales quoted above are representative of critics’ assessments of the tone Foer struck in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.The outbursts of childish imagination and fabulous narrative fabrications were considered inappropriate for the representation of an event of such geopolitical and emotional gravity as 9/11.2 It was especially the voice of Oskar, the novel’s gifted and hyper-imaginative child-narrator, that irritated reviewers (Beck; Kirn) and allegedly precluded a thorough examination of the effects of trauma and international political crisis (Adams; Beck; Eaglestone 21; Munson). Likewise, Oskar’s flip-book towards the end of the novel was said to jeopardize its chances to be taken seriously (Siegel).

Other critics, however, underline the significance of the novel’s visual devices. Approaching Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close via trauma theory, Sien Uytterschout and Philippe Codde argue that the images are a disruptive means which conveys the inability to articulate the traumatic experience not only of 9/11 but also of the other historical events featured in the novel: the bombing of Dresden and Hiroshima.3 With its multimediality, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, furthermore, self-reflexively foregrounds its visuality as a printed text and highlights the significance of materiality for the meaning-making process. Basing her reading on the passages with red markings, Birgit Däwes argues that the novel’s visual devices “invite the reader’s response into their multiple epistemological layers and thus interfere with any linear or hierarchical construction of meaning” (534).

In an interview, Foer admitted that it was a conscious decision to include visual material in his novel:

I […] think using images makes sense for this particular book […] because September 11 was the most visually documented event in human history. When we think of those events, we remember certain images – planes going into the buildings, people falling, the towers collapsing. That’s how we experience it; that’s how we remember it. And I want to be true to that experience. (“Up Close and Personal”)

Foer relates his use of images to the experience of national trauma and at the same time highlights the influence of images on the construction of a collective memory when he claims that an event is remembered by its images.

This essay is going to pursue the latter argument and will demonstrate that graphic images in Foer’s novel are neither distracting nor random gimmickry but, to the contrary, indispensable for the novel’s verbal narrative. It will read Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close as an example of historiographic metafiction, which examines the construction of the past by historiography. The genre is based on the assumption that the past is always mediated through representations. Therefore, the past as such cannot be known but only different versions of it. As historiographic metafiction also draws attention to the question of whose version of the past is recorded and distributed, it gains a political impetus (Hutcheon 115). What has been neglected in the examination of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close so far are its visual effects and their interplay with Foer’s detours “towards the Land of Oz,” his use of magical realism and the fantastic. This paper will argue that it is precisely the use of images and their conjunction with magical realist and fantastic passages that allow for a reading of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close as a critical contribution to the discourse on 9/11 and the role images play in the construction of a collective memory of this event.

Stuff That Happened to Me”: Collecting Images, Creating Immediacy

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close centers on the attempts of its nine-year-old narrator Oskar to come to terms with his father’s death in the attacks on the World Trade Center. Oskar cannot find peace because he does not know how exactly his father died (257) and feels guilty because he did not pick up the phone when his father called him from the towers on the morning of September 11. When Oskar discovers a key among his father’s belongings one day after the attacks, he assumes that it is a puzzle devised by his father as a last message to him. Hoping that the key will also help him to unlock the answers to his burning questions, he goes on a mission through New York City to find the matching lock. Apart from Oskar the novel features two other homodiegetic narrators: Oskar’s paternal grandparents, who, in the form of letters, relate their experiences as German emigrants. Both lost their families in the attacks on their hometown of Dresden in February 1945 and therefore the major part of their accounts deals with the traumatic loss of their roots.

The following analysis will concentrate on Oskar’s narrative as it includes the majority of graphic images. They originate from his visual diary called “Stuff That Happened to Me,” in which Oskar collects all kinds of images that document his daily experiences and help him to express what he cannot put into words. His scrapbook allows the reader to look into Oskar’s mind (Updike), its structure and strategies of selection adhering to mental imperatives. The first reference to the book (42) is followed a few pages later by a series of graphic images (53-67). This display is framed by an explicit reference to the scrapbook when Oskar says: “I pulled Stuff That Happened to Me from the space between the bed and the wall, and I flipped through it for a while” (52). Then the images follow and create the impression that the reader is looking over Oskar’s shoulder while he is flipping through the book, seeing exactly what he is seeing. The immediacy generated by these images seems to cater to a voyeuristic curiosity and desire for direct witnessing, an aspect not unimportant with regard to the visual representation of 9/11. The images displayed in this passage derive from various media and include photographs, a sheet of colored writing from a stationary shop (63), a sheet with fingerprints (65), a drawing (66), as well as a design for a paper plane (56). As this sequence is located fairly early in the novel, many of the images refer to experiences that Oskar recounts only later and may thus have caused the impression of randomness among some reviewers. They are, however, contextualised as the novel progresses and thus stand in direct relation to Oskar’s verbal narrative. The design for a paper plane (56), for instance, alludes to Oskar and his father’s attempts at building such a plane (70). Other pictures of the series can already be explained at that point: the picture of a tennis player lying on his back (64), for example, is probably taken from the newspaper Oskar’s father read on the evening before he died. The reader may know this as Oskar explicitly refers to this picture at the beginning of the novel (13). The photograph of Stephen Hawking (54) is included because Oskar admires him and mentions A Brief History of Time as his favorite book (11). The separation of verbal and visual representations of the same experience disrupts the narrative unity and requires greater attention from readers in order to re-establish their connections and deduce the meaning of the images. Analogous to Däwes’s observations on the novel’s verbal narrative (538), the foreshadowings and flashbacks created through the images from Oskar’s scrapbook demonstrate operations of memory. They show that the meaning of past experiences is not stable but created anew with each additional piece of information in an interplay of various media requiring “non-linear association, pre- and recognition” (Däwes 537).

The major part of the novel displays single images from “Stuff That Happened to Me” that stand in direct relation to what is related in the adjacent verbal narrative. When Oskar, for instance, explains an experiment with his cat, in which he dropped it “to show how cats reach terminal velocity by making themselves into little parachutes,” a picture of a falling cat on the following page illustrates the passage (190-91). When he visits Coney Island and rides the roller coaster, a picture of it accompanies the text (147-48). After Oskar mentions an accident of the Staten Island Ferry and explains that “in Stuff That Happened to Me I had pictures of people who had lost their arms and legs” (240), a shot of a CNN news report about the disaster is provided (241). These images can be considered illustrations, that means depictions of a general kind that provide a vivid example (Niehaus 159). The photograph of the falling cat, for instance, simply demonstrates how a cat falls. It is not necessarily Oskar’s Buckminster who is seen in the picture but could be any cat.

The novel, however, implies that most of these illustrations are photographs that Oskar has taken himself with his grandfather’s camera, which he always takes with him on his walks through the city (96). Several passages explicitly refer to Oskar’s picture-taking. For example, he asks one of the women he visits during his quest in New York whether he can take her picture:

‘Can I at least take a picture of you?’ She said, ‘That would be nice.’ But when I started focusing Grandpa’s camera, she put her hand in front of her face for some reason. I didn’t want to force her to explain herself, so I thought of a different picture I could take, which would be more truthful, anyway. (99)

Apparently he chooses to photograph the back of her head because this is the picture that appears on the previous page (98). The unusual form of the portrait leads the reader to assume that this must be the “different picture” Oskar was trying to take. Another reference to Oskar’s picture-taking is to be found towards the end when Oskar is said to photograph the night sky (317) and a picture of stars is displayed on the following page.4 The function of these images goes beyond that of mere illustrations. They are not general depictions but are closely tied to the novel’s action by the explicit references to the picture-taking in the verbal narrative. Their appearance is directly motivated by the novel’s action. In analogy to the description of sound by film studies,5 these photographs could therefore be described as ‘diegetic.’

For most of the other single photographs, however, it is not clear whether Oskar took them. When he, for instance, walks over Fifty-Ninth Street Bridge, a photograph of the bridge with a view of the Manhattan skyline is displayed (88-89). The picture could be considered an illustration, but once the reader reaches the portrait of the woman a few pages later mentioned above, he or she can infer that Oskar might have taken this picture while crossing the bridge. The skewed composition, which clearly distinguishes the snapshot from professional picture postcards, supports this view. In the same way, the reader may later assume that the picture of the falling cat was taken by Oskar.

Besides producing immediacy, the images in Foer’s novel also contribute to the realist storytelling. Owing to their production process, analogous photographs are a particular kind of sign, indices, that means they share a relationship of cause and effect with their referents. Light rays travel from the objects or people in front of the camera through the lens into the body of the camera and leave an imprint on the photosensitive film. Photographs therefore seem to testify that what can be seen in the picture was situated in front of the camera at the moment the shutter was released. Roland Barthes concludes from this mechanism that photographs give evidence of an object’s or person’s existence: photographs show that something or somebody “has been” (“ça-a-été”; La chambre claire 120). The photographs embedded in Oskar’s narrative discourse seem to prove that it was really the woman in the picture he met, that he really saw Fifty-Ninth Street Bridge as in the photograph, that the cat in the picture really is Buckminster and so on. Just as the TV images of 9/11 convinced a global audience that what they were watching really happened,6 the photographs in Oskar’s narrative seem to be evidence that what happens in the novel really took place.

Undermining Realism: Photographs and Magical Realism

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, however, is a novel and thus a work of fiction. The photographs do not testify to the fact that what happens in the novel really took place but create what Roland Barthes terms l’effet de réel. The so-called reality effect is produced by minute details, in this case the pictures, which create verisimilitude (“The Reality Effect” 234). Although the objects and people depicted in the photographs might indeed exist, they are not necessarily linked to Oskar’s existence. Oskar and his connection to the photographs are merely established through the verbal narrative. It is the verbal narrative that, through its references to Oskar’s picture-taking, suggests that the photographs presented in the novel are Oskar’s. A look at the novel’s copyright page suffices to find out that the pictures were taken by a number of different photographers, probably in very different contexts and for different purposes. By weaving the photographs into its verbal narrative and suggesting that they are created and collected by Oskar, the novel reinforces its realism. At the same time, it also demonstrates that despite their indexicality, photographs can support a fictional story.

In order to make this point, the novel underlines its own fictionality by contrasting its realist storytelling with fantastic and magical realist passages. ‘Magical realism’ describes those intermittent episodes of realist narration that relate extraordinary or supernatural events and circumstances as if they were probable and plausible by everyday standards (Bowers 2). While the reader believes in the magical in magical realist narration, in the fantastic he or she falters “between natural and supernatural explanations for the fictional events in the text” (Bowers 25). Such a “natural explanation” can be, for instance, an unreliable narrator (Bowers 26). Oskar’s numerous strange inventions are examples of the fantastic, which can be explained by the fact that Oskar is a child, who uses his imagination to brighten up his dreary everyday life. His inventions do not only foreground Oskar’s unreliability as a narrator but also point to the role of the imagination in storytelling and to the constructedness of the novel as a fictional text.

The significance of storytelling and the imagination are furthermore foregrounded by the fact that an entire chapter is dedicated to one of the stories told by Oskar’s father: “The Sixth Borough” (217-23). It explains that Central Park was actually situated on an island (the sixth borough) and, when the sixth borough began to drift away from Manhattan, was pulled over into its current position. What turns this story into a case of magical realism is that Oskar’s father tries to pass off fiction as fact by substantiating his story with scientific explanations such as “[…] the peculiar fossil record of Central Park […] [and] the incongruous pH of the reservoir” (221-22).

Vivid imagination seems to run in the family as the stories of Oskar’s grandfather also contain elements that flout the principles of realist storytelling. He claims for instance that his girlfriend’s father built a shed from books: “the next day he made new walls of shelves, so that the books themselves would separate inside from outside. (The new, overhanging roof protected the books from rain, but during the winter the pages would freeze together, come spring, they let out a sigh)” (126). This magical realist passage presents the garden-shed made out of books as something completely natural. Even the strange animation of the books, their sighing in spring, does not lead the narrator to question his account. Within Grandfather’s narrative this episode appears to be plausible and the illusion is maintained in a later episode when he takes a book from the shelf and peers through the hole into the shed (209). Nevertheless, it clashes with the reader’s world of experience and with what is deemed to be possible or plausible in this world.

A character outside of Oskar’s family, his 101-year-old neighbor, also bears traces of magical realism. He tells Oskar that he built a bed from a tree. Every morning since his wife’s death, he has driven a nail into the bed so that it is now perforated by more than 8,000 nails and works like a magnet pulling metal objects towards it (161-62).7

The clash of narrative modes culminates at the end of the novel in a flip-book assembled from images of a man falling or jumping from one of the towers of the World Trade Center (327-55). Images of people jumping from the towers have been mentioned several times in the course of the novel (196; 256-57; 293), and an image singled out from the final sequence has also occurred repeatedly by the time the reader reaches the last pages of the book (59; 62; 205). In this last passage, Oskar opens “Stuff That Happened to Me”once more, which, just like the novel, is now completely full. He flicks through all his collected images and finally finds the series of screenshots of a person falling or jumping that he has pasted into it earlier. He reverses the order of the images and this leads to a daydream in which the events of his father’s experience of September 11 are reversed:8

[…] the plane would’ve flown backward away from him, all the way to Boston.
He would’ve taken the elevator to the street and pressed the button for the top floor.
He would’ve walked backward to the subway, […].
He would’ve spit coffee into his mug, unbrushed his teeth, and put hair on his face with a razor. […] (325-26)

This description ends with his father tugging Oskar in on the evening of September 10, and the novel’s final sentence is “We would have been safe” (326). Then the flip-book follows. When the reader thumbs through it, instead of falling down, the figure seems to fly up. The image thus repeats the reversal of time described in the verbal narrative. The verbal narrative, however, performs a function that the pictures cannot fulfill. Its use of the conditional perfect—“We would have been safe”—indicates that another mode is applied here. It shows that, in contrast to the magical realist episodes, Oskar here is well aware that the reversal of time is only possible in his imagination.9 The fantastic underlines the impossibility of Oskar’s desire and frames the flip-book as a childish and naive attempt to make things undone.

The ending of the novel recalls the looped TV-sequences broadcast on September 11, 2001 that showed the planes crashing into the World Trade Center over and over again. These repetitions suggested an arresting of time and development (Seel), but what is more, by setting in again and again at the moment in which the towers were still intact, they seemed to promise that a return to that moment of peace was possible: “Only in the realm of the visual—where images can be recycled and replayed in a continuous loop—is the fantasy of turning back time possible” (Hathaway). The flip-book at the end of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close alludes to exactly this fantasy and thus also exposes the childish naivety of journalists and audiences who broadcast or watched the ever same images with fascination because they wanted to return to the moment in which they “would have been safe.” Yet, the flip-book in Foer’s novel did not mesmerize or console readers but provoked some of the fiercest criticisms. Sam Munson called the flip-book a “piece of bathos,” and Harry Siegel felt himself obliged to give “[s]ome advice to our young author: […] certainly don’t write a book culminating with a flipbook and then complain that your words aren’t taken seriously.” Tom Deveson commented: “It’s a final glib gesture—unexpected, attention-seeking but empty,” and Walter Kirn scoffed: “Sept. 11 would never have happened! Even cooler and weirder, the pages of this novel, starting with the last, would all turn blank […]!”

The reason for these hostile reactions might have been the fact that in the flip-book the novel appropriated a motif which is a taboo in the United States. The motif originated in a photograph entitled Falling Man, whichwas shot by Richard Drew, photographer for Associated Press on September 11, 2001. It appeared the following day in the New York Times and numerous other US and international newspapers. After serious complaints from readers that newspapers exploited the man’s tragic death and deprived him of his dignity, the photograph was withdrawn from circulation (Junod). Through Oskar’s voice, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close explicitly criticizes the fact that this image is withheld from the American public:

I found a bunch of videos on the Internet of bodies falling. They were on a Portuguese site, where there was all sorts of stuff they weren’t showing here, even though it happened here. Whenever I want to try to learn about how Dad died, I have to go to a translator program and find out how to say things in different languages, like ‘September,’ which is ‘Wrzesień,’ or ‘people jumping from burning buildings,’ which is ‘Menschen, die aus brennenden Gebäuden springen.’ Then I Google those words. It makes me incredibly angry that people all over the world can know things that I can’t, because it happened here, and happened to me, so shouldn’t it be mine? (256; emphasis in the original)

This passage demonstrates how notions about past events and collective memories are shaped by the information available. The restricted access to pictures and news reports about people jumping from the Twin Towers delimits a cadre médial (Erll 140). In analogy to Maurice Halbwachs’s cadres sociaux, these “frames” draw boundaries that determine what kind of memory is possible and/or socially permissible. The reactions to Richard Drew’s photograph and to Foer’s flip-book as well as the passage from the novel quoted above show that remembering 9/11 by falling men (and women) obviously lies outside of this medial and social frame. The references to the image of the falling man and its appropriation in the flip-book can be read as attempts at reintroducing this image into the cadre social and in public discourses on 9/11. Consequently, the novel is also used as a means of agency in the negotiation of a collective memory.10

In conclusion, the playful use of images in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close does not trivialize their power, but on the contrary, is a means of exposing it. The images displayed in Foer’s novel are indispensable for the verbal narrative. They generate an immediacy that brings the characters’ experiences “incredibly close” to readers. At the same time, the novel makes plain that this is a mirage when it highlights its fictionality by magical realist and fantastic passages. It thus demonstrates that photographs, despite their indexicality and assumed function as pieces of evidence, can also support a fictional story. The use of images in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close can therefore be understood as a commentary on their role in the construction of a collective memory of 9/11 and as a suggestive reference to the blurring of fact and fiction in historiography.

1 This article concentrates on the use of graphic images in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. For an examination of the novel’s typographic particularities see Jakob.

2 See for example Harry Siegel, who writes: “[Foer] snatches 9/11 to invest his conceit with gravitas, thus crossing the line that separates the risible from the villainous.”

3 Däwes and Uytterschout (61) point out the conjunction of 9/11 with the firebombing of Dresden and the bombing of Hiroshima, which increase the complexity of trauma in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Däwes therefore pursues a transnational approach to trauma and commemoration and reads the conjunction of several traumatic events as an appeal to “universal human values” (531; see also 529-31).

4 Further photographs for which it is explicitly stated that Oskar takes them are the photograph of an elephant, which Oskar takes in Abby Black’s flat (95-96) and the pictures of Grandfather’s hands (258; 260-61).

5 Diegetic sound is defined as sound that emanates from a source located within the fictional world of the film, for instance a piece of music played by an orchestra that is visible in the film (Villarejo 50).

6 The reality of the catastrophe needed confirmation as to many witnesses, the attacks appeared unreal, fictional, just “like a movie.” The resemblance of 9/11 to disaster movies has been examined by several critics (Baudrillard 7; Kahane 107; Seel; Seeßlen; Žižek 15). For an analysis of filmic representations of 9/11, see Christina Rickli’s contribution to this issue.

7 Another example of magical realism is the variety of animals that live with Oskar’s grandfather and grandmother before their son is born. The flat is compared to Noah’s ark (82) and the novel lists birds, fish, dogs, cats, insects, reptiles, and mice (185-86).

8 As Däwes (537) and Codde point out, the reversal of time also occurs in a sequence told by Oskar’s grandmother (311-13).

9 See also Codde.

10 Another example of such agency is Don DeLillo’s 9/11-novel Falling Man. DeLillo’s decision to grant the reference to the photograph the most prominent position of the novel, the title, indicates the significance that these writers ascribe to this image and the urgency with which they try to re-establish it in the collective memory.

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