Wearing Heavy Boots –Trauma in Jonathan Safran Foer’s "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2011 34 Pages

American Studies - Literature


I didn’t understand why I needed help, because it seemed to me that you should wear heavy boots when your dad dies, and if you aren’t wearing heavy boots, then you need help. (Foer 200, emphasis original)

On an early Tuesday morning in September 2001 two as human bombs converted airplanes hit the World Trade Center, killed about 2870 people and left nearly 10.000 children with only one or even no parent at all (Anzieu-Premmereur 281). This drastic disaster ended America as it was known before 9/11 and overwhelmed its inhabitants with tragedy, terror and fear, leaving behind an overpowering numbness that will express itself through flags flying at half-mast, millions of shattered individuals, repetitive pictures of horror in the media and attempts to handle the unbearable through literature.

In Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (for shortening reasons from now on referred to as EL&IC) the nine-year-old protagonist Oskar Schell suffers from the loss of his dear father Thomas Schell Jr. who died on 11 September in the restaurant Windows of the World located in the north tower of the World Trade Center. About one year after the attacks he discovers an envelope labeled “Black” containing a mysterious key in his father’s closet. Believing this key to be part of a “Reconnaissance Expedition” (Foer 8) his dad used to arrange for him, Oskar decides “that finding the lock [is his] ultimate raison d’être” (69, emphasis original) which would consequently get him “closer to Dad” (52). In order to find the matching lock to his key Oskar starts on a quest through the five boroughs of New York City planning to meet every person named Black. Besides Oskar’s story the novel consists of two additional narrators: Oskar’s paternal grandparents. Both of them being of German origin had lived through the Dresden bombing in 1945 and were the only survivors of their families. Intending to start a new life and to leave the traumatic past behind them they decide to immigrate into the U.S. where Thomas Jr. and later on Oskar are born. The three different narrative strings are braided throughout the book and form a peculiar pattern. Oskar narrates the first, his grandfather the second, Oskar again the third and his grandmother the fourth chapter. This pattern continues until the novel ends with a chapter narrated by Oskar just as it started. This leads to the conclusion that Oskar’s narration can be considered the framing of the novel. This paper will show how Foer’s three main characters in EL&IC are portrayed as survivors of trauma, what experiences and guilt they suffer from and how they deal with these on the level of language, action and image. Referring to trauma theory this text will prove that each of the three characters has a different way of coping with the traumatic experiences they faced (in the case of the grandparents even two experiences are taken into consideration) and to what extend a resolution of trauma is achieved by them. The unconventional style of narration and design of EL&IC, its inclusion of blankness and blackness and its constant use of pictures through Thomas Sr.’s daybooks as well as Oskar’s Stuff that Happened to Me, create a collage-like character of the novel that resembles the structure of trauma which will also be discussed in this paper.

A traumatic event is often so violent and disruptive in nature that it cannot be fitted into existing referential frameworks. As a result, survivors of trauma cannot grasp the magnitude of what has happened to them. […] Dissociation entails a process whereby the event(s) experienced in a state of trauma will not be open to memory in the usual way. […] Instead the belatedly experienced trauma makes itself known in an uncontrollable and a highly fragmentary fashion, in the form of, for example, flashbacks or nightmares. (Uytterschout and Versluys, 217)

As this paper will show, by focusing on Thomas Sr., his wife (Oskar’s grandmother) and Oskar separately and in the end examining the unconventional visual and textual aspects of the novel, EL&IC indicates the aspects of trauma mentioned in the definition above. All three characters survived traumatic experiences and are having trouble integrating them into their thoughts, actions and this results partly in unwillingness to continue their lives. When talking about trauma one has to take the factor of absence into consideration. Loss, lack and absence are main parts of traumatic experiences and can be found at several stages in Foer’s novel.

Loss is to the past, so lack is to the present and future. A lost object is one that may be felt to be lacking, although a lack need not necessarily involve a loss. (LaCarpa 53)

The loss of something or somebody can result in the lack of it and therefore creates an absence. There can be different forms of absence such as verbal, emotional and physical absence. All of these forms can be found in EL&IC. Oskar clearly suffers from the loss of his father and his resulting absence in his son’s life. Whereas with Thomas Sr. things are different, despite suffering from the loss of his beloved Anna in the first place he later on lacks his wife and son Thomas Jr. because he decides to leave them behind and after the attacks on the WTC is confronted with the loss of his son. Marked by these dramatic experiences his aphasia is the clearest example of verbal loss in the novel. The emotional absence can clearly be seen by all protagonists’ inability to express and share their emotions with others.

I’m gonna bury my feelings deep inside me. […] No matter how much I feel, I’m not going to let it out. If I have to cry, I’m gonna cry on the inside. […] If my heart starts going crazy, I’m not gonna tell everyone in the world about it. (Foer 203)

As far as the physical absence is concerned the absence of Thomas Jr. body is an obvious example but others can be found in the text such as the creation of nothing and something places in the grandparent’s apartment (which will be discussed later in this paper).

LaCarpa reintegrated the Freudian terms of melancholy and mourning which give another important dimension to the different forms of coping with trauma. According to Uytterschout and Versluys

Typical reactions to trauma comprise either a repression of all trauma-related memory or an endeavour to remember the event and fit it into a coherent whole. (216)

Melancholy (also acting out) would be considered the first and mourning (working through) would be considered the second part of the definition. Though Oskar initially shows certain features of melancholy he throughout the novel becomes a great example of mourning. He in LaCapra’s definition: “remember[s] what happened to [him] at a certain point in the past, while at the same time realiz[es] that [he is] living now.” (22). Whereas his grandfather Thomas Sr. is stuck in the past and continuously feels guilty about what happened back then. His refusal and inability to continue his life displays a melancholic.

Acting out or melancholia is a state of mind in which the victim’s notion of tenses […] implodes. […] [T]he melancholic finds himself trapped in an endless reliving of his traumatic past while acting that past out in a post- traumatic present. By compulsively holding on to the past, the victim smothers every possibility of moving towards a liveable future. (21, emphasis original)

Thomas Sr. as a survivor of traumatic experiences is trapped in the moment of trauma. He suffers from the inability to express what has happened to him but yet is haunted by the guilt connected with it. In one of his letter “Why I’m not where you are” Thomas Sr. writes:

Sometimes I think if I could tell you what happened to me that night, I could leave that night behind me, maybe I could come home to you, but that night has no beginning or end, it started before I was born and it’s still happening. (Foer 208, emphasis added)

The moment haunting him is the night of the Dresden bombings in 1945 where he lost his family, his fiancée and his unborn child all within minutes. Only hours before the bombings his girlfriend Anna (the sister of his later wife and Oskar’s grandmother) told him about her pregnancy. Stunned and amazingly happy about this news Thomas states to have everything (215). But unfortunately “one hundred years of joy can be erased in one second” (215) and that is exactly what happens. Among the tragic loss of all the people he felt emotionally attached to “[h]is true self died in the firebombing, and only a shell survive[d]” (Versluys 86). Only remaining a shell (a remarkable resemble to his last name “Schell” can be noticed here whether intentional or not) of the person he once was Thomas Sr. continuously remarks how unworthy he is to live and how the traumatic past haunting him in his thoughts is preventing him from living the live he is supposed to live. “[S]ometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living” (Foer 113). The urge to constantly think about “everything [he had] seen destroyed” (33) overwhelms and haunts him like an illness and hinders him from feeling happiness:

[T]he distance that wedged itself between me and my happiness wasn’t the world, it wasn’t the bombs and burning buildings, it was me, my thinking, the cancer of never letting go, is ignorance bliss […] I thought myself out of happiness a million times, but never once into it. (17, emphasis added)

The loss of Anna, “the only person [he] could have spent [his] only life with” (33), is of such tremendous impact to his being that he wished he didn’t have to be at all. His (what trauma theorists refer to as) survivor guilt clearly shows in several statements displaying apologies, such as the following:

I’m sorry for everything. For having said goodbye to Anna when maybe I could have saved her and our idea, or at least died with them. I’m sorry for my inability to let the unimportant things go, for my inability to hold on to the important things. (132, emphasis added)

As a result of the traumatic experience he faced Thomas Sr. feels guilty about surviving because everybody else died in the bombings. Traumatized people tend to reflect moving on in their lives as a betrayal to the ones they lost. This feeling is clearly displayed in the character of Thomas Sr., his unwillingness to live is due to his inability “to let go of the past” (Uytterschout 221) and results in him reliving the traumatic events over and over again.

After surviving the Dresden bombing he decides to start a new live in the United States where he meets his future wife, Anna’s Sister, in a New York bakery. When entering the U.S.A. Thomas Sr. is struck by aphasia (whether he decides on not talking or is actually unable to do so is not mentioned in the novel).

I haven’t always been silent, I used to talk and talk and talk and talk, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut, the silence overtook me like cancer, and it was one of my first meals in America. (Foer 16)

Versluys writes that: “One of the destructive effects of trauma is the erasure of the ability to speak.” (79) The loss of speech automatically disables him to articulate the horrors of his traumatic past and consequently to come to terms with them. The first word he loses is “Anna”, probably because that is the word that causes him the most pain, right after that comes “and” presumably because of its resemble to Anna’s name. The loss of “and” also robs him of one of the simplest connection words in the English language. By losing it he seems to lose the ability to connect sentences and create cohesion among his thoughts, Anzieu-Premmereur’s statement that trauma affects “die psychische Leistung des Herstellens von Zusammenhängen” (290) conforms that. The last word he loses is “I” which he is ashamed about since it displays an egocentric attitude (Foer 257). The loss of his voice results in a silence in his life. Silence is a common feature among trauma theory, Anzieu-Premmereur states:



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University of Potsdam – Anglistik/Amerikanistik
Foer 9/11 Trauma Traumaliterature Traumatheorie Extremely Loud;




Title: Wearing Heavy Boots –Trauma in Jonathan Safran Foer’s "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"