I’ve just finished reading EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLYCLOSE, A Novel by Jonathan Safran Foer.
From the back cover, “Nine-year-old Oscar Schell has embarked on an urgent, secret mission that will take him through the five boroughs of New York. His goal is to find the lock that matches a mysterious key that belonged to his father, who died in the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11. This seemingly impossible task will bring Oskar into contact with survivors of all sorts on an exhilarating, affecting, often hilarious, and ultimately healing journey.”
The cover is brilliant, not because of the interesting way the titles go up the fingers, or the visual lines that draw us to the boys eyes again and again, but because that face is ours. The day the towers fell, we stood with our hands over our mouths as if hiding could make it all be less real, less scary, less terrifying.
Just flipping through the book is fascinating. The pages break every “rule” with blocks of solid text filled with conversations where he said, “Something,” and someone else said, “something else,” and it all smushes together without tabs or paragraph breaks—all while giving glimpses of a beautiful broken boy trying to make sense out of a senseless loss. “Oskar?” “I’m Okay.” “Don’t go away.”As the pages flip past, the style changes, becoming all aligned left, and then spaced out, missing in chunks, and even written on top of each other. But every broken rule is deliberate, thought provoking, and wonderfully done.
Interspersed with the text are pictures of locks and keys, of doors, tattooed hands, and random things, of a man falling from the tower. . . .
And then the last pages, after the story runs its course, the same falling man, but with the pages reversed so when you flip them, the man falls up, not down. Up, up, up—back to when the world made sense, before everything scary happened extremely loud and incredibly close.
The people we meet in this book are broken, each in their own way. Their struggle to carry on shines from the pages and we root for them, pray for them, cover our faces with them.
I cannot read this book without remembering that day, and how it was for me. I didn’t deal with it well. I know that. You can see previews for the movie they made of this book, but I'm not sure I want to see it. I’ve avoided the 911 movies and specials for more than a decade because I didn’t want to live through it again, but this book called to me, and for the first time, I was ready to go back to that day. It feels like a mish-mash of things that shouldn't be real, but are, that have no business being in the same world together.
We woke to the sound of the phone ringing: Mother yelling on the line, “Turn on the TV; the whole world’s gone to Hell!” We rush to the television and watch the early breaking news of the tower on fire, struck by a plane. An accident, a terrible, terrible accident. We watch the smoke and wonder. My husband dresses for work and leaves. Bye. Love you. Be safe. I watch the second plane hit the tower. Crash, Boom. The news rewinds it, makes us watch it a thousand times. Not an accident. Terrorists. My children wake up, first the baby, then my toddler. I dress for work, it’s harvest time after all. Time to go pick corn. I should pick the corn, but instead, I gather my babies on my lap and feed them bottles as we snuggle under the blankets. The Pentagon is hit, burning. Are you going to pick corn today. Yes. Later, later. There is a little left from yesterday. The world is burning. Can’t you see? Don’t you know? A plane went down in a Pennsylvania field. Would you like carrots with your potatoes today? Yes. Tomatoes too, please. The tower falls. I stand and cry, my hands over my face, my eyes peeking just over the tips of my fingers. No, no, no, all those people. Oh, God. Oh, God. Three dozen ears of corn please; I have to go pick a row. I’m picking corn as the world is burning. How stupid, I think. People are buried, coated in dust, choking, falling, waving shirts for the helicopters that won’t save them on the roof, and I’m here. Picking corn. I finish the row, give them the corn, gather my little ones, and watch the other tower fall. No words. Only tears. We watch it fall in playbacks. It falls a thousand times.
I still have the VHS tapes of that day. I recorded it. I will never watch it.
My daughter saw me crying today, as I finished the book, and said her teacher cried on September 11th last year. Broke down and told her story in class—that her fiancé was in that tower. That he never got out. That they were to marry in November of that year. That she will never marry or find another because we only get one soul mate in this world and that was him. That was him.
How foolish, I think, that I can live in the middle of a corn field, thousands of miles away, knowing no one who died, and still feel a little bit broken from that day. And then I think. Maybe we’re all a little broken from that day. Maybe that’s what has made this book an international best seller. We see the broken boy and we want him to be okay. Because if he can be okay, so can we.
My grandmother remembers Pearl Harbor like a snapshot. Everything she saw, heard, wore, and ate from that day. My mother remembers JFK. For me, it is 911. What moment in history affected your life. Did you ever feel even a little bit broken by events a thousand miles away?