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Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Barnaby T. Chuckles Mr. Kubacki Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, is a tightly woven web of interrelated metaphors and thematic elements. Getting into every single one could take between a life-time and forever so for the purposes of this essay I will only focus on the few main themes; growing into adulthood, which is the quest that Oskar takes on when he sets out to find out about the key, accepting the unknowable in the universe, the random and the unquantifiable that separate life from mathematics, and duality.
The last is the trickiest to wrap ones head around and, as typified by the interrelatedness mentioned earlier, ties in to the other two themes. As Oskar grows up he has to come to accept the way in which not everything in the universe can be explained, learn to make his scientific mind can come to grasp a chaotic world, and come to understand how humanity can be essentially illogical.
It would be pointless, of course, to point out that Oskar’s quest is as crazy as you can get, but that being said we can begin to grasp that his journey is to get in touch with and become accustomed to his own craziness as a human being.
And he way in which Oskar gets a palate for his own madness is by tasting the insanity of others. Each Black that he visits throughout the course of the book not only teaches Oskar something about people, but also mirrors his struggle. The first four Blacks he visits seem relatively insignificant, they can’t give him any information on the key. Yet, each somehow reflects Oskar’s journey into adulthood.
When he goes to visit Aaron Black, after setting foot in Queens for the first time, symbolizing how the quest is the catalyst that sends Oskar out of his shell into the big, bright world, he finds that the man is literally paralyzed and can’t come down to greet him. Aaron Black’s literal paralysis mimics Oskar’s inability to come out into the real world, or as the case may be, up to the seventh floor, where he fears a terrorist attack (a fear he will later overcome). The two are unable to connect in a metaphorical sense as well as an actual one.
Oskar begins by playing the orphaned child card and tells Aaron his dad is dead immediately, not trying to forge any sort of bond. When he learns of Aaron’s infirmity he can’t take it and runs away (in retrospect he says, “if I could do it again I would do it differently. But you can’t do it again. ”), representing how he cowers away from his dad’s death when he bruises, invents and retreats into his shell. Abby Black, who becomes much more significant later in the book and whom I will discuss later in the essay as well, holds much more import for Oskar’s development, even this early in the book.
On first read-through they seem to get along swimmingly. Oskar extolls her beauty when she first opens the door, making her crack up literally as well as figuratively, as when someone laughs the barrier between two people breaks down a little bit. Also, Abby is an epidemiologist, so Oskar connects to her through his pedantic knowledge of science. However, common interests don’t necessarily make two people compatible, and Oskar uses his, for lack of a better word, nerdiness to connect to Abby, instead of exploiting the real connection they have as two people in crises, two scientists.
When Oskar first asks her about the key and she says she knows nothing about it, he can tell right off the bat that there’s something wrong and she’s not telling the whole story. Oskar can read Abby but he doesn’t know how to react to what he reads. Before he enters her apartment he fibs to get in saying, “I didn’t feel great about lying, and I didn’t believe in being able to know what was going to happen before it happens, but for some reason I knew I had to get inside her apartment. ” This is when Oskar gets his first lesson in the irrational way in which people (in this case, himself) operate.
What he’s describing is intuition, which is manifestly unquantifiable, so he chooses to ignore it as some kind of supernatural phenomenon, which he’s duty bound as an atheist to ignore. However, by ignoring his intuition and proceeding “logically” he misses the most important detail in his visit; that Abby’s husband must also be a Black and may know something about the key. Later when he asks to kiss Abby and she says no he gets his second lesson in the duality of reason and human’s irrationality.
He asks to take a picture of her but seems to realize a picture of her face isn’t good enough, so he takes one from behind her head, basically acknowledging that he doesn’t know her. Yet by accepting their position as strangers he brings himself to a greater understanding of how they relate to each other. Next comes Abe Black, a few chapters later. He convinces Oskar to ride the Cyclone, a huge step for Oskar, as he would normally never accept that embracing danger as an essential part of life. “’It would be a shame to die without riding the Cyclone,’ he told me. It would be a shame to die,’ I told him. “Yeah,’ he said, ‘but with the Cyclone you can choose. ’” Oskar finds that though life is filled with death the best way to deal with it is to live life to the fullest. He finds that there are some things that can’t be missed out on and that that’s all that matters in the end, even if the end is always death. He goes on to say his day with Abe was the perfect day aside from not finding anything about the key. This, paired with the roller coaster, is the first time Oskar just gets lost in living.
He doesn’t care about inventing or the key or his dad, he’s just having a good time at the fair. The next Black, Ada, mirrors Oskar’s struggle, and by reflecting it also illuminates it. Oskar starts off by grilling her about all the money she has. From the first reader can tell it’s a subject she feels uncomfortable about. She’s very clearly thought hard about the questions Oskar asks her and doesn’t have a good answer. She’s essentially in conflict with herself, saying, “I know what I am, but I don’t like what I am,” which shows Oskar’s conflict of not knowing what he is and not knowing whether he likes it or not.
It’s the first time that Oskar sees that the “rules” can be broken. Ada’s philosophy is that it’s unfair to have so much when others have so little, but she has given up knowing that she can’t possibly hope to change the world. Oskar learns that it is possible to live with shades of grey and values being compromised. Having learned all this Oskar is now ready to meet the most important Black in the story. He is unnamed, perhaps because he is the most important Black and represents all the Blacks and what they have to teach Oskar.
Close to death though he is, Mr. Black has done the most living of any of the Blacks or really anyone in the story. He’s loved and lost, fought and won, seen great events unfold and performed small gestures of love. As he said, he’s, “lived every day of the twentieth century. ” Mr. Black represents a more complete picture of Oskar, in a metaphorical sense because he lives in an identical apartment above him, with two floors, representing a wiser man, but also in a literal sense as he has lived a more life.
He spent his days working as a journalist, mirroring Oskar’s fixation on analytical thought and desire to get to the truth. Oskar immediately wants to emulate Mr. Black, mentally jotting down everything he says, but as one read on one sees that Oskar not only wants to mimic all the amazing things he’s done with his life, but to gain the knowledge that Mr. Black has accrued in all his years. When Mr. Black tells the story of the Russian artists feeding each other and says, “That’s the difference between Heaven and Hell. In Hell we starve, in Heaven we feed each other. Oskar without thinking replies, “I don’t believe in the afterlife,” to which Mr. Black responds, “Neither do I but I believe in the story. ” When the story is told Oskar lets his knowledge get in the way of his understanding of the story, while Mr. Black can also know there’s no afterlife while grasping the larger significance of the story. Oskar gets his next lesson in the duality of human nature here. He learns that one can believe in the deeper significance of something without sacrificing his scientific perspective.
This is mirrored in the way Mr. Black hammers a nail into his bed every morning, despite it having no significance other than it pleasing him to do so. What is really extraordinary about Mr. Black is he gains is wisdom not from knowing everything as Oskar seems to want to, but by accepting what he doesn’t know. Mr. Black has completely turned off his hearing aids and stopped leaving his apartment, shutting himself off from the world. He realizes his quests and loves are over and that he now needs time to gain wisdom from those experiences.
But even this is not the end, for when he meets Oskar he sees himself reflected in the boy and realizes he’s ruminated enough and it’s time to go back out into the world again. Having added a new character into the equation, the next few Blacks reflect not only Oskar but Mr. Black as well, who in turn reflects back onto Oskar. This is shown first by the trip to find Agnes Black. Oskar opens the door on a woman who can’t speak English. Only Mr. Black can talk to her.
He laughs and jokes with her and eventually finds out that Agnes Black died in the World trade center the same as Oskar’s father. It’s a very strange dynamic that in Oskar’s quest the two most important people can’t be part of the conversation. Agnes’s only connected, posthumously, to the latina woman and Oskar is connected only through Mr. Black. However, Mr. Black and the latina woman are not only connected by a common language but by the fact that they are both old and decrepit. Even though the two cannot see each other as the latina woman is in a wheel chair and Mr.
Black is too tired to go up the stairs, they form a stronger connection by not seeing each other, much in the same way that Oskar and Agnes are connected by the invisible specter of Oskar’s dad. The next few Blacks are gone through quickly. They don’t tell him anything about the key but they tell a little about themselves and therefore a little about Oskar. Albert Black, the actor who moved to New York to be far away, teaches Oskar how you can become someone else. Alice Black, the artist who draws the same man over and over again, gives Oskar a glimpse of dedication, or perhaps obsession.
Allen Black, the overqualified doorman who misses his job as an engineer, shows Oskar about taking comfort in the continuity of life, as Allen is comfortable being a doorman as long as it means his son will be a doctor. Arnold Black simply comes across as a jerk, and Oskar had to learn there are jerks out there eventually. Then there were several Blacks which only get a sentence or two in the book. The one that sticks out in my mind is old Chinese man who has “I heart NY” posters all over his room, but thinks they mean “I love you. When Oskar points this out he can’t read the expression on Fo Black’s face, saying “I couldn’t tell what he was feeling, because I couldn’t speak the language. ” Georgia Black and her husband live on Staten Island (which can only be reached by ferry, so even going there is a big step for Oskar) and made museums to each other. Oskar gets his first taste here of how human irrationality can make people much happier. There is nothing more irrational than love but Mr. and Mrs. Black dove in head first and never regretted it.