I’m not a psychologist, but…
aside from always wanting to start a conversation that way, I’m pretty sure it is human nature to codify, to seek meaning, to group things together in order to make sense of the world. Someone told me once (a moderately credible source, if you care) that if we didn’t create some… compartments, shall we say?… for the information our brains process, we would crash.
Proof: I don’t have any fancy medical terminology and I’m not going to cite some obnoxiously pretentious psych articles. I am, however, going to quote my two-year-old—sort of. He’s made me so much more aware of the human brain, its developmental patterns, and the way a human first begins to make sense of the world.
All birds are “duckies,” because they have wings and beaks. However, some “duckies” quack and some tweet. Some are big and some are small.
Side effect: when in public, strangers think we are insane. Side-side-effect: thick skin, and overall familial awesome.
When you ask someone what Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is about . . .
I resent the fact that every single person I have spoken with so far instantaneously regurgitates: “9-11! That’s the movie about 9-11!” Ugh. Even from a strictly topical, non-literary view of the plot exclusively: No. Just, no.
First of all, we’re talking book here, not movie (which I haven’t seen, but I can only imagine it intentionally leads people to that general regurgitation)—and how nice of you to notice that every book that makes it onto any “top” list anywhere gets drafted into a screen play these days.
This book, this beautifully winding and intricate novel exploration of the human psyche, of mental resilience however minute, of the desperate need inside every human everywhere to figure out what it takes to just survive atrocities we inflict on each other—is about SO much more than one historical occurrence.
First of all 9-11 is mentioned alongside Dresden and Hiroshima bombings creating a pitch fork of human destruction. Why doesn’t anyone say this is a book about Dresden? Or about skin melting off humans like wax?
Or even that it is about being aware that although 9-11 is close to home and most of us know people who were there in one way or another, every terrorist attack and war and bombing anywhere ever has had people with these stories?!
The pain of an American child is NOT greater or more significant than the pain of a Japanese or German child. That is called ethnocentrism, and it makes one very small.
OK – rant portion temporarily satiated.
Fine, then. What is Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close really about, smarty pants?!
I’m infinitely gratified that you’ve asked. It’s about codification as a defense mechanism.
No matter how many witty anti-intellectualists mock academia for seeking meaning in everything whether it was intended, whether it can actually aid one in figuring something out, a means to an end, or not… the fact remains that seeking meaning and order is a therapy in and of itself, whether that order is natural or created.
Chronologically speaking (regarding Oskar’s family), the grandfather is traumatized first in Dresden. His means of coping seems to be limitation. Instead of seeking out meaning from the world around him, he seeks meaning from what has already been: re-using phrases as best he can from notebooks, Yes/No hand-tattooes, marrying the sister of his soul-mate in an attempt at self-delusion.
It’s like he can’t handle anything more than he has already experienced, so he considers certain specific things that he already possesses and creates a new order therein.
Oskar’s grandmother makes sense in cleanliness. Things have an order: something or nothing dichotomies. Something is dirty or clean, either heavy and “full like a stone” or “empty like an overturned pitcher” (231). That is why she can’t lie in her own filth on 9-11.
Next generation: Thomas is presumable traumatized by paternal desertion. The chapter where he has circled all grammatical errors in his father’s letters suggest that his means of coping is imposing rigid rules of cerebral logic onto what should otherwise be a crushingly emotional experience.
He spends his whole life teaching Oskar to seek out meaning, presumably because he realizes that at some point his son will have to face impossible feelings, experiences, and should he not be physically present, Oskar would need to know how to survive.
The Sixth Burough, scavenger hunts: all of them are created to teach Oskar a defense mechanism Thomas believes to be effective.
Although everyone develops different methods of dealing with trauma in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the bottom line is that everyone is looking for categories. It’s usually dichotomies that are craved, even when logic defies them, because they are easily digestible. Yes or no.
Yes or no.