How Do We Remember 9/11? — Foer’s Literary Profundity

By: Yosef Rosenfield  |  May 23, 2021
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By Yosef Rosenfield, Features Editor

On page 15 of “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” author Jonathan Safran Foer concludes Oskar’s account of “the worst day” with a brief passage that reads so quickly it looks too short to be significant. Each sentence, however, contributes to Oskar’s narration and carries a much deeper meaning than the reader might think — and this quality is uniquely demonstrated in the very first sentence. The passage opens with the times of Dad’s follow-up phone messages from work: “There were four more messages from him: one at 9:12, one at 9:31, one at 9:46, and one at 10:04.” Beyond simply communicating when exactly Dad had called, which is not inherently interesting, this line draws parallels between Dad’s missed calls and the events of 9/11 as they unfolded that morning: after the first call at 8:52 (shortly after the initial World Trade Center’s North Tower plane crash at 8:46), Dad calls again at 9:12 and a third time at 9:31 following the 9:03 crash into the South Tower; he calls yet again at 9:46 and 10:04, corresponding to the 9:37 Pentagon crash and the 10:02 crash in Shanksville, PA.

These specific times are important outside the world of the story, as they allow the reader to better appreciate what really happened on that historic day. People who grew up in the 21st century and don’t actually have any memories of September 11, 2001 tend to think and speak of the day as simply “9/11” — suggesting a singular, simplistic notion of those events. By referencing 9/11 using exact times, Foer seeks to combat that perception; he reminds us that the tragedies of September 11 were in fact very real and quite difficult to cope with for those who were impacted — poignantly fitting in with the overall theme and title of the novel, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”, as they both speak to how intensely the attack affected its victims and their families. On a personal level as well, Oskar’s reaction to these messages also comes through in the tone of this sentence, which matter-of-factly lists the missed calls and their times. The cold, machine-like rhythm of the text mirrors the sound of Oskar’s answering machine and reveals his emotionless response to hearing Dad’s account of what has happened. The reader is brought into Oskar’s world and feels the utter shock that he is experiencing after learning of the unspeakable horror that just took place; we relive the barrage of attacks that must have overwhelmed him as a young child, further reinforcing the idea that we must not reduce these atrocities to a single, bite-sized term such as “9/11.”

This one sentence, therefore, operates on various levels and accomplishes multiple things from a literary standpoint. From a surface read, of course, it tells us when exactly Dad phoned from work. It also parallels the times of the four plane crashes on September 11, referencing when the hijacked planes went down without even mentioning them. Furthermore, the tone itself invokes the answering machine’s emotionless recitation of Dad’s messages and Oskar’s reactional shock upon listening to them. These layers beneath the text collectively denounce the tendency to oversimplify the events of 9/11, and Jonathan Safran Foer — in this sentence alone — stresses the importance of remembering people’s real stories and personal losses from that very sad day in history.

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