The intersection of national tragedy and individual grief is at the center of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. On the morning of September 11, 2001, Oskar Schell’s Dad, Thomas Schell, died in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Dad’s death sets the main plot in motion, but concerns about mortality appear on many layers throughout the novel. Oskar’s Grandpa was in Dresden in 1945 during the firebombing that killed hundreds of thousands of people, including his pregnant wife, Anna, and their unborn child. Oskar is also aware of mortality in a different way through his relationship with his Grandma. Grandma is old and somewhat infirm, and her death is always on the horizon, even if it’s not directly a part of Oskar’s life yet.
Mortality and how to deal with the fact of death is a major part of the novel. We’re all going to die, but we don’t know when or where. Death is a natural fact of life, but sometimes, death comes through unnatural, unexpected, and brutal forces. Concerns with mortality occur figuratively and literally throughout the novel. Oskar takes part in his school’s production of Hamlet, a play that is deeply concerned with mortality. And Oskar is one of the few, if not the only, kid in the show to pay attention to the existential crisis at the heart of the play. Just like the melancholy Prince of Denmark, Oskar is preoccupied with existential concerns. If we are all going to die, what are we supposed to do while we’re here? What’s the purpose of life?
But Jonathan Safran Foer deals with the potentially overwhelming despair of mortality by describing the quirks and fascinating aspects of everyone’s lives in sharp, vivid detail throughout the novel. Even though mortality and tragedy lies at the heart of the novel, the structure of the book celebrates the strangeness and richness of daily life. Oskar’s quest to find the owner of the mysterious key he finds in Dads possessions opens him to the vast array of different people all living widely varied and completely different types of lives around the city: we all are going to die, and tragedy shapes the plot of the novel, but life can take an infinite variety of wonderful forms.
Mortality and the Purpose of Life ThemeTracker
Mortality and the Purpose of Life Quotes in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
And also, there are so many times when you need to make a quick escape, but humans don’t have their own wings, or not yet, anyway, so what about a birdseed shirt?
Isn’t it so weird how the number of dead people is increasing even though the earth stays the same size, so that one day there isn’t going to be room to bury anyone anymore?
I spent all day walking around the park, looking for something that might tell me something, but the problem was that I didn’t know what I was looking for…But that’s how tricky Dad could be. There was nothing, which would have been unfortunate, unless nothing was a clue. Was nothing a clue?
“Can’t you even tell me if I’m on the right track?” Buckminster purred, and Dad shrugged his shoulders again. “But if you don’t tell me anything, how can I ever be right?” He circled something in an article and said, “Another way of looking at it would be, how could you ever be wrong?”
A few weeks after the words day, I started writing lots of letters. I don’t know why, but it was one of the only things that made my boots lighter.
“Well, what I get is why we do exist? I don’t mean how, but why.” I watched the fireflies of his thoughts orbit his head. He said, “We exist because we exist.” “What the?” “We could imagine all sorts of universes like this one, but this is the one that happened.”
There were four more messages from him: one at 9:12, one at 9:31, one at 9:46, and one at 10:04. I listened to them, and listened to them again, and then before I had time to figure out what to do, or even what to think or feel, the phone started ringing.
It was 10:26:47.
I looked at the caller ID and saw that it was him.
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 a cancer.
A lot of the time I’d get that feeling like I was in the middle of a huge black ocean, or in deep space, but not in the fascinating way. It’s just that everything was incredibly far away from me.
It was a weird-looking key, obviously to something extremely important, because it was fatter and shorter than a normal key. I couldn’t explain it: a fat and short key, in a little envelope, in a blue vase, on the highest shelf in his closet.
“It doesn’t make me feel good when you say that something I do reminds you of Dad.” “Oh. I’m sorry. Do I do that a lot?” “You do it all the time….And Grandma always says that things I do remind her of Grandpa…It also makes me feel unspecial.” “That’s the last thing that either Grandma or I would want. You know you’re the most special thing to us, don’t you?” “I guess so.” “The most.”
And maybe you could rate the people you knew by how much you loved them, so if the device of the person in the ambulance detected the device of the person he loved the most, or the person who loved him the most, and the person in the ambulance was really badly hurt, and might even die, the ambulance could flash GOODBYE! I LOVE YOU! GOODBYE! I LOVE YOU!
When I was your age, my grandfather bought me a ruby bracelet. It was too big for me and would slide up and down my arm. It was almost a necklace. He later told me that he had asked the jeweler to make it that way. Its size was supposed to be a symbol of their love. More rubies, more love. But I could not wear it comfortably. I could not wear it at all. So here is the point of everything I have been trying to say. If I were to give a bracelet to you, now, I would measure your wrist twice
Sometimes I think about those hundred letters laid across my bedroom floor. If I hadn’t collected them, would our house have burned less brightly?
We took the blueprint of our apartment from the hallway closet and taped it to the inside of the front door, with an orange and a green marker we separated Something from Nothing. “This is Something,” we decided. “This is Nothing.” “Something.” “Nothing.” “Something.” “Nothing.” “Nothing.” “Nothing.” Everything was forever fixed, there would only be peace and happiness, it wasn’t until last night, our last night together, that the inevitable question finally arose, I told her, “Something,” by covering her face with my hands and then lifting them like a marriage veil. “We must be.” But I knew, in the most protected part of my heart, the truth.
I hated myself for going, why couldn’t I be the kind of person who stays?
Did she always have something to read in front of her so she wouldn’t have to look at anything else? All of the words I’d written to her over all of those years, had I never said anything at all?
I have so much to tell you, the problem isn’t that I’m running out of time, I’m running out of room, this book is filling up, there couldn’t be enough pages, I looked around the apartment this morning for one last time and there was writing everywhere, filling the walls and mirrors, I’d rolled up the rugs so I could write on the floor, I’d written on the walls and around the bottles of wine we were given but never drank, I wear only short sleeves, even when it’s cold, because my arms are books, too. But there’s too much to express. I’m sorry.
But what was weird was that they didn’t know what they had in common, which was kind of like how I didn’t know what the thumbtack, the bent spoon, the square of aluminum foil, and all those other things I dug up in Central Park had to do with each other.
I felt, that night, on that stage, under that skull, incredibly close to everything in the universe, but also extremely alone. I wondered, for the first time in my life, if life was worth all the work it took to live. What exactly made it worth it? What’s so horrible about being dead forever, and not feeling anything, and not even dreaming? What’s so great about feeling and dreaming?
So many people enter and leave your life! Hundreds of thousands of people! You have to keep the door open so they can come in! But it also means you have to let them go!
But still, it gave me heavy, heavy boots. Dad wasn’t a Great Man, not like Winston Churchill, whoever he was. Dad was just someone who ran a family jewelry business. Just an ordinary dad. But I wished so much, then, that he had been Great. I wished he’d been famous, famous like a movie star, which is what he deserved. I wished Mr. Black had written about him, and risked his life to tell the world about him, and had reminders of him around his apartment.
“The world is a big place,” he said, “but so is the inside of an apartment! So’s this!” he said, pointing at his head.
Then, out of nowhere, a flock of birds flew by the window, extremely fast and incredibly close. Maybe twenty of them. Maybe more. But they also seemed like just one bird, because somehow they all knew exactly what to do.
And then I said something that I wasn’t planning on saying, and didn’t even want to say. As it came out of my mouth, I was ashamed that it was mixed with any of Dad’s cells that I might have inhaled when we went to visit Ground Zero. “If I could have chose, I would have chosen you!”
They are announcing flights over the speakers. We are not listening. They do not matter to us, because we are not going anywhere.
He took a picture of every doorknob in the apartment. Every one. As if the world and its future depended on each doorknob. As if we would be thinking about doorknobs should we ever actually need to use the pictures of them.
I went to the guest room and pretended to write. I hit the space bar again and again and again. My life story was spaces.
I can’t stop thinking about that night, the clusters of red flares, the sky that was like black water, and how only hours before I lost everything, I had everything.
A millimeter at a time, the Sixth Borough receded from New York…The eight bridges between Manhattan and the Sixth Borough strained and finally crumbled, one at a time, into the water. The tunnels were pulled too thin to hold anything at all. The phone and electrical lines snapped…those fireflies in glass jars, which had once been used merely for decorative purposes during the festivals of the leap, were now found in every room of every home, taking the place of artificial light.
The boy covered his can with a lid, removed it from the string, and put her love for him on a shelf in his closet. Of course, he never could open the can, because then he would lose its contents. It was enough just to know it was there.
One million pieces of paper filled the sky. They stayed there, like a ring around the building. Like the rings of Saturn. The rings of coffee staining my father’s desk. The ring Thomas told me he didn’t need. I told him he wasn’t the only one who needed.
I lowered the volume until it was silent.
The same pictures over and over.
Planes going into buildings.
He was on one kind of carpet, I was on another. The line where they came together reminded me of a place that wasn’t in any borough.
You can see the most beautiful things from the observation deck of the Empire State Building…It’s extremely lonely up there, and you feel far away from everything. Also it’s scary, because there are so many ways to die. But it feels safe, too, because you’re surrounded by so many people. I kept one hand touching the wall as I walked carefully around to each of the views. I saw all of the locks I’d tried to open, and the 161,999,831 I hadn’t yet.
I’d never felt more alive or alone.
I was in Dresden’s train station when I lost everything for the second time.
I looked at one of the other televisions and there was only one building, one hundred ceilings had become one hundred floors, which had become nothing, I was the only one who could believe it, the sky was filled with paper, pink feathers.
There won’t be enough pages in this book for me to tell you what I need to tell you, I could write smaller, I could slice the pages down their edges to make two pages, I could write over my own writing, but then what?
I asked her to tell me about you, she said, “Not our son, my son.”
OSKAR SCHELL: SON
My search was a play that Mom had written, and she knew the ending when I was at the beginning.
He needed me, and I couldn’t pick up. I just couldn’t pick up. I just couldn’t. Are you there? He asked eleven times. I know, because I’ve counted. It’s one more than I can count on my fingers….Sometimes I think he knew I was there. Maybe he kept saying it to give me time to get brave enough to pick it up.
I think about all of the things I’ve done, Oskar. And all of the things I didn’t do. The mistakes I’ve made are dead to me. But I can’t take back the things I never did.
I was surprised again, although again I shouldn’t have been. I was surprised that Dad wasn’t there. In my brain I knew he wouldn’t be, obviously, but I guess my heart believed something else. Or maybe I was surprised by how incredibly empty it was. I felt like I was looking into the dictionary definition of emptiness.
I don’t believe in God, but I believe that things are extremely complicated, and her looking over me was as complicated as anything ever could be. But it was also incredibly simple. In my only life, she was my mom, and I was her son.
I’d have said “Dad?” backwards, which would have sounded the same as “Dad” forward.
He would have told me the story of the Sixth Borough, from the voice in the can at the end to the beginning, from “I love you” to “Once upon a time…”
We would have been safe.