In the first chapter of the novel, Oskar alludes to his Dad telling him the story of the Sixth Borough, and this chapter depicts the scene in which Dad tells Oskar this story.
Perhaps it’s just coincidence that Dad doesn’t tell his story until Chapter 11, but the coincidence of Chapter 11 and 9/11 seems hard to ignore.
Dad tells Oskar that the Sixth Borough was an island separated from Manhattan by a thin body of water, whose narrowest crossing equaled the world’s long jump record. Every year, the long jumper made the leap, and there is a huge party. The children of New York float jars of fireflies in the river to illuminate the jumper’s leap. For the few moments that the jumper was suspended the air, Dad says, every New Yorker felt as though he or she could fly.
In the story of the Sixth Borough, Dad turns New York into a private fable for himself and Oskar. The story of the long jumper leaping across the river in celebration every year suggests both danger and trust: the Sixth Borough is at once a mythical spot and a safe place, both close to and separated from New York. It is not quite connected.
One year, the jumper’s big toe skimmed the surface of the river, and people realize that the island was beginning to drift away from Manhattan little by little. The bridges began to strain, the tunnels were pulled thin, and electrical wires snapped. The people of New York tried to save it by chaining it down or magnetizing it, but nothing worked: the island wanted to go.
But the Sixth Borough, like Never-Never Land or other spots that seem too perfect to last, cannot last forever. The Sixth Borough is symbolic of the inevitable passage of time: just as all children must grow up, and just as everyone must die, the Sixth Borough cannot be chained down.
People have to communicate from the Sixth Borough to Manhattan through cans attached with string. One boy ties together the strings from many miscellaneous items––a yo-yo, a talking doll, twine, a pearl necklace, clothesline, a harp, a tea bag, a tennis racket—to tell a girl that he loves her, and she said “I love you” in return. He closed the can into which she had spoken and stored it in his closet.
The message that the boy stores in the tin can in his closet foreshadows the key that Dad has in the vase in his closet, which Oskar takes to be a hidden message. The voice in the tin can also foreshadows Dad’s voice messages from 9/11, which Oskar keeps in his closet. Preserving a message that can never be listened to, but always will be known about, also foreshadows Grandpa’s decision to bury the letters to his son in Dad’s coffin.
Central Park used to be in the Sixth Borough, but it was decided by New York City referendum that the park had to be saved, so the residents of Manhattan put hooks into the park and pull it into Manhattan. Children were allowed to lie on the park as it was being moved. Fireworks erupted, the Philharmonic played, and the children of New York were pulled “into Manhattan and into adulthood,” Dad says. By the time the park had found its resting place, the children had fallen asleep, and “the park was a mosaic of their dreams.”
Although the Sixth Borough itself has to leave, Central Park symbolically becomes just like that tin can with “I love you” buried inside: even if nobody knows it, the park becomes a way for the city to keep its cherished memories close to its heart, just as Oskar carries both the key from Dad’s closet and the apartment key close to his heart.
Dad tells Oskar there are lots of clues in Central Park to its mysterious origin, like its strange fossil record and incongruous pH. There’s also a tree in the park with two names carved in it that are not in the census. All the Sixth Borough’s documents floated away, however, so there’s no way to prove if those named belonged to residents of the Sixth Borough or not.
The fable of the Sixth Borough becomes Dad’s and Oskar’s way of having their own private world within the city: they share a secret knowledge and a special bond that no one else knows about.
Dad says that there’s a gigantic hole in the middle of the Sixth Borough where Central Park used to be, so as the island floats across the planet, it frames whatever is underneath it. The island is completely frozen now, he tells Oskar.
The relationship between the Sixth Borough and Central Park is just like that of a lock and key: the Sixth Borough has a hole in the middle exactly the sixe of Central Park, and it is traveling all around the world, but the missing piece is right back at home the whole time.
Oskar asks Dad if any of the things that he dug up from Central Park were actually from the Sixth Borough, and Dad shrugs his shoulders.
Dad refuses to admit outright that the story of the Sixth Borough is a myth, allowing Oskar to believe—even if only slightly—that it might be true. And within this refusal is the idea, also, that such stories are true even if they are myths. That they contain truths and create connections that are real, that can’t simply be shrugged away as fiction. To an extent, Jonathan Safran Foer is making a claim here about the truth, the reality, of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.