Oskar is an extremely verbally precocious nine-year-old––he and Dad used to comb the New York Times for typos as a relaxing evening activity. Oskar is a hyper-verbal narrator who tells us everything that’s on his mind, and he has an enormous vocabulary. Oskar thinks about words all the time; in the first chapter, for example, he squints at a map, connects dots to see “FRAGILE,” and discusses every single association he has with the word “fragile,” as though he were writing his own private dictionary definition. Oskar also has his own private codes for things: “wearing heavy boots,” for example, is his way of describing fear and sadness. Oskar clings to the belief that everything can be solved through puzzles and expeditions: that if he just interprets something correctly, or if he just finds one more clue, one more word, that will provide some sort of answers or closure to the gaping hole that the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers left both on New York City and in his own life.
If Oskar uses an overabundance of words and digressions, then Oskar’s Grandpa has the opposite problem: he doesn’t speak out loud at all. Oskar’s Grandpa loses his ability to speak after the trauma of seeing his loved ones die in the Dresden firebombing during World War II. He has “YES” and “NO” tattooed on his hands, and he write brief notes in a daybook to communicate anything more complicated. Even though Grandpa can’t speak out loud, however, he does write several long letters about his past. It’s never clear exactly to whom these letters are written—either Oskar’s Dad or Grandpa’s unborn child who died in Dresden—but they were never sent, and never read by their intended audience.
The most meaningful communication in the novel, even though the novel is so loaded with verbal fireworks, is wordless. Oskar’s Mom is silently following his journey: unbeknownst to either Oskar or the reader, she knows exactly what he’s doing and alerts each person that he is on his way. Grandpa cares tremendously about his family, but never speaks out loud. Even Oskar, for all of his verbal precocity, learns that love is deeper than language. The novel ends with images, not words. Jonathan Safran Foer presents the reader with a backwards flipbook of a man falling out of the World Trade Center: instead of going down, the man appears to be falling up. This wordless, upside-down, tragic, yet expectant image provides more closure than words could convey: even though the flipbook is traumatic and terrifying, there’s also a tremendous amount of hope that the reader can’t help but feel when we see the man flying upwards.
Language and Communication ThemeTracker
Language and Communication Quotes in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
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?
“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.
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!
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 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
I want to stop inventing. If I could know how he died, exactly how he died, I wouldn’t have to invent him dying…There were so many different ways to die, and I just need to know which was his.
I was in Dresden’s train station when I lost everything for the second time.
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?
OSKAR SCHELL: SON
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’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.