In literary terms, September 11 no doubt reshaped the way we consider the trauma narrative. The turn-of-the-century tragedy, and the millennium itself, announced not just the boom of postmodernism, but also a question to be answered: Where do we go from here?
Jonathan Safran Foer’s exuberant, wildly stylized novel “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (2005) incorporates intertextuality, meta-fiction and a young boy’s spiritual education — what we English major folks call “bildungsroman” — in reconciling national trauma. Foer’s novel was published two years after British author Ian McEwan’s politically engaged “Saturday” (2005), also a rigorous novel about post-9/11 psychology. Yet Foer offers a more flesh-and-blood, human tale of coping in the 21st century.
“Extremely Loud” has a complex visual surface featuring color and black-and-white images, blank pages, broken text and even a flipbook used at the book’s end to achieve surprising emotional effect. Yet the story at the novel’s center is simple: Nine-year-old narrator Oskar Schell, who is also the most precocious kid you’ll encounter in contemporary literature, searches New York high and low in search of a lock to match a key left behind by his father who died on September 11. In doing so, he uncovers the buried past of his ancestors and experiences emotional catharsis.
Had this novel been written in standard typography, with a linear narrative and a clearly outlined story arc, perhaps Foer would have fallen short in his attempt to reconstruct the stories of individual people affected by the attacks. Here he has shown us that, in the wake of disaster and in order to reinvent the tired genre of the “trauma narrative,” a novel might need to leave Modernist literary conventions behind to find truth and meaning.
Soldered to historical literary conventions — think Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist” meets W.G. Sebald’s “Austerlitz,” also a millennial trauma narrative — Foer’s approach to visual writing suggests that we need to look outside of what we typically view as “literature” to explore a deep psychological wound, a wound that’s in all of us. In turn, it seems that the implements of pre-9/11 literary tradition afforded us no way of reshaping our own trauma narrative.
Not only did Foer set the bar for how we understand September 11 in terms of the novel, a site for exploring for emotions we can’t yet broach, he in effect imagined a whole new tradition of fiction writing. No journalism, or at least none I can think of, could do such a thing.