"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close": Science, aesthetics, and ethics of trauma fiction

Picasso’s “Le coq saigné”, painted in France in the mid-20th century could be seen as a response to the traumatic events of World War II.

It’s miraculous that after two world wars, a Holocaust, and a cold war, “trauma fiction” was only coined in the 1990’s. Trauma is fascinating, whether it’s sexual, verbal, physical, or another form. It could be a force that captures all parts of an individual. Someone undergoing trauma could have their senses and perceptions changed in such a way they question fundamental tenets of themselves. They may experience distrust, fear, and anxiety throughout other experiences. When one tries to write about trauma, it’s not uncommon that languages fails them. How can someone write about such a paralyzed, numb state? What sort of description can do justice to trauma while remaining objectively detached? And trauma itself can force an individual to re-examine moments of their life that they can’t seem to shake off. For fiction writers searching for narratives and themes, there are ways of identifying key concepts of trauma. Instead of focusing on what happened in the past, it’s important to understand why we remember those things. 

Comparing trauma to a means of survival allows one to view reactions to different psychologically difficult experiences as having some sort of reason to them. Jonathan Foer’s 2005 novel Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close takes a creative, near-experimental approach to the American trauma of 9/11. The novel’s protagonist, a nine-year-old genius Oskar, struggles with the truth of the world after losing his father to the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center. When I read the book in high school, I admired Oskar’s introspective abilities for a child with a severe form of suffering. Yet I felt as though my AP Literature and Composition class didn’t quite capture the true ethical dilemma inherent within Oskar.The magical realism of the novel shows how it is created with techniques that don’t adhere to common realist notions of reality. Instead, the protagonists strategies of dealing with trauma bring him a sense of ethical assertion of the obvious immorality of the terrorist attacks. Oskar’s meaning creates a criticism of political terrorism.

For Foer to write about 9/11, even four years after it happened, was a risk. In the wake of 9/11 many radio stations, television broadcasts, and even movie theaters avoided showing terrorism or terrorism-related media. But Foer’s attempt to capture a mind with post-traumatic syndrome with such detail shows how trauma causes the mind to repeatedly experience and re-experience events of its past until the mind fully understands it. In re-examining the past, the mind enters fantasy and, in this case, a form of magical realism as it relies on memory and repeatedly encountering past events. The reader is left to wonder whether Oskar’s remembrance of the event is real or solely exists in his mind. Foer even uses creative techniques of writing by showing pages that have multiple letters and words written over them (and over them and over them) in such a way they parallel the memories of crashing of the planes into the towers. Or the rumination of trauma. Over and over again. Or the rumination of trauma. Over and over again. Disrupting his sense of time (and possibly space, too), Foer uses a mythic mood reminiscent of modernist literature like T.S. Eliot and Gabriel García Márquez. 

Speaking of time and space, Oskar’s deep interest in theoretical physics lets him draw parallels between the past and the present. In fact, it wasn’t until I entered university and began studying physics and philosophy that I saw the extremely close parallels between physics and trauma. As I read Hawking’s physics “story” A Brief History of Time as well as Alan Lightman’s provocative novel Einstein’s Dreams, I realized the components to the significance of Oskar’s interest in physics. Foer invokes the laws of special relativity and quantum physics to demonstrate that Oskar had a keen interest in the fantasy of what lies beyond our senses. In an effort to unify gravity with quantum mechanics, scientists posited an “imaginary” time that is inherent to the directions of space-time, that is, a way of proceeding through time not with the “classical” conventions of steady, unstoppable, linearity. With this “imaginary time”, you can move in circles, backward, and in whatever direction your mind chooses to. It leads to philosophical questions  such as difficulty in knowing the future while we have complete certainty of the past and what is the true difference between the past and the future. It also creates a form of magical realism in which the features of PTSD become our way of surviving in a chaotic, unforgiving universe. Moreover, Foer shares how Oskar studied the physicist Stephen Hawking and his three arrows of time according to the laws of entropy. The first is the easiest to grasp: our psychological understanding of time from past to future. The second is the thermodynamic arrow of time that moves from the past to the future, which dictates how systems of energy progress as the universe expands. This explains why an ice cube outside in the sun melts or why we need Carnot cycles to create engines to use energy. The third is the cosmological time of how the universe is currently expanding. Oskar draws upon this research to wonder how he may travel backwards in time, but, because the three arrows must point in the same direction, it isn’t possible. Foer is by no means the next Stephen Hawking, but his knowledge of physics allow him to incorporate a sort of “mythic” idea of science fiction – events governed by fantasy elements while still grounded in a reality of scientific inquiry. 

This brings us to the deeper ethical dilemmas of trauma. As part of a greater collection of works Trauma Fiction (by writer Anne Whitehead), Professor of English Cathy Caruth explains that the structure of trauma is a disruption of history or temporality (similar to Oskar’s disruption of space and time) and, as a result, not fully experienced by the victim at the time. For this reason, trauma can cause people to experience persistent and unwelcome thoughts in the future, malignantly effecting recall and recollection. In neurologist Sigmund Freud’s 1939 nonfiction work “Moses and Monotheism”, the  relation between “Man” the problem of becoming human is explored. Freud claims Moses was born to Egyptian nobility and his few followers decided to kill him in rebellion. These rebels would later experience incredible remorse for their action after Moses fused with Yahweh, they would create the “Messiah” in their hopes Moses would return as their savior. This controversial story explores how the material reality of the unconscious can be transmitted from one generation to the next through language in such a way that future generations are forced to deal with an uncomfortable, traumatic knowledge. Yet it would create the language and grounds for discussing trauma and memory for decades to come. In her book, Trauma: A Genealogy, writer Ruth Leys explains that this work by Freud is a place of investigation for memory, trauma, and history that is central to discussions of postmodernism and the Holocaust. By virtue of its inter-textuality and despite its recurrent historicist motifs, Freud’s Moses has also enthralled leading figures in French post-modernist philosophy, who have highlighted its importance for the writing of history, the concepts of suffering and the preservation of experience. Caruth comments, in her her account of psychoanalysis and literature Unclaimed Experience, the story is “a renewal of some of Freud’s earliest thinking on trauma is indicated by his use of the figure of the “incubation period” to describe traumatic latency; Freud had used this figure in his early writing in Studies on Hysteria (1895)”. A sort of incubation period is exactly how Oskar suffers to determine, as a theoretical physicist might, the true nature in our universe. In it, as the deep psychological forces underlying the individual take control, the fear, anxiety, paranoia, obsessiveness, and other dark parts of human nature take root. 

Freud makes the universality of trauma simple: Trauma seals the fate of man. The cause of our individual psychological difficulties have three salient features, Freud argues: they take place in early childhood, they’re generally avoided through other memories (that attempt to “screen” out the individual’s feelings), and traumatic impressions are generally sexual and aggressive as they attack the ego. Whitehead claims that trauma requires a non-linear literary form through abrupt or immediately self-evident methods. This trauma is usually dormant in which the symptoms are not shown until a later traumatic event in the individual’s life. As Caruth writes, “The experience of the soldier faced with sudden and massive death around him, for example, who suffers this sight in a numbed state, only to relive it later on in repeated nightmares, is a central and recurring image of trauma in our century” (in Unclaimed Experience). We’re not only haunted by the events of our past, but our own psychological difficulty in understanding those events.

Similar to Oskar’s detachment and disillusion of the world around him after his father’s death, the protagonist undergoes existential crises through his efforts in school and other areas of life. Foer disrupts space, time, and spacetime to show the obsessive, haunting feelings that plague the psyche. From these understandings of trauma, Caruth argues, with the case of trauma fiction, the individual undergoes a “crisis of truth” that extends to the individual’s society and peers. Whitehead further illustrates trauma fiction with her point that the ethical questions raised by the individual’s testimony have an inherent literary feature to them as a result of these sufferings. 

I absolutely despised reading the novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close in high school. I felt as though the narrator was too self-absorbed and couldn’t relate to him much. But now I look back on it with fondness. My English teacher emphasized the importance of taking apart an argument with all its assumptions and methods of reasoning when writing. That value and importance he gave me lead me to study philosophy in college as well as taking apart many other truths and ideals of this world. But I still worry that, despite the humanistic visions Foer had for his novel, these methods of literary can leave us staring at mental health patients as though they were fish in an aquarium. We’re distant and detached from their true suffering as we generalize and conceptualize the traumatic framework. For this reason, it’s important for us to remember in all our arguments, there is always a significant subjective, humane element in trauma. People react to problems differently and the way they affect our world views can sometimes be unpredictable and messy. 

No matter our literary, scientific, and philosophical efforts, we can’t turn back time. Foer tries, though, at the end of the novel to share images of a 9/11 jumper in reverse order. This slideshow gives the image that the person is not only moving backwards in time, but flying as though they were an angel ascending in their fantasy. A stark contrast to the horror of witnessing suicide, it at least gives the reader a sort of escapism from the trauma. Like all traumatic events, be them historical, psychological, sexual, or of any form in nature, the past remain unchanged. Still, we can turn to science, literature, and philosophy in creating these narratives for the betterment of the future. I’m not looking back in anger.

Published by

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: