Friday, 31 July 2015

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

I'm late to the party as usual but I've just finished reading Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, originally published in 2005, thanks to a tip-off from my clever niece Alisha.

The bombing of the World Trade Centre is becoming old news, but its effects are still with us and even more so still with our Islamic communities.  Last night I went to the launch of my friend Dave Andrews' book The Jihad of Jesus which deals with dialogue and common ground between Christianity and Islam.  That's a whole other subject, but  Dave's friend and local Islamic community leader Nora Amath shared her own story of how, in the wake of that event, she and her friends and family in Australia experienced increasing suspicion and aggression as they went about their daily lives.  They had nothing to do with it and were as horrified as everyone else, but were still blamed and vilified - and continue to be to this day.

How can we see this event in perspective?  Foer's lovely book gives us some important clues.  It is set in 2003, two years after the World Trade Centre was destroyed, and narrated mostly by 9-year-old Oskar Schell whose father was killed in the attack, with occasional interpositions by his grandmother and grandfather.

I think it must be incredibly hard to write an adult book from a child's point of view but some great novels have resulted - To Kill a Mockingbird, for instance, or Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.  The trick is that the child must only know and understand what a child of that age could, while revealing enough for the adult readers to understand what the narrator himself does not.

Since this is a mystery of sorts I won't tell you too much.  Suffice to say that Oskar is not dealing well with his grief, and his mother, grandmother and counsellor are worried about him.  His bafflement seems to be made worse by some odd traits which suggest he may be a little further than most along the ASD spectrum, although this is not explicitly mentioned.

Going through his father's cupboard one day, he finds a vase on the top shelf.  He accidentally breaks it and inside he finds a key in an envelope with the word "Black" written on the front.  The key doesn't open anything in his apartment, so he sets out on a secret quest to find out what is is for, and what this might reveal about his father.  To do this he resolves to visit everyone in New York with the surname "Black", going through the phonebook systematically from A to Z.

What's important to me here is what this quest, and some of the other events that surround it and in which it is embedded, suggest to us about how we might respond to the World Trade Centre bombing.

The first important point is that the story never mentions Islam.  Not once.  It does not discuss politics, international relations, the motives for the attack or the wars that resulted from it.  This is not because Oskar is incapable of understanding these - Oskar is an extremely intelligent child - but because he is completely absorbed in his own grief and pain.  His loss blots out everything else.

The second point is that this is not the only atrocity in world history.  Two others appear in the story.  The firebombing of Dresden in  February 1945, in which British and American bombers dropped thousands of incendiary devices and killed over 20,000 German civilians, plays a pivotal role in the story.  Once again there is no political commentary - the story is just there, part of Oskar's family history and indeed its present although he doesn't know it.  In a brief cameo we also hear of an even bigger atrocity, the bombing of Hiroshima, told once again through a shocking personal story of grief which Oskar plays to his classmates.   He expands on the story by describing how those nearest to the explosion were completely destroyed but their shadows remained.  There is also the merest hint, no more, of the Holocaust.

The third point is that alongside these stories of mass grief are set the ordinary griefs of life.  Many of the people Oskar visits - a random cross-section of the New York population who share nothing but a surname - are dealing with their own grief - the loss of a partner, a divorce or separation, the loss of a dream.  None of these griefs are connected to the World Trade Centre.  They happen to us all.  Grief, Foer shows us, is one of the human constants.

So how do we deal with grief?  If the question is "how do we solve grief", the answer is clearly that we can't.  Grief doesn't go away.  Instead we find ways to cope with it, to make it part of our lives without destroying ourselves.  For some this is impossible - like for Oskar's grandfather.  There is a real possibility that grief can damage us beyond repair along with those we love.  Oskar experiences this possibility himself as he says hurtful things to his mother, and as he tells lie after lie to protect the secrets associated with his own grief.

Yet their are other options.  Some people build shrines to those they have lost, like the young woman who has done picture after picture of the same man.  Others create illusions to allow themselves to pretend that perhaps the person they lost is still alive, like the woman who spends her life at the top of the Empire State Building from where she can imagine her husband still signalling from below.  We can use our grief as a spur to do things we always meant to do, like the man who spends the time between his terminal diagnosis and his death writing letters to every person he has ever known.

Then there is diversion, Oskar's own strategy.  Oskar is a walking, talking bundle of diversions.  He is constantly "inventing": coming up with weird and wonderful technological ideas, like the birdseed coat which would allow its wearer to jump from a burning building and be carried away by birds, or the system of pipes which would collect the tears of the people who cried themselves to sleep into a giant reservoir.  He writes a steady stream of letters to famous people seeking a personal connection.  He writes to a famous naturalist researching elephants' memory asking if he can become her assistant.  He sends Ringo Starr a set of bomb-proof drumsticks and asks for drumming lessons.  But more than anyone he sends letter after letter to Stephen Hawking, author of A Brief History of Time, receiving each time a form reply assuring him that Hawking reads all the letters he receives and keeps them in the hope that one day he will be able to reply personally.  Will it ever happen?

Of course the quest for the lock which fits the key is itself a huge diversion, one of which he is possibly not aware himself but which is obvious to the adult reader.  Of all the possible ways he could go about his quest, he chooses the one calculated to take the longest and produce the most uncertain results.  Yet for all its seeming aimlessness it also serves as a survival strategy, giving him a sense of purpose and engaging him in the lives of others.

Or there is the one we use so often, and are still using, but which never seems to occur to Oskar or to Foer.  We can convert our grief to anger, and since we have no access to the actual perpetrators we can take it out on people who share a similar religion, or wear the same kind of clothes.  It doesn't help, it doesn't make us feel any better.  We just keep getting angrier and angrier.

As Foer shows us (oh, so gently!), Dresden, Hiroshima and the Holocaust show that Islam and New York have no monopoly on atrocities.  Each is a collection of thousands of personal griefs, adding their tally to the reservoir of tears.  We all need to learn how to live with this grief without multiplying it endlessly.  Everything else is just diversion.

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