The Anomie of Silence in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

  • Abstract:
    Andrew Ettin points out in ‘Speaking Silences’ that there is something paradoxical in discoursing about silence and something irresistible about querying into this notion, with its complex web of material and conceptual affinities and the long history of its problematization. Specialists in a range of fields including literature, philosophy, social sciences, medicine, and physics have sought to examine the locations and parameters of silence, discovering it in the ear (deafness), in the mouth (mutism), in discourse (pause), in memory (Alzheimer’s), in-between one person and another (absence of verbal communication), in the spirit (Buddhism), in music (rest), in law (the right to silence), and in culture (Michel Foucault’s conception of a ‘culture of silence’), to mention but a few. Many have found the opposition of silence and sound to be illusory, or have gone as far as dubbing silence ‘non-existent’ (John Cage). Ettin writes that ‘Perhaps it is a phantom: there really is no silence, because within the seeming silence lies the white noise of our own meaning’. In this sense, silence is simultaneously pauses, spaces or moments, that have been deliberately interposed in a structure and inadvertent ‘inflections’ that have inserted themselves in objects of a particular order, frequency, or parameters from which they are distinct. This paper is particularly attentive to the latter. Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ (2005) focuses on nine-year-old and precocious Oscar Shell, trying to cope with his father’s death on September 11, 2001, and the relationships of which he becomes a part in the process. Of central interest to this paper, however, is the predominantly epistolary sub-narrative of Oscar’s paternal grandfather, Thomas Shell, and his grandmother (who remains nameless), both of whom are survivors of the Bombing of Dresden in 1945. Their correspondence ‘fragmented, performative, and vertiginous’ is not only to each other but also, by Thomas Shell, to his child (Oscar’s father) and, by the grandmother, to Oscar himself. Describing his lapse into muteness, and just before he tattoos ‘yes’ and ‘no’ on his left and right palm respectively, Thomas Shell notes: ‘ ‘I’ was the last word I was able to speak aloud’ (17), ‘silence overtook me like a cancer (16). His relation to silence raises the three questions focal to this paper. ‘Which inflections make the grandfather’s silence distinct?’ Among the inflections that I examine are commemoration (mourning), resistance (defiance), and care (preservation). How does the text invite silence and in what ways does silence bespeak the multiple exiles of the grandfather? Silence enacts, I argue, the grandfather’s exile from his homeland and the life he had envisioned, from his own words, his family, and the conventional parameters that frame existence (‘yes’ and ‘no,’ ‘something’ and ‘nothing’); too, silence constitutes an exile from the creative potential of “the spoken word” and from life, because of a fear of creating destruction. But more than impervious and passive (as some have argued), is silence not a mode affective and ‘teeming’ (as Cage describes it), and perhaps even necessary for the reconstitution of one’s self. In the text, I argue, silence emerges as an exile into a different mode, a mode of restless mobility that is, at the same time, open and generative.