A man there was in the Land of Uz
Jonathan Safran Foer’s second novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, closes with a flip-book sequence of one of the falling men from the World Trade Center. The order of the images are reversed, so that he begins at the bottom of the page, part-way down a tower, and rises until he disappears above the top of the page. It is a kind of partial resurrection, more akin to the death reversed of Ezekiel’s vision than the re-rising of Jesus in the tomb. The flesh returns to the bones; a body rises back into its office.
I am not a fan of this novel. I think it is precious and pretentious. I read it some years ago and many of the details have since slipped my mind, but the story centers around a precocious child whose father was killed when the Towers collapsed. He has a key, and takes it as his task to search for what it unlocks. It will, he imagines, be some secret—of his father, of life, of death, of anything. In the end, he wishes he hadn’t found the lock because now he can’t continue searching for it. The key’s promise is disappointed; there is no balm from Gilead, at least not behind this door.
But what could he have found that would have been enough? We know from the Voice that answered Job in a whirlwind that no comprehensible answer is possible—but even before this, we know from Job’s righteous cries that no answer, possible or impossible, comprehensible or incomprehensible, can ever be accepted. “Curse God and die,” they tell him, and he demurs. He will not curse God—but he, the violated, will accuse Him, for the sake of His justice.
The boy can do neither. There is no God, he knows, to curse or accuse. There is no cosmic order of which this event must be part—yet he searches for one anyway, or claims to. But he is, after all, just a boy. In some ways, one must have lived first to be like Job, to rage, for a moment, with more justice and righteousness than God. The boy is a pained child—and seeks not justice, but salve; not explanation, but reparation.
The final pages, before the images, reveal the nature of this quest. He reverses the pictures and—“if I’d had more pictures”—the whole day could have—“would have”—been undone. He details, for a page, how his father would be restored, moving like a video on rewind, or the bodies the prophet saw in the dust of the valley. “We would have been safe.” And then the images, but they are not enough.
There is no resurrection, only the hope of one. There is no reparation, no reversal. There is only brokenness—and in brokenness, through brokenness, life.
It is unclear whether the novel acknowledges this lesson, or whether it closes still rooted to the magical thinking that permeates it and its predecessor—a thinking which sees wonder even in suffering. The boy, tellingly, carries a tambourine, an indication, as the song goes, of the wish to “forget about today until tomorrow.” Losing oneself in a dance, into enthusiasm, seeking to step out of the present. His father is dead, but maybe, if he can find more pictures, enough pictures, he can reverse the spell and bring him back.
Brokenness as an aberration! Life is meant to be whole. This world of suffering must be some construct; there must be some other, truer world than this. Let us dance beneath the diamond sky, one hand waving free!
Such a condemnation of the present slips into Bacchanal enthusiasm. There is magic all around us. (My picture book is charmed!) If I drink of it, it will free me from tyrannous today. But enthusiasm, as Levinas knew, is the being possessed, being torn from its humanity. It is a violent act that begets violence, and, as Cynthia Ozick’s “Pagan Rabbi” learned too late, it is an act one commits against oneself.
The body of the Pagan Rabbi, learning too late that his soul is a Jew, a Pharisee, the de-charmer of the world, hangs itself with its prayer shawl. The tree on which he is found—the object of his lust—is notable for its ugliness, and the park smells only of sewage. There was no salve to be had, no balm in Gilead, just the howl of Job’s poetry against the wind.
So I worry for the boy Foer created. He is in college now, or will be soon. Who will he love? Who will he hurt? Will the aftermath pain him—or will he feel the prick of pleasure? I worry because I saw how the boy in all of us—the child that is eternal in America the youthful—lashed out when he found the lock that matched his key but found no balm behind the door, when the reversed flip-book failed to bind dry bones with muscle and sinew. The violated became the violator. They would suffer for the sake of our suffering.
Or perhaps, when he feels it start to swell up in him again, he runs to the courtyard, his throat hoarse and snot streaming from his nose, and spends the night singing, one among many in a midnight choir of Jobs and their brothers.