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  • An Extremely Loud Tin Drum:A Comparative Study of Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Günter Grass's The Tin Drum
  • Sien Uytterschout (bio)


"To speak of [Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close] in the same breath as … The Tin Drum—the chilling Günter Grass novel from which Oskar derives his name—is the stuff of marketing, not serious critical assessment." This is how a reviewer of the Boston Globe debunked in advance any scholarly attempt at establishing an intertextual link between Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Günter Grass's The Tin Drum, castigating Foer's novel for its cheap and unwarranted references to Grass's work.1 Indeed, gratuitousness and a lack of inventiveness are among the friendlier tags that have been appended to Foer.2 This paper shows that the parallels between the two novels reach beyond the superficial analogies picked up by the critics, who see in Foer's Oskar Schell nothing more than an unimaginative, smaller brother of Grass's Oskar Matzerath. It is obvious that Foer's and Grass's protagonists are disconcertingly similar to each other. On the surface, their most conspicuous similarities are their shared first name and a penchant for percussion instruments, a tambourine and a tin drum respectively. These superficialities aside, The Tin Drum and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close both deal with life in the wake of manmade cataclysm. Both boys acutely experience the threat and evils of war: Oskar Schell's family falls victim to September 11, and Oskar Matzerath is the seemingly [End Page 185] impassive eyewitness of several World War II–related acts of terror, ranging from the atrocities on the Night of Broken Glass to the siege of the Polish Post Office and the subsequent annexation of the free city Danzig—his hometown—into the Third Reich. And with "th[at] mind of [his] which persists in excreting syllables," Oskar Matzerath's cognitive activities display a striking resemblance to Oskar Schell's overactive imagination, in both cases presumably a by-product of trauma.3 The intertextual link between the two novels, however, is by no means confined to superficial resemblances in the respective plots. Rather, similarities on the plot and thematic level are complemented by a set of characteristics typical of both trauma fiction and magical realism.

Comparing Oskars

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close tells the story of nine-year-old Oskar Schell, a precocious New Yorker of German-American descent, whose father perished in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. A year after these events, we find Oskar in a state of hyperactivity and hypervigilance, about to embark on what appears to be a wild goose chase across the five boroughs of New York City. The boy's quest begins when he comes across a mysterious key in an envelope labeled "Black" among his father's possessions. With only a tambourine for company, Oskar travels to all corners of the city in search of the matching lock to his key.4 The ensuing treasure hunt is driven by the boy's need to soothe his painfully lively imagination and quell an insatiable desire to recreate his father's image as accurately as possible, a necessary step in the process of gaining mastery over his trauma. At the same time, however, the child grows apart from his surviving loved ones, his mother and his paternal grandmother. Whenever he feels frustrated, Oskar lashes out at them. He throws violent, albeit imagined, tantrums in front of his classmates and his psychiatrist and finally also turns his anger toward himself in the form of self-chastisement. In addition, Oskar suffers from trauma-induced existential anxieties, which he tries to assuage by thinking up several ways to stunt his growth and by inventing all sorts of curious gadgets.5

Oskar's trauma narrative is enacted against the fragmented life story of his grandparents, both survivors of the Dresden air raids at the end of World War II. Thomas Schell and his future wife—who turns out to be the sister of his deceased girlfriend, Anna—come to New York independently of each other, carrying with...