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PHILOMELA REVISITED: TRAUMATIC ICONICITY IN JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER'S EXTREMELYLOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE Philippe Codde Ghent University Art makes up, what fortune has deny'd —Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book VI When the Jewish American novelist Jonathan Safran Foer published his sensational debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated (2002), at the age of 25, it met with rave reviews, instantly casting its author as one of the great hopes for the future of American letters; the New York Times waxed ecstatic and celebrated this work of "such brilliance and such brio" with two reviews in two weeks' time. The novel dealt with the Holocaust in a daringly funny and technically innovative way.1 While the critics cheered unanimously, many also wondered , somewhat fearfully, where Foer could possibly go with a second novel. When Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close appeared in 2005, it became clear that Foer had upped the ante, not only on the thematic level, but even more conspicuously in the novel's remarkable form, which Salman Rushdie appropriately dubbed "pyrotechnic" in his blurb.2 Thematically, Foer's second novel tackles some of the remaining historical traumas of the twentieth century that were left untouched in EverythingIs Illuminated: primarily 9/11, but the bombing of Dresden and Hiroshima also feature as important subtexts. On a formal level, Extremely Loud is even more extreme in its deviation from customary novels: it garishly plays with typography and the text is lavishly interspersed with pictures. Because of this seemingly playful approach to a subject matter requiring great gravitas, reviews of Foer's second novel have been rather mixed; many consider its form completely inappropriate for representing 9/1 1 . Yet many of these responses seem prompted, understandably, by emotions about the recentness (say, the incredible closeness) of the historical crisis of 9/1 1, rather than bybalanced considerations ofartistic representation. What so far has been left out of the debate is the question of the accuracy and suitability of Foer's novels as traumatic histories that attempt to access and to represent a painful past that is by definition inaccessible. 242Philippe Codde Psychotherapists and other students of testimony such as Dori Laub, Soshana Felman, Judith Herman, and Lawrence Langer have discussed the difficulties involved in testifying about historical or personal moments of crisis—words simply fail to capture these shattering experiences, and verbal testimonies therefore tend to be extremely circuitous and oblique.3 On a personal level, Jonathan Foer has had his own brush with a traumatizing event in childhood, and perhaps this explains part of his continuing interest in this intriguing phenomenon . This is by no means an attempt to argue that his novels are in any way occasioned or triggered by the author's childhood trauma; I rather want to suggest an explanation for Foer's intimate knowledge and understanding of traumatic events as instanced by his novels. Writing for the New York Times Magazine, Deborah Solomon explains that "[Foer's] development as a writer was shaped less by his parents and by his genetic endowments, less even by the novelists and poets he loves, than by a single event: the Explosion, as he calls it."4 In 1985, when Foer was eight, he was involved in an explosion in the chemistry lab at school, which critically injured two children, one of whom was Foer's best friend, and which left Foer with second degree burns on his hands and face. Although the experience shattered Foer's idyllic youth—or perhaps rather because it was such a shattering experience —he had never written a single word about it. His childhood fear that the skin of his face was peeling off after the explosion (Foer told Solomon, "I asked him [his friend] if the skin was pealing from my face. He said no. I asked him again. He said no. I remember making him promise") probably did influence his impressive description of the Dresden bombing in his second novel, where Thomas Sr. recounts how he "grabbed the doorknob and it took the skin off my hand, I saw the muscles of my palm, red and pulsing, why did I grab it with my other hand?" (Extremely, 211). Other than that, the childhood trauma typically expressed itselfonly...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 241-254
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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