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Ripples of Trauma in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and in Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers

Gwen Le Cor


Cet article s’intéresse à la manière dont Jonathan Safran Foer (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close) et Art Spiegelman (In the Shadow of No Towers)mettent en mouvement l’onde de choc créée par le 11 Septembre. Sous la plume de Foer et de Spiegelman, les répétitions traumatiques deviennent un mode narratif qui permet tout à la fois de dire le trauma et de dépasser le stade de la sidération. Par effet de propagation, la répétition tisse les fragments traumatiques pour faire émerger un récit.

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1The writers’ need to voice the unspeakable haunts all trauma literature, but the impulse behind 9/11 literature is slightly different. The images of the planes striking the World Trade Center and of the towers collapsing have been shown ad nauseam on the world’s television screens and, as Martin Randall underlines, writers are left to wonder “what would language add to those images that they don’t already articulate? Indeed, why write at all given the staggering enormity of the visual symbolism?” (Randall 5). All authors thus have to contend both with the unassimilated nature of the traumatic event, and with its visual representation, with what Slavoj Žižek describes as the “theatrical spectacle” put on by the media (Žižek 9).

  • 1  The reference to “the desert of the real” in The Matrix is to Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Sim (...)

2As Žižek explains “the endless repeated shot of the plane approaching and hitting the second WTC tower” can be viewed as “the real-life version of the famous scene from Hitchcock’s Birds” in which Melanie’s head is hit by a bird. The plane becomes “the ultimate Hitchcockian blot, the anamorphic stain which denaturalized the idyllic well-know New York landscape” (14-15). Žižek weaves the hollywoodian comparison further, and argues that those who experienced the event on television felt something akin to what is presented in the movie The Matrix (1999) when “the hero […] awakens into ‘real reality’ [and] sees a desolate landscape littered with burnt-out ruins,” what the movie exposes as “the desert of the real”1 (15):

Was it not something of a similar order that took place in New York on September 11? Its citizens were introduced to the ‘desert of the real’—for us, corrupted by Hollywood, the landscape and the shots of the collapsing towers could not but be reminiscent of the most breathtaking scenes in big catastrophe productions. (Žižek 15)

  • 2  According to Jonathan Safran Foer “Both the Holocaust and 9/11 were events that demanded retelling (...)

3The impetus behind 9/11 literature can thus be seen as an attempt to look beyond the “theatrical spectacle” put on by the media, or as an effort to make sense of the “desert of the real.” I would like to examine Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2005) and Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers from this perspective, that is, I would like to consider the narrative momentum that drives the (re)telling.2

4Trauma theory and the representation of trauma, provide the background on which both works are set. It is apparent for instance in the visual answer Foer provides to one his characters’ assertions to write the unspeakable. While the grandfather urges “It’s unspeakable, write it” (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close 124), the novel delivers but a series of blank pages (120-123), thus materializing the void bestowed upon us by the story’s “two thousand white pages” (124). What is at stake here, is a visual questioning on the possibility of narrating the unspeakable.

5The graphic choices in the second plate of In The Shadow of No Towers point to a similar, if symmetric, questioning. Art Spiegelman depicts himself as a cartoon character suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and conjures up traumatic memories. As he does so, the frames are progressively tilted and grow thicker, ultimately becoming the World Trade Center towers aflame with the first plane. The graphic tilt underscores the mechanisms of PTSD, allowing the reader to experience the haunting power of the image. As the frames zoom in on the World Trade Center towers, the narrative comes to a standstill, and the reader is caught up in the traumatic flashback which haunts both the character and the comix. The haunting images thus seem to obliterate the storyline.   

6My reading starts from this broken narrative link and examines how both Art Spiegelman and Jonathan Safran Foer turn the compulsive repetitions of trauma into narrative devices.

  • 3  Most scholars have turned to trauma as a theoretical grid for reading both Extremely Loud & Incred (...)
  • 4  I refer to “noise” in the sense of electronic noise, i.e., as what produces an interference in a s (...)
  • 5  Cathy Caruth explains that “trauma is not locatable in the simple violent or original event in an (...)

7Considerable critical attention has been devoted to trauma in both works (see for instance, Versluys 2006 and 2009, Codde 2007, Huehls 2008, Uytterschout and Versluys 2008),3 and though my own reading is indebted to these analyses, I would like to shift the focus slightly and examine the way trauma ripples. I take “ripples” in the literal sense of the term: starting from a point of impact and spreading through the novel/graphic novel. I seek to demonstrate that the ripples of trauma, like the undulations on the surface of water, create a kind of “noise,”4 that is to say, a disturbance which disrupts the initial media telling. They introduce an interference which allows trauma to be revealed and conveyed. I will show that the ripples reinvest the repetition compulsion and the “unassimilated nature” of trauma which “returns to haunt the survivor.”5 Instead of presenting unassimilated fragments of traumatic images, the ripples weave together the fragmentary reiterations, thus allowing a narrative to emerge.  

Textual Beats

8The first chapter of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is narrated by Oskar, a nine year old boy who lost his father in the World Trade Center attacks. Jonathan Safran Foer confronts us to Oskar’s nonsensical post-9/11 world, and asks us to plunge in the nine-year-old’s traumatized mind. “What about a teakettle?” is our first unsettling glimpse at Oskar’s thoughts. Oskar imagines a kettle that can “do Shakespeare,” read in his father’s voice or sing songs by the Beatles:

What about a teakettle? What if the spout opened and closed when the steam came out, so it would become a mouth, and it could whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare, or just crack up with me? I could invent a teakettle that reads in Dad’s voice, so I could fall asleep, or maybe a set of kettles that sings the chorus of ‘Yellow Submarine’ which is a song by the Beatles, who I love … (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close 1)

9This intriguing association involving a teakettle, Oskar’s father, Shakespeare and the Beatles, is both the novel’s disconcerting point of entry, and the first occurrence in a series of references which reverberate throughout Oskar’s account. Allusions to songs by the Beatles—“Yellow Submarine” (1); “Money can’t buy me love” (3), “Help” (26), “Elenor Rigby” (163), “Hey Jude” (207) - and to Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1, 3, 37, 55, 70, 74, 142-147, 322) resound through the novel. The recurring references point to a traumatized mind, but they are not mere pathologic symptoms. Instead of showing “Time [standing] still at the moment of trauma” (In the Shadow of No Towers, plate 2), they create a system of echoes which acts as an antidote to trauma’s repetitions, and ultimately allows its transmission.

  • 6  “raisons d’être” (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close 1, 7, 68, 69, 100), “Anyway” (2, 3,4, 11, 38, (...)

10The first pages of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close are pulsating with musical references and throbbing sounds: the kettle “whistles” and “sings,” we read of a “tambourine,” a “five-piece drum set,” and “cymbals,” and Oskar conjures up heartbeats that would sound like sonars: “When you skateboarded down the street at night you could hear everyone’s heartbeat, and they could hear yours, sort of like a sonar” (1). Starting from that premise, the repetitions that echo through Oskar’s tale6 can also be read as beats. Visually they are either lost in the flow of writing, highlighted by the use of italics, or isolated as one word sentences, one word paragraphs. Yet, instead of being textual manifestations of an underlying trauma, they give the narrative its rhythm; they are the pillars on which the story is built. The repetitions punctuate the account and create the momentum for the story to unfold.

11“Anyway” is a case in point. It is Oskar’s way of allowing the narrative to progress when it threatens comes to a stop. Whenever the telling is on the verge of breaking down, “anyway” is Oskar’s formula to take it down a different road:  

And so, there are so many times when you need to make a quick escape, but humans don’t have their own wings, not yet, anyway, so what about a birdseed shirt?
My first jujitsu class was three and a half months ago. (2)

And when something really terrible happened—like a nuclear bomb, or at least a biological weapons attack—an extremely loud siren would go off, telling everyone to get to Central Park to put sandbags around the reservoir.
The next morning …  (38)

Even if it was relatively insignificant, it was something, and I needed to do something, like sharks, who die if they don’t swim, which I know about.
I decided that I would go through the names alphabetically … (87)

12“Anyway” pulsates throughout the novel, and as Oskar puts it, musical beat has a soothing quality:

I desperately wish I had my tambourine with me now, because even after everything I’m still wearing heavy boots, and sometimes it helps to play a good beat. (2)

  • 7  « Le rythme est une énergie, pas une métrique, pas une géométrie d’arpenteur, pas une mathématique (...)

13The repetitions are both the evidence of Oskar’s traumatized mind and a way for the character to convey the unspeakable. Following Plato’s definition of rhythm as what orders movement, Jean-Paul Goux reminds us that “rhythm is an energy.”7 And indeed here the beats create a thrust which enables Foer to share Oskar’s story. They are the textual equivalent of the songs Oskar plays on his tambourine. They provide the cadence which drives the narrative.

First Beat, Hamlet

14What then, are the beats that Foer plays for us? His tale starts with a teakettle that can “do Shakespeare,” thus establishing the playwright as part of the counter-narrative. All the references to Shakespeare come with an ironical twist. Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy is reduced to its bare minimum—a photography (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close 55) or its first sentence.

Twelve weeks later was the first performance of Hamlet, although it was actually an abbreviated modern version, because the real Hamlet is too long and confusing, and most of the kids in my class have ADD. For example the famous “To be or not to be” speech, which I know about from the Collected Shakespeare set Grandma bought me, was cut down so that it was just, “To be or not to be, that’s the question.” (142)  

15Shakespeare’s text is not just truncated, it is as if the repetitions had emptied it of all meaning. It has become a cliché, a “famous” sentence that can be passed on. And in fact in Oskar’s world, Shakespeare’s plays, are no longer a text but an object, one that can be carried “four tragedies at a time” and piled up so as to create a stepping stone to reach a vase:

What was a pretty blue vase doing way up there? I couldn’t reach it, obviously, so I moved the chair with the tuxedo still on it, and then I went to my room to get the Collected Shakespeare set that Grandma bought for me when she found that I was going to be Yorick, and I brought those over, four tragedies at a time, until I had a stack that was tall enough. I stood on all of that, and it worked for a second. But then the tragedies started to wobble… and the next thing was that everything was on the floor, including me, and including the vase, which had shattered. (37)

16Rather than focusing on the cynicism, I would like to consider the “stack” that Foer builds for us. Oskar’s heap seemed stable for a while, “it worked for a second,” but the “tragedies started to wobble.” The shaking is essential. It is first a shivering sent through Shakespeare’s tragedies and which helps create a situation verging on farce. Yet what is set in motion exceeds comic relief.  Just as the pile wobbles, so too does the novel. The reference to the photograph on page 55, which represents a scene from Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, exemplifies this. As Susan Sontag analyzed, “photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire” (4). But here the picture doesn’t “furnish evidence” of reality (Sontag 5).  It is destabilized by its interaction with the text. Indeed, Oskar’s role in his school play is not that of Hamlet, but, quite unexpectedly, that of the skull (Extremely Loud &Incredibly Close 142-147). The echoes between the visual and the written elements create a ripple which make the text vibrate and tell a different story. Oskar might be haunted by the ghost of his father, but it is Yorick, not the ghost of Hamlet that haunts Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Foer is asking us to make the photograph wobble, and to look at images from a different and quite unanticipated perspective.

17In Philosophy in a Time of Terror, Jacques Derrida underlines the neutralizing effect of repetition: “repetition always protects by neutralizing, deadening, distancing a traumatism, and it is true for the repetition of the televised images” (86-87). In this reading, the media images did not capture the reality of the event, they neutralized it. The exact opposite happens in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, the photographs create small ripples which introduce noise in the tale told by the media. By disturbing the smooth surface, the noise thus created surprises the reader out of the deadening repetitive effect of trauma, and allows her/him to come closer to the event.

Through “Crummy” Eyes

18As Oskar repeats the word “weird” over and over again, the reader experiences the weirdness created by the distortion. Yet, the echoing “weird” can also be read as a reference to Macbeth’s Weird Sisters. What seems to resonate here, is therefore also the three witches’ statement in the first scene: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair: /Hover through the fog and filthy air.”  (Macbeth, Act 1, scene 1)

19The images of the “falling man” are a case in point. The initial photograph, taken by Richard Drew and published the next day in the New York Times and in most newspapers, was removed altogether from the media, becoming a kind of taboo image:      

In the most photographed and videotaped day in the history of the world, the images of people jumping were the only images that became, by consensus, taboo -- the only images from which Americans were proud to avert their eyes. (Junod 2009)

20This taboo image is central to Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Falling figures are weaved in Oskar’s tale, be it in the text (“bodies falling”) or in the photographs. I would like to focus on two images:  a blurred zoom (62) and a “falling cat” (191). The blurred zoom represents Oskar’s attempt at examining “extremely closely” the videos he found on the Internet of “bodies falling” (256). Yet, instead of improving representational accuracy, the zoom magnifies the initial image “until the pixels are so big it stops looking like a person” (257). The explanation for the falling cat is suggested by the text/image layout and Oskar’s account on the previous page: Oskar took his cat to school and “dropped him from the roof to show how cats reach terminal velocity by making themselves into little parachutes” (190). What is striking is that both pictures appear to be mirror images of one another. They reverberate with one another, creating ripples of meaning. The apparent clarity of the “falling cat” presents itself as a proof of Oskar’s experimentation, while the blurring points to the unattainable trauma. The narrative constructs itself in the gaps, obliquely—through the fog and filthy air.

21Likewise, the “falling cat” is not without disruptions. The cat detaches itself on a black background, making it appear as a collage. In the end both images have been tampered with: one is blurred and the other one is a creation. They are constructs, imposing a vision on reality. And as such they must be made to wobble if we are to experience the reality of the event.

  • 8  I refer here to Dori Laub’s explanation that “There is, in each survivor, an imperative need to te (...)

22The grandmother repeatedly highlights the poor quality of her vision. “My eyes are crummy” (30, 81, 119, 124, 176, 233, 307, 309), the phrase recurs with unyielding tenacity. Perhaps then is Foer asking us to look with “crummy eyes,” to allow for the distortion created by the ripples. He is asking us to blur the precision and vividness of neurotic images in order to “know” them, “unimpeded by ghosts from the past.”8

  • 9  “The Portraits” was “a daily feature in the Times from September 15, 2001 to December 31, 2001” (M (...)

23Another set of 9/11 photographs echo in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, in the form of the portraits that Oskar takes on his quest to find the Blacks (98, 284). Oskar’s portraits are the symmetrical opposites of the flyers of the Missing People whose faces where posted all over New York (“There were posters everywhere.” 299). While the flyers gave “a face to the faceless” (Versluys 2009, 8) and could be seen as endeavors to tell the life story of those they depicted, Oskar’s photographs are mute and faceless. They are taken from behind, and have seemingly no story to tell. While brutally and effectively pointing to the unnarratable, the photographs also compel us change our outlook. As Brian A. Monahan contends, the flyers, along with the New York Times’s “Portraits of Grief,”9 contributed to a dramatization of the event by “cultivating emotionality” (Monahan, 117). In choosing faceless generic photos—a man and a woman—Foer’s “portraits” unveil the emotional framing that took place after 9/11. Foer modifies the angle from which the pictures are taken and guides his reader through the looking glass.

24Oskar’s portraits are weaved with textual vignettes reminiscent of the “Missing People” flyers, but, as with the portraits, Foer’s vignettes come with a twist. The first portrait and Oskar’s card epitomize this. The layout presents them as two sides of the same coin (99). They are printed on the same double page, and in Oskar’s rendering of the encounter, the character appears to be offering his card in exchange for Abby Black’s portrait:  “Can I at least take a picture of you?” […]  “Here’s my card” (99). The textual ripples then take us from a first card where Oskar’s identity is itemized, to a second card where he is reduced to a generic description




(Extremely Loud &Incredibly Close 99)

                                     OSKAR SCHEL: SON                                                  

(Extremely Loud &Incredibly Close 286)

25In the first card, Oskar collects identities as he does objects and becomes an item in his own collection, while in the second card, his identity is condensed in one word: “son”. As with the photos, the narrative framing is exposed for what it is, and the story reduced to a generic definition. As Dori Laub remarks,

There are never enough words or the right words, there is never enough time or the right time, and never enough listening or the right listening to articulate the story that cannot be fully captures in thought, memory, and speech (63)  

26Foer asks the reader to shed the initial narrative framing and invites us to return to the “right words” and “the right listening”, i.e., one that has crystallized to its core meaning.

Ripple Effect: “reeling on that faultline where World History and Personal History collide”

27The ripples are also of a different order, they take us from one trauma to the next—from 9/11 to the 1945 Dresden bombings. The chapters alternate, juxtaposing Oskar’s story and the traumatic accounts of both his grand-parents (the sequence of narrators Oskar-Grandpa-Oskar-Grandma is repeated four times with a final chapter told by Oskar). Yet, this is no mere collage, it is a construction whose meaning is both amplified and unveiled by the other’s story. The chapter entitled “WHY I’M NOT WHERE YOU ARE,” and dated from another September 11, 9/11/03, exemplifies this. The narrative structure seems to trap the reader in the grandfather’s charred mind as it opens on the character’s written assertion “I don’t speak, I’m sorry” (262) and ends on a page of saturated black ink (284). The ink blotting out the grandfather’s account at the end of the chapter materializes his lost capacity to speak, thus confining the reader to an obliteration loop. Yet, the full impact of the chapter unfolds only as it reverberates with Oskar’s account. Visually, the blackened page concluding the grandfather’s chronicle is echoed in one of Oskar’s photographs, the one representing the empty sky after the 9/11 attacks (318). As with the falling cat, the text/image layout is where meaning constructs itself, obliquely. Oskar explains that he “took pictures of the stars with Grandpa’s camera” (317). The grandfather’s camera thus links both blackened pages, interlacing the grandfather’s letter and Oskar’s narration.  

28Commenting upon Freud’s analysis of Tasso’s Tancred/Clorinda’s story, Cathy Caruth states that “we can read the address of the voice here, not as a story of the individual in relation to the events of his own past, but as the story of the way in which one’s own trauma is tied up with the trauma of another” (Caruth 1996, 8). By weaving the grandfather’s letter and Oskar’s narration, Foer points to the “speech delivered by the other’s wound” (Caruth 1996, 8) - the grandfather’s wounded mind speaks through Oskar’s pictures. As such, the dating functions as a kind of hyperlink between traumas thereby suggesting that all 9/11s stand for trauma.  

29In Philosophy in a Time of Terror, Jacques Derrida analyses the process of naming of the World Trade Center attacks through a date:

For the index pointing toward this date, the bare act, the minimal deictic, the minimalist aim of this naming also marks something else. Namely the fact that we perhaps have no concept, no meaning available to us to name in any other way this “thing” that has just happened, this supposed “event.” […]

The brevity of the appellation (September 11, 9/11) stems not only from an economic or rhetorical necessity. The telegram of this metonymy–a name, a number–points out the unqualifiable by recognizing that we do not recognize or even cognize, that we do not yet know how to qualify, that we do not know what we are talking about. (86)

30The dating process signals that we are at a loss for words, it indicates an unnamable trauma. The date, in a way, becomes the metonymy for trauma. This is what is at stake in Foer’s chapter heading “9/11/03.”

31In the same vein, the opening page of In the Shadow of No Towers pictures a newspaper, dated September 11 1901, which seems aflame in its center. The red-orange skeleton of the WTC tower tears through the newspaper page, linking two September 11s. “WOUND REOPENED,” as the headline suggests. The circular frame and the contrast of colors give the impression that the traumatic image sets the page on fire, thus mimicking the effects of traumatic images on memory, and illustrating “the repeated infliction of a wound” (Caruth 1996, 3). In Spiegelman’s own words, this attempt to paint “the looming north tower’s glowing bones just before it vaporized” was a struggle to capture the image that “still remains burned onto the inside of [his] eyelids several years later” (In the Shadow of No Towers introduction), an attempt at drawing the blaze.   

32Two aspects are crucial here, the burning and spatialization of trauma. While DeLillo’s post 9/11 world is a shade of grays, a world of “ash and near night”— “It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night” (DeLillo 2007, 3)— Spiegelman opts for an explosion of colors which is intensified by the contrast between the black cover and the red-orange skeleton of the tower. What is depicted is not “simply” a traumatic flashback. Spiegelman materializes the traumatized space, as one “marked by its relation to the disaster that preceded it” (Boulter 10).  

  • 10  Spiegelman explains in the introduction that he had intended his comix to bear witness to what he (...)

33Following Maurice Blanchot’s depiction of a “subjectivity without a subject” as a “wounded space” (Boulter 9), Jonathan Boulter remarks, that “this peculiar, traumatized, factured sensibility becomes explicitly materialized, spatialized, in contemporary literature” (Boulter 10). I would like to elaborate upon this idea of fracture and fragments. The structure of In the Shadow of No Towers–10 large scale pages–point to collage and “fragmentary thoughts” (In the Shadow of No Towers Introduction). Yet, instead of showing fragments of a shattered narrative, the incandescent bones reappear on each plate, and as such, create a system of echoes which provides graphic continuity. Indeed, while each series of frames functions as would neurotic PTSD flashbacks, that is, as “a response […] which takes the form of repeated, intrusive hallucinations” (Caruth 1995, 4), taken together, they create a graphic itinerary which links the comix’s pages. The process not only counters the fractured form of neurotic flashbacks, but also invents a new form, distinct from what that of testimony. 10 In Shoshana Felman’s analysis, testimony is a “speech act”.

composed of bits and pieces of memory that have been overwhelmed by occurrences that have not settled into understanding or memory, acts that cannot be constructed as knowledge nor assimilated into full cognition (16).

34Here, the tower’s “glowing bones” generate a wave filling the gaps between “bits and pieces of memory.” The ripples build a continuity from the neurotic flashbacks and help narrativize the author’s trauma while at the same time setting the page ablaze.

Metaphorical Ripples

35In the introduction to In The Shadow of No Towers, Spiegelman explains that “outrunning the toxic cloud that moments before was the north tower of the WorldTrade Center left [him]reeling on that faultline where World History and Personal History collide”. Indeed, as Kristiaan Versluys points out, “Spiegelman’s reaction to 9/11 is shaped in part by the fact that he was a direct witness of the terrorist attacks, and that, through hearing and recording the tales of his father, he was an indirect or secondary witness of the Holocaust” (Versluys 2006, 981). The second plate is particularly explicit in that respect. Political satire aside, the frames revolve around “issues of self representation” which inaugurate a historical traumatized author-figure. The author’s breakdown is staged in descending frames as the author/character becomes a mouse. The gray colors and the anthropomorphic mouse explicitly connect In the Shadow of No Towers to Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. By opting for the graphic codes of Maus, Spiegelman creates a turbulence which links September 11 and the Shoah. The historical reverberations thus help (re)define trauma.

36The echoes in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and In the Shadow of no Towers produce something akin to a ripple effect in that they initiate a process which aims at touching upon the incomprehensible. In that respect they are re-tellings of loops of images generated by the media. The immediacy of the news images as Jean Baudrillard contends, “[devoured] its own contents”(Baudrillard 120), and in the process trapped the viewers in staged terror. Conversely, the ripples, or rather the ripples as literary process, require a (re)thinking of terror.

37This attempt at defining and understanding trauma is essential. In the first plate, the “ETYMOLOGICAL VAUDEVILLE” introduces a shoe metaphor as being “19th Century source for 21st century’s dominant metaphor.” (In the Shadow of No Towers plate 1) This shoe metaphor—“Dropping the Other Shoe”— illustrates the “temporalization” of trauma.

38As Jacques Derrida explains,

It is the future that determines the unappropriability of the event, not the present or the past. Or at least, if it is the present or the past, it is only insofar as it bears on its body the terrible sign of what might or perhaps will take place, which will be worse than anything that has ever taken place…

Traumatism is produced by the future, by the to come, by the threat of the worst to come, rather than by an aggression that is “over and done with.”

  • 11  The ripple effect spreads further as the terrorist shoe becomes cowboy boots (plate 10): “Cowboy b (...)

39Waiting for that other shoe to drop!” (In the Shadow of No Towers plate 1) is the metaphorical equivalent of the terror that Derrida describes: “the wound remains open by our terror before the future and not only the past” (96). Spiegelman weaves the metaphor further and drops the shoe in the only circular frame of the plate. The “threat of the worse to come” (97) has been perverted by a capitalist logic: the terrorist shoe (“waiting for some other terrorist shoe to drop” Spiegelman 2004, plate 10) has its own brand, the “Jihad Brand Footware !”, and is sold in its latest “ NEW ! IMPROVED !” version. The metaphor takes us beyond terror, in the political stance. 11

  • 12  As Hillary Chute and Marianne De Koven explain, graphic narratives are “works that are in their ve (...)

40Spiegelman’s graphic narrative starts with the tower’s “glowing bones” but the ripples define trauma in political and historical terms. In the same vein, Foer’s text resounds with textual and graphic beats which take us from Oskar’s narrative to that of his grandparents. The graphic elements—be they drawings, photographs, layout, typography or the use of colors—interact with the text, creating a “cross-discursive”12 multi-layered structure which provide a series of itineraries through which trauma can be voiced. In that sense, the structural layering of visual and textual elements becomes a key element in the attempt to grapple trauma.

41In Tree of Codes, Foer experiments with layers. His text is a sculpture of sorts, carved out of the translation of an English language version of Bruno Schulz’s collection of short stories, The Street of Crocodiles (1934). The holes that Foer carves out, are windows opened on other pages. The die-cutting singles out words and sentences, and allows them to jump out of the page. The layering is made visible and the reading experience becomes three-dimensional. The ripples in Extremely Loud& Incredibly Close and In the Shadow of No Towers create something of the same order. Trauma resonates with other traumas. Cathy Caruth explains that,

The transformation of trauma into a narrative memory that allows the story to be verbalized and communicated, to be integrated into one’s own, and other’s knowledge of the past, may lose both the precision and the force that characterizes traumatic recall. (Caruth 1995, 153)

42Yet, I believe that both narratives build on narrative recall without losing its force. The ripples confront us to trauma and to its incomprehensibility, while, at the same time, providing the thrust for the narration to unfold.   

43In the afterword of Tree of Codes, Foer explains that his book is “not exactly a work of fiction. It is yet another note left in the cracks of the wall.” (Tree of Codes 139). Perhaps are Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and In the Shadow of No Towers also to be read as notes left in the “Wailing Wall.”

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(All links were accessed May 18, 2015).

Baudrillard, Jean  Simulacres et Simulation. Paris, Galilée. 1981.

Boulter, Jonathan. Melancholy and the Archive: Trauma, Memory, and History in the Contemporary Novel. Continuum International Publishing Group, London and New York, 2011.

Caruth, Cathy. Trauma: Explorations in Memory. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1995.

—. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 2006.

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1  The reference to “the desert of the real” in The Matrix is to Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. A hollowed-out version of Baudrillard’s work is shown in one of the shots, towards the beginning of the movie.

2  According to Jonathan Safran Foer “Both the Holocaust and 9/11 were events that demanded retellings.” (Solomon).

3  Most scholars have turned to trauma as a theoretical grid for reading both Extremely Loud & Incredibly and In the Shadow of No Towers. To name but a few, Mitchell Huehls’s article starts from the concept of Nachträglichkeit introduced by Sigmund Freud, to analyze “the temporal nature of trauma” in both works (Keniston and Quinn, Literature after 9/11, 42-59); Sien Uytterschout and Kristiaan Versluys address the issue of melancholy and mourning (2008) in Foer’s novel, and Philippe Codde explores “traumatic iconicity” (2007) in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Kristiaan Versluys focuses both on “the representation of trauma” (2006) and on the “politics of trauma” (2009) in Spiegelman’s graphic novel.

4  I refer to “noise” in the sense of electronic noise, i.e., as what produces an interference in a signal.

5  Cathy Caruth explains that “trauma is not locatable in the simple violent or original event in an individual’s past, but rather by its very unassimilated nature—the way it was precisely not known in the first instance—returns to haunt the survivor later on.” (Caruth 2006, 4).

6  “raisons d’être” (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close 1, 7, 68, 69, 100), “Anyway” (2, 3,4, 11, 38, 41, 44, 87, 91,100), ”Weird”(3, 6, 7, 37,41, 43, 51, 52, 88, 93, 94, 102, 189, 195, 295 ), ”What the?” (1, 2, 8, 13, 37, 44, 102, 195, 236, 242, 251, 298) and ”Obviously”(1, 43,51, 107,193, 244, 321). For a detailed analysis of how the opening question (“What the?”) pulsates through Oskar’s narration, see Le Cor 2012.

7  « Le rythme est une énergie, pas une métrique, pas une géométrie d’arpenteur, pas une mathématique pythagoricienne. »  (Goux 91)

8  I refer here to Dori Laub’s explanation that “There is, in each survivor, an imperative need to tell and thus to come to know one’s story, unimpeded by ghosts from the past against which one has to protect oneself.” (Caruth 1995, 63).

9  “The Portraits” was “a daily feature in the Times from September 15, 2001 to December 31, 2001” (Monahan 118).

10  Spiegelman explains in the introduction that he had intended his comix to bear witness to what he had experienced: “I’d hope to draw the harrowing drive through a panicked city to retrieve our then-nine-year-old-son, Dash, from the United Nations School that we thought was a likely target this morning […]” (In the Shadow of No Towers, Introduction)

11  The ripple effect spreads further as the terrorist shoe becomes cowboy boots (plate 10): “Cowboy boots drop on Ground Zero as New York is transformed into a stage set for the Republican Presidential Convention, and Tragedy is transformed into Travesty” (In the Shadow of No Towers 10). Political satire is one of the ripples of In the Shadow of No Towers.

12  As Hillary Chute and Marianne De Koven explain, graphic narratives are “works that are in their very structure and grammar, cross-discursive: composed in words and images, written and drawn” (Chute and DeKoven 768). In Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, the layout, the typographical/font changes, the use of colors, the blank and saturated pages, and the inclusion of photos, all call for a multimodal reading.

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Référence électronique

Gwen Le Cor, « Ripples of Trauma in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and in Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers », Sillages critiques [En ligne], 19 | 2015, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2015, consulté le 14 décembre 2017. URL :

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Gwen Le Cor

Gwen Le Cor est Maître de conférences HDR à l’université Paris 8. Membre de l’EA 1569 « Transferts critiques et dynamique des savoirs », elle est porteur du projet triennal « Text/ures : l’objet livre du papier au numérique », projet soutenu par le Labex Arts-H2H. Elle a publié des articles sur les œuvres numériques et imprimées de Jen Bervin, Percival Everett, Jonathan Safran Foer, Flannery O’Connor, Art Spiegelman, Stephanie Strickland, Steve Tomasula et Robert Penn Warren. Ses recherches récentes portent sur les figures de l’hybridité dans la littérature américaine contemporaine. Elle travaille également sur l'intersémioticité du discours scientifique et les intersections littérature-mathématiques.

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