Throughout the novel, characters turn to letters in a bid to be heard. Sometimes, these letters offer insights into the letter writer’s internal world in a more heartfelt and detailed way than what spoken communication might offer. For example, Grandma knows nothing about her grandmother’s life until she asks for a letter from her. Thomas’s notebooks that he uses for communication involve ambiguous, abrupt phrases, but his letters to his son actually delve into his true feelings. In each of these cases, the indirectness of communicating by letter allows the letter writer more freedom to say things than they could face to face. Letters also act as a means of forging bonds with others. Without a father, Oskar writes primarily to preeminent men and mentor figures, such as Stephen Hawking and Ringo Starr, in an attempt to make up for the lack of guidance and direction in his life. Oskar takes the form letters he receives in return extremely seriously, as if he has honestly created new connections with these celebrities through his letters.
Oskar uses his fanciful inventions as a way to cope with his anxiety and insecurity. He envisions whimsical devices that could keep people safe in the case of another terrorist attack, trying to soothe his fears by creating solutions. When he meets Abby Black and wants to impress her, he wishes he had an invention to share with her, demonstrating that his inventions also serve as a way to show off and make himself seem more important and confident. Furthermore, he often invents ways that his dad might have died because he doesn’t know precisely how or when his father was killed in the 9/11 attacks. This shows Oskar using inventing as a way to answer questions his anxiety poses. In his letter to Stephen Hawking, Oskar asks how to stop inventing, to which Hawking responds that life itself depends on the imagined, the created. He suggests Oskar might “not be inventing at all.” This may be Hawking suggesting that Oskar is actually creating truths without knowing it, that he’s not really “inventing” or lying at all. In this way, inventing ties back to the theme of the inevitability of ambiguity because inventing becomes a coping mechanism for living with the impossibility of knowing all the truths of the universe.
Violence and Disasters
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close portrays the world as full of violence, but focuses on the personal, not the political, toll of this destruction. After 9/11, Oskar becomes obsessed with searching the internet for information about murders and disasters, placing them in his “Stuff that Happened to Me” scrapbook. These frightening images remind him of the dangers of the world and reinforce his anxiety, such as when a ferry accident compounds his fear of riding the Staten Island Ferry. He also includes an image of Ray Black’s victims, as if to note how closely he walked by death in his quest for the lock. Oskar treats all the violence of the world as if it personally threatens him, demonstrating that 9/11 has shattered his sense of safety. The novel also invokes the World War II tragedies of the bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima, demonstrating that large-scale violence against anyone causes pain and grief to individuals. Germany and Japan were Axis powers and committed atrocities during World War II, but the personal lives, loves, and families lost during Allied attacks against these nations still caused tremendous personal grief and pain.