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Some of the most outstanding works in American literature devoted to terrorism and overcoming of trauma are Bel Canto by Ann Patchett and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. The authors give different approaches in coverage of the problems, and it is interesting to compare them. Key points that are brought up for discussion in both books are the crisis of communication, the crisis of meaning, the crisis of self-identification, and possible ways out. The authors show that the post-traumatic society has a long way to recovery ahead with the healing possible, but not guaranteed.
The Crisis of Meaning
A terrorist attack, a real threat to life, and the death of a loved one force us to look at life differently. For Oscar, the protagonist of the book by Foer, life loses meaning after his father’s death in the September 11 attacks. The boy is too young but smart enough to reflect on the futility of being. Oscar and his father used to be unusually close, and the boy does not know how to ease the emotional pain. He grasps the first chance to distract himself.
In his father’s vase, Oscar finds the key in an envelope with the inscription “Black” and sets himself on a difficult mission – to find the lock which could be opened by the key. It is necessary to get acquainted with all the people with the last name “Black” in New York to accomplish the task. There are a vast number of such people, but it does not frighten the boy, rather attracts him. Strugaru states that “a quest for a presumed hidden message is, in fact, a search for significance triggered by an intrinsic absence; it is the mere promise of an ambiguous meaning that generates the search and that, in the end, disappoints the boy” (129). These desperate attempts seem to be all in vain as there is no one to explain to Oscar that some wounds cannot be treated, and it remains only to learn to live with them.
One more character with the crisis of meaning is Oscar’s grandfather. He cannot forgive himself for the death of the bride in the Dresden firebombings. Decades of years passed, but the man does not manage to overcome the trauma. One could learn about this from the letters that he writes to his son, the father of Oscar. The letters are a part of the book alongside the description of the Oscars’ adventures. The old man does not find enough meaning in his family and life in general. This character helps Foer to bind the traumas of two generations. Saal sees deep historical parallels and admits that “by sketching out the larger semantic field of World War II atrocities, Foer also conjures up what many perceive to be its central trauma: the Holocaust” (453). The horrifying catastrophes that people suffered in the 20th century continue to affect their lives.
In Bel Canto, people actually are depicted in a traumatic situation. Terrorists seize the house which belongs to the vice-president of one of the South American countries. It happens at the time of the party; dozens of people are taken, hostage. Terrorists expect to capture the president of the country, but he stayed at home watching a sitcom. As they do not manage to get an original goal, a standoff starts. Quite strangely, a lot of people among the hostages and terrorists find the meaning of their lives during the standoff. For some, love becomes meaningful. For example, a special star of the evening, the best opera singer, Roxane Coss, falls in love with a Japanese mogul, Katsumi Hosokawa, who does not even speak English. Patchett emphasizes that “it was odd, the way they never spoke but always seemed to be in communication” (210). Another couple in love is Gen, a translator, and Carmen, a terrorist, who would not have any chances to meet under different circumstances.
Everyone begins to understand oneself better because this forced standoff makes one finally look into the depths of own soul and notice the people around. Still, this is a temporary, artificially created state. Terrorism is an absolute evil, and bright feelings that have arisen in the souls of people are not destined to live long. It all ends when the government soldiers come to the house to release the hostages. Carmel and Hosokawa are killed, relations that seemed so reliable are torn apart and people feel the absolute meaningfulness of existence.
The Crisis of Communication
Grief could be so strong that people could not talk about it as discussions and memories bring unbearable pain. Oscar’s grandfather stopped talking at all after the Dresden firebombing. This is a vast psychological trauma that, without being expressed, tortures him from the inside for his entire life. One needs to return mentally to the catastrophe, rethink it, and speak it out. It is the way to get rid of the pain, but the old man cannot overcome himself. According to Strugaru, “characters are lost in their own personal tragedies, and this attempt, to make sense of their own suffering in the enclosed context of their lives, unconsciously sabotages real contact with others” (131). One can say that the disease of unspoken painful issues affects whole generations. It happened to many people, who survived World War II. Oscar’s grandfather and grandmother want to make up for the lost time, write a letter after a letter, expressing all that they have carried in the souls their whole lives.
Oscar tries to find his way through the trauma by himself but meets many troubles. He continues to maintain a mental connection with his father, wants to prolong their relationship. As one of the main relics, the boy keeps the last entry from the father on the telephone answering machine. He hides it from the mother. Their relations are not close enough; they have almost no communication. The situation becomes more optimistic towards the end of the book. Patchett points out the feelings of the boy: “Every time I left the apartment to go searching for the lock, I became a little lighter, because I was getting closer to Dad. But I also became a little heavier because I was getting farther from Mom” (52). There is hope for these two to find a way to one another and to come out of the tragedy together.
In Bel Canto, Patchett also shows the crisis of communication, in particular, in the public sphere. For example, after the release of the hostages, the media are silent about the death of Carmen and some other crucial details. The way media transmits information about a terrorist act or other tragic incident influences the whole nation and the direct participants. Proper communication with no truth hidden helps people to overcome the traumatic experience. The lack of discussion and the unwillingness to listen to the participants cause a distorted picture of the events. In such a way, the trauma comes deeper into the subconscious mind and is further passed from one generation to the next. As a result, children cannot understand why they have panic attacks, sudden feelings of anxiety, guilt, and helplessness. These feelings prevent a whole generation from development and do not allow opening the potential of the whole generation. In the words of one of her characters, Patchett affirms that “it makes you wonder; all the brilliant things we might have done with our lives if only we suspected we knew how” (300). It might be said that the psychological health and success of a nation depend on the level of public communications about the experienced tragedies.
The crisis of communication is revealed in Bel Canto also through the impossibility of an agreement between the authorities and terrorists. Taking the house by force leads to deaths, both among terrorists and hostages. At the same time, the captors and the captured people managed to establish friendly and even romantic relations with each other. Posey admits that “as time passes, lines between the captives and captors blur, and what evolves is no Stockholm Syndrome, where hostages develop sympathy for the terrorist cause, but rather a microcosm of the larger world outside the palace’s fog-shrouded windows” (92). One needs to be careful since Patchett could describe an idealized situation, and terrorists have to be punished one way or another. With the right communications, still, human lives could be saved.
The Crisis of Identification
Terrorism or any other act of violence changes the world around people, forcing them to rethink themselves. In new circumstances, it is difficult for everyone involved in a situation to rebuild their own personality. People who passed through a catastrophe are tortured by guilt and a survivor’s complex. In regards to Oscar, a situation is even harder. The boy is in the period of construction of his own identity and badly needs his father as an example of male behavior. With the help of his investigation and fantasy, he tries to complete the father’s portrait and, by extension, his own. Lack of a clear idea of oneself also causes depression attacks and suicidal moods. Oscar says that “nothing is beautiful and true” (Foer 43). Self-destruction and self-preservation impulses struggle in his soul.
If self-destruction wins, it does not necessarily lead to suicide. A person could be destroying oneself from inside for years as it happens to Oscar’s grandfather. His inability to accept himself, to reconstruct his personality after the tragedy makes the grandfather a hostage of his own trauma. Strugaru’s words fit both Oscar and grandfather, “lost in this world, the individual, struggling with his own identity crisis in a constant search for answers, tries to rearrange the entire universe according to posttraumatic patterns” (128). The crisis of identification must not be allowed to be transmitted from one generation to the next.
In Bel Canto, there is a person who has no difficulties with self-identification. It is an opera singer Roxane Coss, who is fully aware of her calling and does not dismiss her vocal exercises even being hostage to terrorists. Such personalities positively affect people around them. Under the influence of Roxane, one of the terrorists discovers the talent of a singer, and she gives him private lessons to develop the inborn gift.
In the novel by Patchett, the crisis of identity strikes the terrorists who take hostages and then develop a friendly and romantic relationship with them. Powers defines that “everyone including the terrorist, loses the power to control his or her destiny and becomes hostage to an agreeable artificial existence” (152). Perhaps, the author wants to show a general lack of self-identification in modern society because of which people, to understand who they are, to explore their own borders, throw themselves into extremes, into terrorism. It is a complex issue, which already concerns the prevention of terrorist acts. Probably, there is no single psychological portrait of a terrorist, but it is obvious that people with unclear self-identification may be attracted to this movement.
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The American nation survived the September 11 attacks, and this day will forever remain in the history and hearts of citizens. It is important that the trauma becomes a strong unifying factor. One could not allow this experience to be conserved in the subconscious mind and transmitted from generation to generation in the form of fear. The measures to prevent such consequences include broad public dialogue, discussion, and rethinking of the issue. In this sense, novels Bel Canto by Ann Patchett and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer play a significant role as they encourage the readers to reflect on the tragedy.
Foer, Jonathan S. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Houghton Mifflin, 2005.
Patchett, Ann. Bel Canto. Perennial, 2001.
Posey, Nancy. “Bel Canto.” English Journal, vol. 92, no. 6, 2003, pp. 92-93.
Powers, Elizabeth. “Bel Canto by Ann Patchett.” World Literature Today, vol. 76, no. 2, 2002, p. 152-153.
Saal, Ilka. “Regarding the Pain of Self and Other: Trauma Transfer and Narrative Framing in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibely Close.” Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 57, no. 3, 2011, pp. 453-456.
Strugaru, Oana Elena. ”Grief and the Crisis of Meaning in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close.” Meridian Critic, vol. 21, no. 2, 2013, pp. 127-135.