The Sixth Borough
The night before 09/11, Oskar’s father told him a story about how “New York City [once] had a sixth borough” (217). In the story, the Sixth Borough was an island separated from Manhattan by the thinnest of water ways. Every year, at a huge ceremony, an athlete jumped between the two islands as New Yorkers cheered. His leap was always flawless until one year, his toe skimmed the water. It was then that New Yorkers realized that the Sixth Borough was floating away. Each year, it floated further away, until the jumper could not reach it at all.
Over time, the bridges and power lines connecting the islands collapsed, and the people of the Sixth Borough could only communicate with Manhattan through tin cans and paper airplanes. New York tried to stop the drift by using chains, cement blocks, and giant magnets, but nothing worked. Many people of the Sixth Borough refused to leave, “so they floated away one millimeter at a time” (221).
Central Park, according to the story, was once located in the Sixth Borough. To save the park, enormous hooks were placed into it, and the people of Manhattan dragged it to its current location.
When Oskar expressed his doubt about the story, his father asked whether he was a pessimist or an optimist. Oskar decided on the latter, and his father noted that a pessimist could never be convinced, while "there is an abundance of clues that would give the wanting believer something to hold to” (221). As an example, his father noted Central Park’s strange fossil record, its pH levels, and the mysterious names carved into its trees, all of which suggests that the Sixth Borough did indeed once exist.
Oskar's dad ended by saying that the Sixth Borough is now in Antarctica, its people frozen in time. Oskar asks whether the items he collected during his recent Reconnaissance Expedition might be from Central Park, and his father neither confirmed nor denied it.
This is the conversation that Oskar recounted in his first chapter, and it ends with the same resonant exchange he shares there: “Dad?” “Yeah, buddy?” “Nothing” (223).
Oskar’s Grandma writes to him of how she was knitting a scarf and watching the news on the morning of 09/11. As she watched those horrific images, Oskar’s mother called to tell her that Thomas Jr. was at the World Trade Center that morning for a meeting. She told Grandma that she loved her, something she had never said before. It was then that Grandma “knew that she knew” (226).
Grandma went across the street to find Oskar hiding under his bed. She comforted him until his mother came home, and he asked whether Thomas was visiting the towers that day. She lied and said no.
They received no other news of Thomas Jr. throughout the afternoon, though they began to smell smoke. All day, Grandma continued to knit a white scarf for Oskar, as his mother made posters with her husband’s picture and information on them. Later, she left with a suitcase full of posters, and Oskar fell asleep.
Images of the Twin Towers dominated the news all day. After Oskar's mother returned, Grandma returned to her own apartment, where she fell into a heavy depression, wishing she could die in Thomas's place. As she reflected on the tragedies through which she had lived, she also realized that they had influenced Oskar's creation, and she rededicated her life to him.
On the day of the funeral, she watched as her son’s empty coffin was lowered into the ground, and listened as Oskar whimpered. Later that day, she received a letter from her husband, Thomas Sr., who had returned to New York. The letter simply read, “I’m sorry” (233).
The story of the Sixth Borough departs from the novel's realism to offer insight into Oskar’s belief system. Oskar has mentioned this story and final evening previously, suggesting that it has impacted him in ways he cannot quite articulate.
The pace of the novel slows in this section. As the anniversary of 09/11 approaches, Oskar distracts himself from relating the quest to simply recollect on that evening. Similarly, Grandma's account of the tragedy adds little action or new information. Instead, the purpose of these chapters is to capture the way grief and tragedy transforms our perspective on time, making the past vivid and alive while the present seems to beat along slowly.
There are similarities between the Sixth Borough story and the novel's larger plot. First, it echoes the connection to New York City that Oskar's quest reveals. As Oskar searches through all five boroughs and remembers his final Reconnaissance Expedition in Central Park, he is implicitly treating the city as a wonderland full of mysteries to be uncovered. Certainly, his father's depiction of the city as fantastical is influencing his approach. Oskar is able to make great use of seemingly minor details - whether they be the tiny items he found in the park or the encounters with normal people he meets on the quest, who then become his friends or partners. Oskar places his own meaning on everyday life, attempting to create a mysterious realm worthy of his father's depiction of the city. When Thomas Jr. circled "not stop looking" in the newspaper a few days before his death, he could never have known how profoundly that sentiment would influence his son.
The story of the Sixth Borough also employs imagery that resonates with the larger plot. For instance, the image of Sixth Borough residents throwing paper airplanes into office windows echoes the horrifying images of passenger plans striking the Twin Towers. The island slowly floating away evokes the image of the falling man. In a larger sense, both of these images could represent Oskar's fear that his father's memory is slowly moving further away from him. And the image of the Sixth Borough frozen in Antarctica suggests the possibility of an afterlife, which is a question much on Oskar's mind. Though he does not explicitly draw these connections, it is likely that Oskar is struck by the connections, explaining why the story remains so important in his mind.
Finally, the fantastical elements of the Sixth Borough provide some indication of the education Thomas Jr. wanted to give his son. Oskar, a self-professed realist even before his father's death, has little patience for magical or supernatural explanations. And yet his father forces such a story on him, demanding the boy choose whether he is an optimist or a pessimist. What this incident shows is that Thomas did not want his son to limit himself to a purely scientific understanding of the world. Instead, he wanted the boy to have faith, to believe that perhaps some things happen which cannot be explained by strict scientific fact. Interestingly, it is this scientific outlook that has hampered Oskar's grieving process; he can only think of his father as dead organic material, and has trouble reflecting on concepts like his father's spirit. Were he more mature and able to realize that some things (like the tragedy of 09/11) transcend scientific explanation, he might be better able to move on. Ironically, his quest reveals that he is learning to better understand the imprecise realm of emotions, even though he has yet to recognize that he is growing past his deliberately non-emotional outlook.
The tale of the Sixth Borough also reemphasizes certain unrealistic elements of the novel as a whole. It is possible to read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as a fable without diminishing the harsh realities of post 09/11 America. Oskar’s quest for the key's lock, for example, takes him on an adventure around the city where he meets eccentric but kind strangers, all named Black. No one accompanies nine-year-old Oskar on his journey until he pairs with Mr. Black, the 102 year old recluse who suddenly, after twenty-four years of solitude, decides to join the world at the request of a little boy. The characters they meet are an odd combination of stock characters, like Stan the friendly doorman or obsessive Georgia Black, who compliment the atmosphere, but add little else to the plot. The main women of the novel, Oskar’s mother and Grandma, are often marginalized. And when Grandma is featured, she is usually portrayed somewhat cartoonishly, as child-like and fragile. Also, like Oskar, she lives mostly in her own mind, unable to adapt to the world around her. Even Thomas Schell Sr., whose experiences are rooted in realistic tragedy, suffers from an exaggerated condition of not being able to speak. All told, the novel has a quirky, almost magical, component that works either to emphasize or counteract its emotional weight, depending on your outlook.
Nevertheless, it is best to consider Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as a work of realistic fiction, especially in its relationship to atrocities. Grandma’s chapter about her experiences on 09/11 begins with the news. Grandma, like many Americans, watched the morning news in horror as the atrocity unfolded in real time. She is fixated by the repeated images of the planes crashing, and the buildings collapsing. For her, they represent a personal blow. Her son was in the North Tower. This fact reminds of us of Foer’s objective: to personalize tragedy.
Her immediate response after overcoming her initial shock was to protect Oskar, her beloved grandson. Oskar often references his anger toward his mother for not being with him on that day, unrealistically forgetting how difficult it must have been for her to navigate the panicked streets of the city. Knowing how difficult it would be, she asked her mother-in-law to take care of him. The novel can certainly be criticized for the harsher standard to which it holds women - both Oskar and Thomas Sr. seem to expect unrealistic behavior from the women in their lives - though one could also argue that it means to criticize a worldview like the one that these men hold. After all, the reader understands quite clearly how hard these women work to bring peace into the lives of those around them.
Finally, there are two moments in this section that are amongst Foer's most effective in personalizing tragedy and grief. The first is Grandma's reflection on atrocity, and her recognition that the pain she has experienced has played its part in Oskar's creation. Though this could be a depressing thought, she finds strength in it, and dedicates her life to Oskar instead of miring herself in the tragic reality. The suggestion is that we have a choice in the face of tragedy - it does not have to define us. Unlike her husband, she is able to move past her feelings of survivor’s guilt and finds happiness among the sadness of her life. However, it requires her to choose that.
Secondly, Oskar in his chapter recounts again the final conversation between his father and himself. It's a disarmingly simple exchange - Oskar wanted to say something emotional, but chose not to at the last moment. And yet his unspoken words now haunt him. On one hand, the exchange offers us a warning no less profound for being often used as a platitude: tell our loved ones how we feel. However, more poignantly, the context suggests that Foer means to say that we must allow emotions into our lives. Oskar, so uncomfortable with naked displays of emotion, chose to hide his feelings on that night, and now regrets it. He had not yet learned his father's lesson - that imprecise emotions can be as powerful as scientific fact - and the reader at this point hopes he will eventually discover this truth through his journey, both to aid his personal growth and to honor his father's memory.