Toy soldier: The unlikeable young Oskar from Stephen Daldry's film "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"
The arts — our challenging, insightful, edgy arts — have on the whole been a miserable failure as far as September 11, 2001 is concerned. Whether visual, literary, theatrical or cinematic, their interpretations have been crass, their insights banal, their attempts to illuminate simply irrelevant. The one exception perhaps is Paul Greengrass's superb, documentary-style film recreation of what might have happened on flight United 93 before it hit the field in Pennsylvania. Otherwise, the only memorable cultural intervention is that of the late Karlheinz Stockhausen, who treated us to his view that the attack represented "the greatest work of art there has ever been", a statement most people would have started to regret while it was still halfway out of their mouths, but for which the German composer never apologised.
Perhaps the preoccupations of artists and novelists have become rather too small over the past few decades. Events — the fall of Communism, the death of multiculturalism — simply leave them behind now. They are like therapy patients who need time to come to terms with a recent trauma, the process of which is fascinating for them but tedious for anyone else listening. And when they finally produce something at the end of it, their "closure" is, similarly, usually crushingly predictable.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer's 2005 novel, explored the grief of Oskar Schell, a precocious 11-year-old, after the death of his father in the Twin Towers on what he refers to throughout the book only as "the Worst Day". The new film adaptation, directed by Stephen Daldry, begins with glimpses of a figure drifting through a blue sky, and it's obvious straight away that this is Schell senior falling to his death. But a very long two hours later, it has also become clear that, despite the 9/11 context, despite the way in which those events are forced to dominate much of the narrative, he could have been shown meeting his end in a car crash, or a hospital bed, or choking on a fishbone, and it would have made not a jot of difference to the story or the themes it purports to address.
The title of book and film — tricksy, knowing, the kind that tends to appeal to those looking for a certain fashionable smartness in their culture — should be a warning that this is a project with ideas way above its station. 9/11 is bolted on to what could otherwise be a straightforward account of the death of a parent and its effect on a child. Instead, there's a straining for meaning, evidenced not just by the use of an epoch-defining event, but by the convoluted and frankly utterly implausible narrative.