Oskar Schell, the child narrator and protagonist, is one quirky, hilarious kid. He’s vulnerable and innocent, yet strong in his convictions and determined in his commitments. He’s extremely curious and incredibly stubborn at the same time. He makes broad pronouncements about pretty much everything, and he’s full of information about elephants, the time-space continuum, and burning buildings. One of his “only exceptions to veganism” is dehydrated ice cream. Why? “Because it’s what astronauts have for dessert.” I can say with confidence that Oskar is one of the most intriguing narrative voices I’ve come across in modern fiction. That enough makes it worth dropping what you’re doing and buying this novel.
He’s also a loyal kid. His lives his life according to raisons d’etre he has established for himself. These raisons consist of not hurting his grandmother’s feelings, making his mother happy and solving a mystery that arose after his father’s death. The death of Oskar’s father, who was in the second World Trade Tower as it was struck, has had a profound impact on Oskar’s psyche: “Everything that’s born has to die, which means are lives are like skyscrapers. The smoke rises at different speeds, but they’re all on fire, and we’re all trapped.” After his father’s death, Oskar finds a key in an envelope marked, simply, “Black.” It is this mystery that threads together this ambitious and far-reaching work. It’s this mystery that drives the plot. Oskar must find the lock for this key. To solve that mystery, he seeks out as many people with the last name Black as he can. He roams all over the city, meeting people, asking them if they knew his father, and getting into hilarious and touching discussions.
Oskar’s journey may be the foundation of the novel, but is by no means the only storyline. Like Foer’s first novel, Everything is Illuminated, his second uses a variety of prose formats to tell a complex, interwoven series of stories. Letters from Oskar’s grandfather make up a solid portion of the book. The grandfather left his wife when she was pregnant with Oskar’s father. His letters describe a man mired in an existential crisis. “I can’t live, I’ve tried and I can’t. If that sounds simple, it’s simple like a mountain is simple.” A survivor of the firebombing of Dresden, the grandfather survives by fleeing from love, commitment and happiness. He is a profoundly depressed man who ceases talking and spends his days writing letters to the son he’s never met, letters he never sends. He’s unhappy because he doesn’t know what he wants.
Oskar’s grandmother, who is intimately connected with Oskar, also writes letters that also appear in the novel. The grandmother is such an amazing character, so full of truth and heart. She has this old world sensibility, this tragic sense that somehow — although she can’t explain it — good things can come from tragedy. Through her letters and Oskar’s narration, Foer knits a detailed and touching portrait of a woman who is as real as literary characters come. Readers will remember this character long after they put this book down.
I have to say that some of this quilted, scrapbook kind of storytelling gets old, and even gimmicky. Images of an elephant crying, scribbled markers, a flock of blurry birds, and a couple dozen others are throw into the book. These images take up a page, sometimes two, sometimes ten. Some pages are black blotches while and others are blank while others have sentence fragments with no punctuation. There’s even about twenty pages that act as a flip-book cartoon. (Although I will confess that I enjoyed the flip-book. I was a fan of making flip-book comics when I was a kid, so I’m not about to disparage Foer for doing the same.) I’m not particularly against using images in a novel. In fact, Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut is perhaps the best example of how images can highlight the prose and make the story even better. But that is not the case here. Here, the images detract from the story. So do the layout tricks. Paragraphs in all caps get old. There are pages and pages of this book with tab spaces after each period. Safran-Foer has a difficult task in keeping all these competing narratives going without confusing the reader. So I understand that he changes up the way words appear on the page to reflect changes in time and narration. But the effect is jarring and irritating, and it steals some of the power from his incredible writing. If Foer was a mediocre writer, these images and gimmicks would be welcome because they would make crappy writing easier to get through. But Foer is a master of language and a poet of the human condition, and anything that distracts from his prose pales in comparison.
I mentioned Kurt Vonnegut because I feel Foer is paying homage to my favorite fiction writer in this novel. (The interplay between prose and imagery mentioned is clearly inspired by Vonnegut.) Vonnegut experienced the firebombing of Dresden first-hand, and memorialized it’s chaos in his haunting and hilarious 1969 novel Slaughterhouse Five. He certainly doesn’t own the topic, but it is clear Foer has read and respects that novel. It’s clear that Foer, like Vonnegut, achieves his artistic heights when dipping equally into horror and humor. The two forces might seem to be opposites, but they play so well with each other. How can an artist create meaningful work out of tragedy without some sense of humor? And, if one could create such a work of fiction, would anyone want to read it? Not me. Like Vonnegut, Foer has an keen eye for tragedy and destruction. But he also recognizes that in fire, there is beauty. And Foer has the skill and the heart to show that beauty to anyone with the time to read his book.
This novel, with its faults, is a touching and hilarious story. More than that, it represents a unique means of understanding. Only through fragments, pieces of lives, can we attempt to dig meaning out of our lives and sense out of the tragedies that happen to those we love. Anyone with a heart and a mind will