Alive and Alone
Six and a half months after beginning his quest, Oskar was no closer to finding the lock.
Georgia Black, who lives on Staten Island, knew nothing of his father, but had converted her living room into a museum celebrating her husband. Oskar and Mr. Black had to take the Staten Island Ferry to visit her, which Oskar agreed to do only begrudgingly, since it was a “potential target” (240).
Ruth Black lived on the eighty-sixth floor of the Empire State Building. Oskar was very nervous as he took the elevator to the observation deck, unable to stop himself from imagining a plane crashing into the building. When he and Mr. Black arrived at the deck, Ruth gave them a tour. Because they were so inquisitive, she took them on a private tour and confessed that she had lived in one of the storage rooms, and had not left the building, since her husband died. Clearly attracted to her, Mr. Black asked if he could visit her again.
When they got back home, Mr. Black told Oskar he could no longer help him. Though Oskar wanted to angrily insult Mr. Black, he quietly shook the man's hand instead.
Later, he was alone at his Grandma's apartment and heard the renter in the guest room. They met for the first time. Though Oskar did not realize Thomas Sr. was his Grandpa, he did note the similarities between the man and his own father: both had a space between their front teeth; they shared the name; and they both shrugged their shoulders in the same manner. Though Thomas Sr. told Oskar he did not speak, Oskar soon enough told Thomas his story.
He recounted the quest in detail, and confessed that "I miss my Dad more now than when I started…” (255). Feeling close to Thomas Sr., Oskar went to his home across the street to fetch the answering machine, and played the phone messages for him.
Oskar then spoke more honestly of his father than he had before - he told the renter that his father was a good man, and that he needed to know with certainty how Thomas Jr. died so that he could stop inventing possibilities. He told him how he located a video of people falling from the Towers online, and how he had fixated on a man whom he thought could be his father.
Before Oskar left, Thomas Sr. asked him (via note) not to tell Grandma they had met. He also offered to help. Oskar then took a picture of Grandpa's tattooed hands (which read "Yes" and "No") to add to his scrapbook.
Later that night, inventing things as he tried to sleep, Oskar decided he wanted to dig up his father’s empty coffin.
Why I’m Not Where You Are (9/11/03)
Thomas’s last letter, written on the second anniversary of his son’s death, opens with a simple apology - "I'm sorry" - and an image of an inverted brass doorknob and keyhole (264).
Thomas describes the events leading up to the night when he and Oskar exhumed up his son’s empty coffin.
Thomas had arrived in New York City shortly after the attack on the World Trade Center, and there learned about his son's death. He had brought all of the letters he had written to Thomas over the years with him.
He tried to call his wife, assuming she still lived in the same apartment and would be willing to take him in. She answered the phone, but no longer understood his coded messages. She heard only beeps when he hit the phone’s numbers, instead of hearing "love" when he typed “5 6 8 3” and "death" when he typed “3 3 2 8 4“ (269).
The next two pages are covered with numbers, representing Thomas's attempt to tell his wife about his life since he left her. Eventually, she hung up on him, thinking the call a joke.
He next left a note with her doorman. Waiting nearby, he saw her enter with a young boy. When he left another note asking whether he should stay or go, she wrote back to him on her apartment window: “Don’t go away” (267).
A few days later, the doorman gave Thomas a key to the apartment. When he entered, she told him to go into and stay in the guest room, and they then began a "second life together” (268).
After a period of ignoring him completely, Grandma began to enter the guest room for short visits as she cleaned. Eventually, she spoke to him, saying: “I can forgive you for leaving, but not for coming back” (274).
One day, he asked her to pose for him, and she agreed. After a trip to the art store - where he bought clay and wrote his name in red ink on a tablet (the name Oskar mistook for his father's) - he returned home to find Grandma waiting in a robe. They then began a new relationship based on honesty and sex.
Grandma refused Thomas's requests to meet Oskar, and instead allowed him only to watch the boy through the keyhole when he visited. They spoke sometimes of their son, and how he turned out just like Thomas Sr., filled with questions. He also told her about how Thomas Jr. visited him once in Dresden, after he received the only letter that Thomas Sr. ever mailed him. Thomas Jr. pretended to be a journalist doing a story about the bombings, and neither admitted to knowing the other; instead, they "talked about nothing” (277).
Soon enough, Thomas grew obsessed with learning more about Oskar. He followed him all over the city, confused as to why his mother allowed him to wander such disparate neighborhoods alone. At some point after Mr. Black joined the quest, Mr. Black confronted Thomas Sr., whom he had observed following them. Thomas confessed his true identity to Mr. Black. (Mr. Black left the quest that same day.)
Later that day, Oskar showed up at Grandma's, and met Thomas Sr. for the first time. He told his story (as detailed in the previous chapter) and played the messages for the man he thought was "the renter."
The novel's typeset grows steadily smaller in the last pages of this chapter, reflecting the way Thomas's day book is running out of paper.
He writes of how he and Grandma have settled into a new routine wherein she speaks openly of the past, of her father, and of Anna. On the day that he is to leave with Oskar to exhume the coffin, he and Grandma made love for what he knows will be the final time.
Thomas’ letters overlay one another until the reader can no longer read his writing. Eventually, they letters run together until the whole page is covered in black.
The novel's journey theme wavers as Oscar’s interest in the key fades. This plot shift corresponds to the depression Oskar suffers as the anniversary of 09/11 approaches. Mr. Black's departure is another blow to his momentum. One could read this shift as reality invading the fantasy of the boy's quest. Oskar is growing up, and a Reconnaissance Expedition is feeling more like a child's game than ever before. With this change, the likelihood that he will be able to cope with his grief grows smaller.
However, Oskar soon gets another dose of the fantastical through the renter. Not only does this man come out of nowhere - previously, he had wondered if the renter was a mere figment of Grandma's imagination - but he also resembles Oskar's father and has a fantastical disability in his muteness. What Thomas Sr. provides Oskar is the encouragement to not only continue the quest, but to escalate it. On the night he meets the renter, he concocts the plan to exhume the coffin. The renter listens to his entire story, and lacks the capacity to question his motives or desires as childish or unrealistic. Though Oskar never explains what about the renter encourages him to share the answering machine messages, it is possible to understand this in terms of the renter's singularity. All of these fantastical elements spark Oskar's curiosity, imagination, and sympathy. The novel's rising action is kicked up a gear now that Oskar has found his final partner.
Oskar's decision to exhume the coffin also suggests that he has learned something of what Thomas Jr. wanted him to learn. His Dad had tried to encourage Oskar to interact with the world without fear, to open himself to new possibilities. Oskar has not only accomplished this goal through his quest for the lock, but now is able to escalate it on his own. He is able to speak to the renter without his usual social inadequacies, and soon enough takes charge of the situation. Finally, the coffin plan is a much more direct confrontation with his father's death than the key quest was. Whereas the latter was a diversion, the former admits the reality of death, and suggests the possibility that a "spirit" can live in an object. He has come to understand the importance of emotion in life, as his father wanted, and has thereby moved on to acceptance, an important stage of coping with grief.
Thomas Sr.’s narration for the first time details events simultaneously with those of Oskar's and Grandma's. While the novel has employed much dramatic irony throughout - since the reader is the only one privy to all three perspectives, and hence can follow the overlap - Thomas Sr.'s here is uniquely ironic. As he watches the boy, is confronted by Mr. Black, writes his name at the art store, witnesses Grandma's personal growth, and more, the reader comes to understand the overlap of circumstances that led the mysteries detailed in earlier chapters. It reveals a magnificent construction even if one finds it overly convenient, and evokes the plot machinations of writers like Dickens.
In Thomas Sr.'s final narration, his central images reappear - the suitcase and the doorknobs. Imagery of the suitcase is most often associated with Thomas as a character. He used the suitcase to bring magazines to his wife, and later to carry the letters he wrote to his son back to the United States. Thomas is constantly in motion, but yet never seems to get anywhere. The suitcase is a poor reminder of his inability to move forward, a punishment for the shame he feels over surviving the bombing. The reoccurring image of the doorknob has been reversed in this chapter, foreshadowing the coming change in Thomas’s life as he reestablishes a romantic relationship with his wife and connects with his grandson. He no longer even knows what door he is supposed to open. The doorknob imagery also acts as a form of personification. Thomas is to the doorknob as Oskar is to the key. Both images reoccur in connection with the other. Finally, one can see a bit of symbolic overlap through the way that Thomas Sr. serves as a key to the locked door of Oskar's emotional paralysis. Upon meeting his grandfather, Oskar quickly finds the strength to begin the final stage of his journey.
Foer’s use of typographical imagery is particularly prevalent in Thomas’s narration. The pages of numbers are supposed to represent Thomas’s life story after he left New York, yet upon further examination, they appear to be quite random. The complexity of his life has been reduced to these numbers that do not even have meaning. He has in many ways banished himself to a Nothing Place. On the contrary, the overlaying of letters that closes his final chapter suggests that, much as Oskar is inspired by meeting him, he is inspired by meeting Oskar. For the first time, he wants to say everything, and lacks the space to do so. Early in the novel, he uses an entire page for a simple phrase, suggesting a lack of interest in communication. However, he here has to write over himself to try and get it all out. He and Oskar are the keys to one another's locks.