One of the ways Oskar copes with his father's passing is by dreaming up "inventions," whimsical contraptions that usually come to him in waves (36). For instance, he shares his plan to make jewelry for her mother, which will follow the pattern of his father's final message, converted into Morse Code.
He is forthright about his fears and troubles, developed since his father's death. His mother spends a lot of time with a man named Ron, which he finds unfair to his dad's memory. He once asked her if she was in love with Ron, and she insisted they were only friends. As he "buried it all inside," he generated new phobias, of elevators, showers, bridges, germs, fireworks, public places, and Arabs (35).
One night, he could not sleep, and after inventing a "googolplex" of inventions, he opened his father's closet for the first time since his death (36). On the top shelf was a blue vase he had never seen, but when he tried to reach it, the vase fell and broke. Inside the vase, he found an envelope with the word "Black" written on the back. Inside the envelope was a mysterious key that did not fit any of the locks in the apartment. He "gave [himself] a bruise" - his term for hurting himself when he feels guilty or sad - and then snuck back to bed (37).
The next day, he faked being sick and stayed home from school to investigate the mystery of the key. He visited a locksmith named Walt, who suggested the key probably opens a safety deposit box. Oskar returned to the apartment building, where Stan gave him a package containing a signed t-shirt and a form return letter from Ringo Starr, to whom he had written.
He stayed home again the next day because he felt depressed and because he wanted to continue investigating. At an art supply store, the manager suggested the word "Black" was a person's name. He attempted to flatter the manager to determine whether his father visited the store, and she suggested he look over a display where people can write their names to test various pens.
Three pages of colorized names and words follow, in which is included the name “Thomas Schell.” Oskar believed his father must have visited the store, even though the manager skeptically suggested that the pages are changed too often for a name to remain for over a year.
Back home, Oskar determined that 472 people with the last name Black live in New York City. Though he determined it would take three years to interview them all, he concocted a plan to do so, first forging a letter to his French teacher to get him out of weekend classes without his mother's knowledge. With that time, he planned to find and interview all those families about his father's key. He considered it a sort of Reconnaissance Expedition, something he shared with his dad alone.
Oskar then added numerous pictures to his scrapbook, which he called Stuff That Happened to Me. Though it mostly includes images of atrocities (usually printed from the Internet), it also includes pictures of keys, Stephen Hawking, New York City, and precious stones. The central image of the scrapbook is that of a man falling from the World Trade Center during the 09/11 attacks.
After looking at his scrapbook, Oskar thought about “the worst day,” and the five voicemail messages his father left (68). Though he had kept the messages secret and switched answering machines to protect his mother, he kept the old answering machine, and occasionally listens to them. After listening to his father's second message, he gave himself a bruise.
He then contacted his Grandma, who lives across the street in another apartment building. They communicate through walkie-talkies. They talked about his inventions and about how they miss Oskar's dad.
That night, Oskar invented some more, and then fell asleep.
This section - like every other section entitled "My Feelings" - consists of a letter from Grandma to Oskar. Each one is written from an airport, and reveals a bit more of her life story.
This first letter is dated September 12, 2003. Grandma details life growing up in Dresden, Germany in the early 1940's. One day, an envelope with no name arrived at her home, and she opened it to find a letter from a Turkish Labor Camp prisoner, written fifteen years earlier. Most of the letter was censored with “X’s,” but she determined that the prisoner hoped for a reply letter and a picture of whoever received his letter.
To try and read his personality through his handwriting, she requested handwriting samples from her family, friends, and neighbors, hoping to draw comparisons. In total, she received one hundred letters, including one from her own grandmother, who detailed her own life story and encouraged her granddaughter to share her love while she can.
Grandma's narrative jumps forward to seven years later, when she is looking for work in New York City. Hoping to assimilate, she read lots of newspapers and magazines, and grew fascinated with idioms like “close but no cigar” (80). One day, she ran into Thomas Schell, Sr., who had dated her sister Anna back in Dresden, and whom she had not seen since the war ended. She sat next to him in a bakery, and cried when she learned that he could no longer speak. She also confessed to Thomas (Oskar's Grandpa) how she used to spy on him and Anna when they kissed.
She and Thomas spent that day together, and she grew protective of him. During that time, she confessed that her "eyes are crummy” (81). By the time they parted, she felt depressed and almost suicidal, but was saved when he asked (via written message, of course) if he could sculpt her.
The next day, they met at his apartment, which was filled with animals. After talking a while - all in English - she undressed and he positioned her for the sculpture. After three days, she realized that he was actually sculpting Anna, not her. Nevertheless, she continued posing for him, letting him position her into a shape "so he could fall in love with [her]" (84).
When they finally slept together, they did not face one another, which saddened her. Afterwards, she asked again if he would marry her, and he agreed, provided they promise not to have children. They were married the next day.
Oskar’s relationship with his mother is set on the peripheral until Ron appears in this section. His feelings about Ron parallel the context of his school production of Hamlet, detailed in a later section. Like the melancholy Prince of Denmark, Oscar resents his mother for falling in love with another man so soon after his father’s death. To Oskar, Ron is an intruder who will never take the place of his father.
His feelings about his mother are some of the most heartbreaking in the novel. He reads in her behavior a sign of neglect. When we later learn that the exact opposite is true - she is aware of almost everything he is going through - we realize that his mother is not distant, but merely allowing Oskar to experience his own grief. She is distant because he needs her to be, but is always there, ready to be a part of his life again. The moments in which she asks him to zip her dress - a task that comforts him - suggest that she is staying as present as he will allow, helping him by giving him space to grieve in his own way.
Like many children who experience extreme trauma, Oscar’s world outlook has changed. His style of address suggests a naturally optimistic child, but his feelings have grown pessimistic, a harsh counterpoint to his imaginative nature. The effects of this negativity are clear. On some level, he seems aware that he might push his mother away, and yet the sad cycle is that he then chooses to push her away, as a form of self-protection. He transfers his feelings into small tasks, like shaking his tambourine or zipping his mother's dress. Obviously, there is no issue with finding comfort in small places, but in this case, these small comforts mask the far more serious manifestations like his self-abuse in the form of bruises. Again, Foer poses Oskar's journey as one of self-treatment. If his journey is this novel does not yield positive results, these behaviors could become far more serious later in life. Though the novel is spoken in the past tense, there is no definitive indication whether Oskar has yet found peace.
Foer’s depiction of Oskar’s mental health does not conclusively indicate an exact mental diagnosis, but many of Oskar's personality quirks suggest he suffers from high functioning autism/Asperser’s syndrome. Symptoms of this condition include: above average intelligence; dislike of touch or certain textures; severe reaction to environmental stimuli; lack of social skills; lack of abstract use of language, such as conversational cues or humor; obsessive interests in specific topics or groups of information; high anxiety and depression; and a diminished sense of empathy toward the emotions of others. Oskar exhibits all of these traits to some degree, yet Foer never labels Oskar this way. Perhaps this only confirms Foer's interest in treating Oskar's grief and tragedy through a very personal lens. To definitively label the disorder would make the novel somewhat 'about' that disorder; to leave it ambiguous means we are to focus on Oskar's individual suffering, not his suffering as part of a larger condition.
One of Oskar’s obsessions is reflected in his scrapbook. His uncontrolled flurry of interests and fascinations is clearly represented through the many photos he keeps there, all of which are centered around an obsession with tragedy. And yet one can also interpret this obsessions as Foer's own. Foer's work is known for a heavy of use of visual aids, and this novel is a prime example. Just as Oskar over-emphasizes his personality and Thomas obsessively rehashes the past, so too does Foer underline his meanings through visual aids. Some of the images are highly symbolic - consider Thomas's picture of doorknobs, which represent a connection to the past and a certain mental barrier. However, what to make of the Oskar's scrapbook photos, of pigeons and turtles and fingerprints? The question is whether these images are relevant or distracting. Some critics have argued that Foer's experimentation is more gimmicky than elucidating.
Certainly, however, one can argue that the typographical experimentation reflects the characters. In Oskar's case, the scrapbook does not have a conscious order to it; Oskar merely prints out what catches his eye, and puts it in there. However, one recognizes his unconscious preference towards tragic images. The fact that he considers these tragic pictures to be Stuff That Happened to Me is quite telling, especially since he surrounds them with more innocuous imagery. The sense is that he has been defined by 09/11 more than even he knows. Were Foer to include only the tragic images, it would be difficult to believe the choice is not conscious on Oskar's part.
Similarly, the form of Thomas's sections (which will be discussed in detail in the following Analysis sections) reflect his scattered mental state, and troubled relationship with language. Nevertheless, many noted critics of the novel (see citations) decry Foer’s overuse of visual media as annoying, gimmicky, and deliberately quirky. One can certainly be forgiven for finding the typographical form of Thomas's sections irritating.
Grandma’s narration contains less visual media. However, her poetic prose, repetition of word choices, and line-by-line formatting do reflect a stylistic choice. Her language is short and simple, revealing that English remains her second language and suggesting an emotional fragility.
The motif of letters is continued in the "My Feelings" sections. Not only is she writing to Oskar, but she reveals how she once requested letters from everyone she knew. She was trying to understand people through their correspondence and their handwriting. In many ways, letters are a personal connection to someone, but in other ways, they represent distance.
And distance certainly fits with Grandma, who seems to live apart from others. She had lived vicariously through her sister's romance in Dresden, and in New York City is content to represent Anna to her new husband. She tries to redefine herself through American idioms, not realizing that these are commonplace and superficial. And most telling of all, her most emotional conversations with Oskar occur from across the street, via walkie-talkie. Finally, the relationship with Thomas is defined by an emotional distance, which perversely attracts her. Their sexual relationship is heart-breaking, as it is not motivated by love, and avoids intimacy at all costs (they never face one another).
And yet there is a certain intimacy in her letters, especially when compared to Thomas's letters to his son. Unlike Thomas, Grandma is honest with Oskar here, admitting her mistakes and flaws, and being forthright even about sexual matters. She is attempting to compensate for her emotional distance through absolute honesty.
All in all, her story is a reflection of Oskar's thus far. He penchant for hiding from deep emotions certain parallels his own. And yet her attempt in these letters to compensate, to change, to grow, suggests that he too might have the potential to accept who he is and thereby transcend those limitations.