Oskar describes a school project he presented, of a taped interview with a Hiroshima bombing survivor. The survivor, Tomoyasu, heard the air raid siren, then lost consciousness until she woke to see neighbors whose skin was peeling off. She set off through the carnage to find her daughter, Masako, but had to turn back once black rain began to fall. The next day, she found Masako near a river, surrounded by the dead and dying. The girl's skin was peeling off, and maggots were in her wounds. She died nine hours later in her mother’s arms. Tomoyasu hopes her account will help prevent further atrocities.
Mr. Keegan, Oskar’s teacher, was impressed by his work, although it offended some of the children. When Jimmy Snyder taunted Oskar over it, Mr. Keegan sent him to the principal's office.
Two days later, Jimmy Snyder and other bullies tricked Oskar into using some foul language, and then forced him to call his mother a “whore.” (192).
That weekend, Oskar continued his quest along with Mr. Black, who refused to walk to the Bronx and made Oskar tackle his fear of public transportation in order to take the subway.
When they arrived at Agnes Black's apartment, Oskar walked up three flights of stairs to see her. Mr. Black stayed below; he was too tired to walk. To Oskar’s surprise, an older woman named Feliz lived in Agnes’s apartment. She only spoke Spanish, so Oskar wheeled her to the stairway railing so that Mr. Black could ask her about Agnes Black. They talked for a long time, and Oskar became suspicious of what they were saying.
Unfortunately, Agnes Black had been killed in the World Trade Center on 09/11. She worked as a waitress in the North Tower restaurant, Windows on the World. Oskar wonders whether she might have met his father that day, whether they might have held hands as the building collapsed around them.
Oskar and Mr. Black continued on their journey. They met Albert Black from Montana, who had come to New York to be an actor. Alice Black was an artist who made charcoal drawings. Arnold Black refused to help at all. Allen Black was a doorman on the Lower East Side, but had been an engineer in Russia. Oskar showed him how to link email to his portable TV player. When he wished Oskar good luck, Oskar was confused as to how Allen knew his name.
In the meanwhile, Oskar received a nice note from Jane Goodall, whom he has written a letter to. The note wished him the best of luck in his scientific discoveries. He also received another standard reply from Stephen Hawking.
Oskar's mother also forced him to start visiting a therapist, Dr. Fein, who employed a free association word exercise to probe Oskar's feelings. Confused and insulted by the exercise, Oskar imagined telling the therapist that he would continue to bury his feelings and bruise himself. When the therapist asked whether any good could come from his father's death, Oskar then imagined kicking the chair over in anger. However, he simply kept quiet, and shrugged his shoulders.
When Oskar finished, his mother had a session with Dr. Fein. Though he listened at the door, Oskar could understand very few words. The novel then includes a photo of a man falling from the World Trade Center. One thing Oskar did hear through the door was either his mother or the therapist asking whether Oskar was a danger to himself, and his mother protesting that she did not want to hospitalize him despite her worry.
Later that night, he listened to his father’s forth voicemail message. His father had a napkin wrapped around his face because of the smoke, but thought they would be evacuated soon. As he listened, Oskar gave himself a bruise.
Why I’m Not Where You Are (4/12/78)
Thomas writes to his son from Dresden, Germany, in 1978. Thomas has written his son a letter every day since he left New York City. Sections of the letter are marked in red; sentences are circled and their grammar corrected.
Thomas writes from the spot where Anna’s father’s shed once stood. Now it is a library. Thomas wonders whether his wife is still writing her life story in the Nothing Places of their apartment.
He writes of how Anna told him she was pregnant on the morning of the Dresden bombings. The bombings began later that night. Thomas was in a shelter with his parents, and emerged to find their house destroyed. He burnt his hand on their doorknob, and then, frightened, he left his parents behind to find Anna; he never saw them again.
The second wave of bombings began as Thomas navigated through corpses and smoke. He describes the horrific things he saw, like a burning women with her child, or animals fleeing from the destroyed zoo. A zookeeper gave him a gun, and asked him to shoot the carnivores, and he complied, shooting many animals, an experience that scarred him. Later, he saw vultures feasting on the dead of Dresden, and he blamed himself for keeping them alive. But mostly, he blamed himself for failing to find Anna and their unborn child, which he identifies as "you," meaning Thomas Jr. (214).
Thomas's burns were excruciating, and he finally collapsed at the Loschwitz Bridge, where soldiers later rescued him. After he recuperated, Thomas returned to Dresden to search for his family and Anna. No one had survived except Anna’s sister (Grandma) and her father, who later killed himself.
In the letter, Thomas admits that he might have been able to raise a child with Grandma if he had confessed to her about Anna's unborn child. Instead, he cowardly abandoned her, settling on writing letters he never intended to send to a son he does not know.
Oskar’s presentation on Hiroshima offers a way to understand Foer's approach to 09/11. In neither of these cases (nor in the case of Dresden) does Oskar or Foer focus on who was responsible for the destruction. In particular, Oskar avoids mentioning the U.S.'s involvement in Hiroshima.
Does Foer simply suppose his readers already know the historical context of both bombings? Or is he perhaps reluctant to place the U.S. in a poor light so soon after 09/11? Most likely, his purpose is to focus on the personal cost of atrocity, rather than on the political ramifications. And yet Tomoyasu's final message - a hope that such atrocities can be avoided in the future - reminds us that all wars have political ramifications. Foer's avoidance of the political subtext certainly helps us focus on the characters more than on a message, though it sometimes feels a rather glaring oversight. (See the Creative Content section of this study guide for more information on all three bombings).
In many ways, the Hiroshima presentation is more thematic than anything else, since it further reveals Oskar's morbid fascination with death despite his claims of pacifism. His complicated relationship with violence is particularly apparent in his therapy sessions. Oskar is fixated on seeing the world in a linear, scientific way, and so Dr. Fein's questions and exercise - which aim to probe the complexities of his unconscious - befuddle him. His inability to understand the world in a different way drive him to imagine violent and cruel responses. And yet he is in actuality noncommittal. He can imagine and transfer his violent impulses, but is unable to actually act upon them.
Miscommunication becomes a major theme in light of this incident. Oskar cannot bridge the gap between what he hears and what he expects to hear. Consider when he listens at the door to his mother's session. That he cannot make out much of their conversation works as a metaphor for his inability to understand the way others talk to him in a more general context. And what he does hear - his mother's insistence that she does not want to hospitalize him - comes off to him as a sign of neglect, rather than of the complicated emotional reality with which she is grappling. Whether or not we believe Oskar is autistic, the condition serves as a lens through which to understand the disconnect between how he sees the world and what is objectively happening in it.
This section also includes some context on what is arguably the novel's most important image: the man falling from the World Trade Center. When Foer places the image next to the page where Oskar is mis-hearing his mother's session, he stresses what the image means for the boy. Oskar hopes that the man might be his father, though it is easy to understand this as the boy's desperate and illogical attempt to find closure. Were the man his father, it would mean that his father had had some say in his own death. He would have maintained some control. Oskar can manage a pretense of control - it fits his mindset. What he cannot handle is the idea of tragedy, of people dying at the hands of a greater, less controllable, force. In context, we can see how Oskar uses the photo to bring order to his understanding of his father's death, even if that order if artificial.
The photo also evokes questions of context and exploitation that followed 09/11. Images of the “jumpers” were prevalent in the days following the attack, prompting much criticism of the photojournalists who profited through such images. One is certainly welcome to ask whether Foer is himself exploiting the image for his own purposes, especially considering how frequently he uses it. Regardless of where one lands on this question, the issue of context is central towards understanding the photo in the novel.
Oskar's Dad features tangentially in the novel, though his presence is direct in the case of Thomas Sr.'s letter in this section. The red markings on the letter are something previously attributed to Dad, meaning he must have read it at some point in time. Later, Thomas, Sr. admits to Grandma that his son visited him once, though neither realized who the other was. Yet again, the theme of miscommunication manifests - the intimacy of Jr.'s markings both enhance and counteract the descriptions of atrocities that the letter features.
Foer’s depiction of the Dresden bombing is very similar to the eye witness accounts of the event (omitting the participation of Allied Forces). Thomas’s experiences are exaggerated for dramatic effect - such as the zoo scene - but otherwise have a believable air. The detail he uses is crucial towards understanding the extent of his survivor's guilt. He lost in Anna not just a lover, but a potential future. His ultimate hang-up is the fear of losing another family, of having survived when others perished. The connections to Oskar are clear, and again pose a question: will Oskar transcend such guilt, and learn to let others in where his grandfather only pushed them out?
The Dresden imagery also continues to resonate throughout the text in other ways. For instance, he doorknob on which he sears his palm parallels his use of a doorknob image to relate his emotional state. The burning woman with the dead baby carries into his fear of having a child with Grandma. The atrocities with the animals explain why he fills his NYC apartment with animals. In short, he cannot let go of his past. When Grandma lets the animals go after Thomas leaves her, Foer is subtly showing us the difference between them. Whereas he refuses to move forward, she insists upon it. Oskar then is not just her family, but is also a symbol of her persistence, her emotional survival.
One final note worth making concerns Thomas's comment that he was searching for "you" when he returned to Dresden. Addressing Thomas Jr. (Dad) directly, he reveals here an inability to separate his past from his present. Obviously, Anna's unborn child is not the same person as the child that Grandma has, yet the Freudian slip is telling. It reveals the extent of his emotional damage, his inability to see the present as a potential for change. Not until Oskar reenters his life and forces him towards closure will he be able to change.