The Only Animal
Oskar prepared for his quest, to find and interview every person named "Black" in the city, in hopes of finding out more about his father's key. In anticipation, he put together a field kit, holding: ChapStick; Fig Newtons; his cell phone; the script of his school play, Hamlet; a map; and other useful items. He had no intention of telling his mother about his mission.
It took Oskar over three hours to walk to Aaron Black’s home in Queens. Though he confronted his fear of bridges and open spaces to get there, he refused to ride public transformation. As he walked, he shook his tambourine to calm himself.
When he reached the apartment building, he buzzed for Aaron Black, who appeared over the top floor railing. He invited Oskar to visit his apartment on the ninth floor, but the height frightened the boy. Aaron could not come down because he was ill and connected to machines. Unfortunately, Aaron could not provide any relevant information about the key, which made Oskar want to bruise himself.
Abby Black, the next person listed in the phone book, lived on Bedford Street. When Oskar arrived there, he tried the key in her front door lock, to no avail. When Abby appeared and said she did not know Thomas, Oskar sensed that she was hiding something. He accepted her invitation inside, and from the kitchen heard a men yelling in a nearby room. Abby ignored the man, instead sitting with Oskar and discussing a photograph of an elephant. She related details about elephant habits, and then began to cry, confessing that she and her husband - the screaming man - had been fighting. Oskar tried to comfort her, and then asked if he could kiss her. After she refused his request, he took a picture of the back of her head, and then left. Later, he added the picture to his scrapbook.
Next, Oskar went to his Grandma’s apartment, where he often stayed during weekends while his mother worked. When she did not answer the door, she let herself in and told him she had been talking to the renter in the guest room. Nobody had ever seen the renter, which made Oskar wonder if he was imaginary. (The reader later learns that the renter is actually his Grandpa, Thomas Schell Sr., who has returned.)
Why I’m Not Where You Are (5/21/63)
In a letter to his son, written from the airport, Thomas describes his relationship with his wife as a marriage based around rules. For instance, he is not allowed to watch her cook, and she is not allowed to watch him as he writes. They never speak of the past or listen to sad music. He confesses in the letter that he plans to leave her.
To accommodate their bizarre relationship, they organized their apartment into Something Places and Nothing Places, the latter of which are marked off by red tape. When one of them stands in a Nothing Place, he or she is considered invisible, and the other spouse must leave him or her alone.
As time progressed, more Nothing Places were added to the apartment, taking up part of the living room, the bathtub, and the entire guest room. Eventually, the Something Places and the Nothing Places interconnect until they cannot remember what was what. One day, to Grandma's dismay, Thomas undressed in a Something Place. Later, they marked the divisions on a blueprint of the apartment. They always make love in a Nothing Place.
Eventually, their unspoken assumptions of one another turned to resentment and anger. Thomas began to spend more time either working at his jewelry store, or at the airport, where he likes to watch people come and go, and reunite with their loved one. While there, he frequently asks people for the time; the question is expressed in many variations, each on its own page as he wrote it in his notebook. Also at the airport, he found lots of discarded newspaper and magazines, which he brought home to his wife, who loved to peruse them for American idioms.
He writes of Anna. She was seventeen when they started dating; he was fifteen. Though she made him nervous, they shared many interests. When visiting her house in Dresden one day, he found her father burying books in the backyard. On another day, he and Anna found Simon Goldberg - one of her father's Jewish friends - hiding in the shed, one wall of which was constructed entirely of books. From outside, they overheard Simon and Anna's father talking about the war. While eavesdropping, he and Anna made love for the first time. He saw Anna's younger sister - his future wife, and Oskar's Grandma - watching them from the second story. Afterwards, Anna cried and confessed that the experience hurt.
The next page features a photo of a glass doorknob with an open keyhole.
Thomas writes more of his wife, describing her eccentricities. For instance, she always carries an envelope full of money in her purse, makes him wear sunscreen wherever he goes, and says “God bless me,” after she sneezes (119).
To keep her occupied while he is at the airport (gathering his courage to leave her), he gave her an old typewriter and asked her to write her life story. From then on, she sat with their animals in the guest room (a Nothing Place) and typed. One day, she showed him what she had written so far, but it was only a stack of blank pages. There was no ribbon in the typewriter, and her poor eyesight prohibited her from realizing it. Afraid of hurting her, he told her that her life story was wonderful.
Thomas apologizes to his unborn child for leaving, and confesses guilt over having survived the bombings. He describes leaving the apartment with his suitcase, pretending he would return but actually planning to return to Dresden. He intuited that his wife understood what was happening, and asked her not to cry.
He admits in the letter that he does not love her, but wishes he could have lived two lives - one with her and the unborn child to whom he is writing, and one with Anna and their unborn child. (This is his first mention of Anna's pregnancy.)
The novel features another photo, of a glass doorknob with no keyhole.
The last pages of the chapter are taken from Thomas's notebook, and detail his side of a conversation with his wife, who has obviously followed him to the airport and asked him to return home with her. The sentences are each centered on a page, each to itself. They do not reveal his decision.
The journey theme of Oskar’s story begins on the first day of his quest. Though the mission is enormous in scope and execution, Oskar is undeterred, which reveals how profound the idea of a search is for him. Notice that although Oskar has conquered some of his fears (he is able to speak to others more easily and be alone in public places), he still relies on small items for comfort, such as his tambourine. The journey has already helped him, but is by no means an instant solution.
More impressive is how he is undeterred by disappointments. His first destination - Aaron Black - is importantly a complete disappointment. Not only can he not climb to Aaron's apartment, but Aaron knows nothing of the key. And yet Oskar travels on. The journey has already provided him an important step towards independence. His inclination towards hurting himself is not ceded, however, suggesting that he has a long way to go.
One relevant phobia that Oskar battles is that of public transportation. The New York City MTA subway system is by far the easiest way to travel to Queens and then to Brooklyn (where he finds Abby Black), but Oskar is frightened both of the proximity to others on the subway, and of the threat of a terrorist attack. This latter concern mirrors the fear many Americans felt in the wake of 09/11, and is reflected even more so in Oskar's claim that he is suspicious of Arabs. The novel features very few comments on race relations, but it is nearly impossible for Foer to be honest to the experience of this period without at least mentioning the subject. Overall, however, post 9/11 genre novels usually avoid the topic of race, and Foer's is no exception.
One common quality that Oskar experiences in his first two meetings is sadness. Aaron is struggling with a serious illness, and is beholden to machines for his survival. And Abby is sadder even yet. He intuits a lot in their meeting. Her strained relationship with her husband, and the tenderness with which she treats him, both affect him greatly, even though he cannot articulate what is happening. One of the ways that this journey helps Oskar cope with his father's passing is by connecting him to the more universal nature of human sadness, and he experiences this from the very beginning of the journey.
The scene with Abby also reveals the limits of Oskar's social skills. He is a canny observer, noting her flicker of recognition when she sees the envelope, yet he lacks the social skill set to manipulate the situation to his advantage. Instead, he makes things awkward by asking to kiss Abby. Oskar’s unfortunate habit of poorly flattering women illustrates his inability to read or comprehend facial and verbal conversational cues. His interaction with women throughout the novel offer similar insights, but Abby’s is the most significant both because she later proves significant to the quest, and because her tenderness affects him.
The visual imagery in Thomas Sr.’s chapters is used successfully here, as it symbolizes his internal struggle. The repetitive imagery of doorknobs connects Thomas to his past, and provides a visual representation of his current mood. For instance, after speaking of Anna, he includes the doorknob sitting atop an open keyhole; after speaking of Grandma, he shows it is in a locked position, with no keyhole. The former suggests an emotional connection, while the latter suggests only limits and barriers.
This section of Thomas's letter also include certain stylistic repetitions. For instance, the phrase that he asks people in the airport - “Excuse me, do you know what time it is?” - is included several times, each time on its own page (112). It helps to reinforce the sense of time that haunts Thomas, and foreshadows his eventual departure.
The phrase also reflects Thomas's passivity, with is apparent in the content of his narrative as well. He cannot make up his mind about his wife, and allows circumstance to dictate his life. In many ways, he is hampered by his own sadness and perceived failures, reliant on others to give him identity. When Grandma appears at the end to bring him back, he cannot argue with her, but simply hope that she will let him go. Paired with his obsession with places where he can exist without identity (the Nothing Places), Thomas is clearly a man who wishes not to declare his identity in any strong way.
The implicit hope is that Oskar, who is by no means passive in his quest but who is nevertheless a victim to his feelings, will learn to confront those feelings and thereby triumph over them. Hopefully, Thomas's grandson will find the strength to transcend the pain of the past, and create for himself a new, positive identity for the future.