Keys to the grieving heart

Richard Eder, a former book critic for The Times, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1987.

There is a formidable, terrifying architecture to this first big novel dealing with the shattering reverberations of spirit set off by the destruction of the World Trade Center. Staring at horror, like staring at the sun, requires a measure of defensive averting, a smoked-glass protection of the sight.

Jonathan Safran Foer, a celebrated young novelist for “Everything Is Illuminated,” provides in this already acclaimed second novel a protagonist hopelessly open-eyed and entirely unshielded. He is, after all, 9 years old.

School lets out early on Sept. 11, 2001. Oskar Schell comes home to an empty apartment. His mother is still out; there are five phone messages from his father, a jeweler who had business that morning at the trade center. At first they are calm, but the father’s voice registers disaster mounting through his desperate, weakening effort to reassure. The phone rings again. Frozen, Oskar can’t bring himself to pick it up. When he does a few minutes later, there is only one more message: “Are you there?” It repeats 11 times, then a final “Are you -- ,” then silence.

Thus, to a child with the overnourished intelligence and jittery nerve ends of a Maurice Sendak character comes a double invasion of Wild Things. Bad enough is the atrocious death of a beloved father, mentor and intimate companion of his hothouse imagination. Unbearably worse is the guilt of eluding a last living encounter with his father and leaving his words to a machine.


It is critical nuclear mass and quite enough to set off a wild pilgrimage, the species of children’s crusade on which Oskar embarks. The adult world has no answers for him: not his patient, quietly understanding mother, not his beloved grandmother -- second only to the father as a confidant -- and least of all his psychiatrist, called in to overcome Oskar’s seeming refusal to cope with the tragedy.

Coping, to the grown-ups, means not forgetting, but finding ways to live with remembrance. They hold an empty-coffin burial ceremony. The dead man’s spirit is inside, the mother tells Oskar. But his dust is all over New York, Oskar protests, and he sets about his own coping: an expedition to track down every last dust mote.

Metaphorically, that is; yet the reality is hardly less extravagant. Having discovered a key in his father’s closet, Oskar resolves to find the lock it fits. Hundreds of millions of locks in New York, but the key is inside an envelope marked with the word “Black.” Only 262 addresses are listed under Black, so Oskar, assembling a kit with flashlight, white gloves, chopsticks, Fig Newtons, iodine pills (for radioactivity) and a copy of “Hamlet” (he plays Yorick in the school play), sets out to visit each of them. On foot, because since Sept. 11, he has shunned public transport and elevators.

That kit could stand for what undermines Foer’s novel and keeps it from becoming another grand exemplar of a classic theme: the journeying child who wields devices against a larger, threatening adult world. J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield is a modern instance; so, more recently, is Thomas Rayfiel’s Eve in the less known but redoubtable “Colony Girl.” There is Jim in “Treasure Island” and, grandest of all, Huckleberry Finn.


What Huck takes aboard the raft meets survival needs: cornmeal, fishhooks, lines, a knife. Oskar’s kit contains what I would call display needs. They are adornments for his persona, one that mixes comedy, precocious discursiveness and a pathos that can rise to the tragic but much of the time splashes in self-conscious whimsy. True, it is a whimsy that distracts from a terrible void; but if the void shows Foer as architect, then the whimsy shows Foer as a frequently ticky-tacky builder.

Oskar’s narrative hums above the silence. “I am an incredibly bright, talented and sensitive child,” is the burden of the hum. “Incredibly” continually recurs; so does “heavy boots,” Oskar’s name for his spasms of grief. He punishes himself for each mistake and misapprehension with a hard pinch; his body is black and blue. He babbles ideas for inventions: a teakettle that would whistle tunes and recite Shakespeare, a limousine so long that the passengers would arrive even before they started out, a system of tear drains feeding into a reservoir so as to measure each day’s municipal quota of sorrow.

Touching as some might be, inventions recur nonstop as he visits Blacks all over New York. He acquires Mr. Black, an ex-journalist, to help his search. He meets kind, middle-aged Abby Black, whom he’d like to kiss, and an inconsolable William Black to whom he offers a hug and who provides a solution of sorts to his quest. The search goes on for eight months, gradually flagging as Oskar’s peculiar hyperactive form of mourning works itself out.

Prattle, prattle -- to adapt Dylan Thomas’ “rage, rage” -- against the dying of the light. A child might well do it at a loved one’s funeral and eyes would grow misty; but soon he would be gently led off to bed. Oskar (occasionally reminiscent of that other Oskar, the didactic homunculus of “The Tin Drum”) remains front and center, apart from a series of episodes recounting his grandmother’s agonizing marriage.


(Her husband is a sculptor, struck mute long after witnessing the Dresden firebombing during World War II. He abandons her for many years, then returns to live, a ghostly tenant, in her apartment. Foer can be moving as he renders the eroding effect of pain upon intimacy, but the episodes, though thematically linked to Oskar’s tragedy -- history finds many ways to crush -- become, fictionally, an increasingly heavy intrusion.)

Foer took a risk in using a 9-year-old as the voice of this ambitious and in some ways impressive book. Children can personify tragedy -- witness Hedwig Ekdal, who kills herself in Henrik Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck,” and Macduff’s slaughtered sons in “Macbeth” -- but perhaps they cannot speak it, at least in a sustained way. Oskar’s precocious piping over the abyss is ultimately a sentimental, not a transfiguring, irony. Tragedy doesn’t seek pity and terror; it arouses it. *