The novel launches right into Oskar’s mind: the reader jumps from idea to idea to idea, without getting introduced to what’s going on. In rapid-fire succession, Oskar gives several ideas for new inventions or improvements on the world: for example, he describes a teakettle that sings melodies, an anus that can talk, microphones that broadcast heartbeats, and a birdseed shirt, among other things.
Oskar is extremely precocious: his brain is always going a million miles a minute, and he has an incredibly sharp vocabulary. Some of his “inventions” seem random, but just like a dream, they’re often showing a subconscious solution to something that can’t be solved. That birdseed shirt presents a solution to save people falling (or jumping) out of a building—like the people who died in the 9/11 attacks.
Oskar describes his first jujitsu class, which is also his last jujitsu class, as kicking his sensei’s privates isn’t something that particularly interests Oskar. When Oskar describes playing tambourine, he mentions for the first time that his Dad has died.
Oskar jumps around a lot from topic to topic, but emotionally, underneath this pyrotechnic, spinning surface of ideas, he’s trying to come to grips with one big thing: his Dad’s death.
Thinking about his tambourine and his Dad’s death makes Oskar free associate about death in general: he ruminates about all the dead people throughout history, and about building underground skyscrapers for the dead.
Oskar feels safer dealing with death as an abstract, scientific concept, one that he can collect statistics about and imagine things about, rather than facing his emotions about Dad’s death.
Oskar describes the limousine ride to the cemetery for his Dad’s funeral. He chatters at Gerald, the limousine driver, telling nerdy puns and jokes that fail to crack Gerald’s smile. Mom and Grandma are in the limo with Oskar as well, though they are being much quieter than Oskar: Mom is squeezing something in her purse, and Grandma knits white mittens. Gerald gives Oskar his card.
Oskar seems like he doesn’t quite get the gravity of what’s going on as they drive out to Dad’s funeral: while he talks at rapid-fire speed and cracks jokes, Mom and Grandma can barely speak, overwhelmed by grief. But there is also a sense that perhaps Oskar’s non-stop activity is his way of showing grief.
Mom asks Oskar why Oskar has given a spare set of keys to the mailwoman; though Oskar is afraid that Mom doesn’t love him anymore, she reassures him that she loves him more than ever.
Although Oskar seems like he’s cheerful on the surface, he’s deeply insecure and fragile; he’s scared of losing the loved ones he has left.
Oskar briefly mentions the second time that he was in a limo—when he and “the renter” (that is, Oskar’s Grandpa) went to dig up Dad’s coffin—and then talks about the “Reconnaissance Expeditions” that he and his Dad used to do on Sundays. For the last, unfinished Expedition, Dad gave Oskar a map of Central Park as his only clue. The more objects Oskar found and brought back from the park, the less he understood about the quest, but the more determined he became to find a clue in everything.
Dad used to send Oskar around the city to help Oskar break through some of his fears and encourage him to explore the world outside his apartment. Dad’s “Expeditions” often don’t seem to have any actual purpose. They’re like Rube Goldberg inventions: highly intricately plotted ways of searching for nothing. The Expeditions are about the journey, not the end.
Oskar eventually arranged all the random objects and connects the dots to spell “FRAGILE,” which makes Oskar free-associate about all of the various meanings and significances of that word.
Since the objects Oskar finds on expeditions don’t mean anything intrinsically, they act like a Rorschach blot: Oskar sees into them what he’s subconsciously thinking about.
Oskar then begins to describe the letters he began to write after “the worst day” (that is, September 11, 2001). Oskar writes his first letter to Stephen Hawking, who sends a form letter in reply. Oskar is so delighted with the form letter that he insists on laminating it.
Many characters throughout the novel write letters, either to one person or to many people: Grandpa writes letters to his son (or both of his sons); as a child, Grandma wrote letters to everyone she knew; William Black’s father wrote letters to acquaintances to say goodbye. Oskar, like these others, writes letters to connect to people, but also because in a sense they are safe, as he is writing to people he doesn’t know: their isn’t any connection back.
Oskar describes the last story that his Dad ever told him, about New York City’s sixth borough, but he doesn’t tell the full story. Then, Oskar discusses the last time he heard his Dad’s voice, which was on the answering machine. Dad left five messages: one at 8:52 AM, one at 9:12 AM, at 9:31 AM, 9:46 AM, and 10:04 AM. Oskar listened to the messages on that day—that is, September 11—and then, at 10:26:47, the phone began to ring; the caller ID said that it was his Dad.
Jonathan Safran Foer often plants seeds of future events many chapters earlier: we get the before and after of Dad’s story about the Sixth Borough, but we have to wait until later to hear the story itself. Similarly, we also hear about Dad’s phone messages without knowing what they said. The novel builds like a puzzle, rather than moving in a strictly linear fashion.