The search for the lock that fits a mysterious key dovetails with related and parallel quests in this (literally) beautifully designed second from the gifted young author (Everything Is Illuminated, 2002).
The searcher is nine-year-old Oskar Schell, an inventive prodigy who (albeit modeled on the protagonist of Grass’s The Tin Drum) employs his considerable intellect with refreshing originality in the aftermath of his father Thomas’s death following the bombing of the World Trade Center. That key, unidentified except for the word “black” on the envelope containing it, impels Oskar to seek out every New Yorker bearing the surname Black, involving him with a reclusive centenarian former war correspondent, and eventually the nameless elderly recluse who rents a room in his paternal grandma’s nearby apartment. Meanwhile, unmailed letters from a likewise unidentified “Thomas” reveal their author’s loneliness and guilt, while stretching backward to wartime Germany and a horrific precursor of the 9/11 atrocity: the firebombing of Dresden. In a riveting narrative animated both by Oskar’s ingenuous assumption of adult responsibility and understanding (interestingly, he’s “playing Yorick” in a school production of Hamlet) and the letter-writer’s meaningful silences, Foer sprinkles his tricky text with interpolated illustrations that render both objects of Oskar’s many interests and the word and memories of a survivor who has forsworn speech, determined to avoid the pain of loving too deeply. The story climaxes as Oskar discovers what the key fits, and also the meaning of his life (all our lives, actually), in a long-awaited letter from astrophysicist Stephen Hawking.
Much more is revealed as this brilliant fiction works thrilling variations on, and consolations for, its plangent message: that “in the end, everyone loses everyone.” Yes, but look what Foer has found.