It took me a while to find the rhythm of this book, but about a third of the way in, I was hooked. By the last 30 pages, I was weeping as I watched connections among characters form and themes emerge so strongly I wondered why I didn't see them foreshadowed.
Foer weaves together two major narratives that mirror and complement each other. The first narrative takes us on a quest made by Oskar, a nine-year-old boy who is trying to learn the significance of a key that his father left behind when he died. The boy's father is presumably killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but because his body is never recovered, the boy constantly "invents" scenarios for his father's death, leaving him with little closure.
The second narrative depicts a sculptor who is an immigrant from Germany. He suffers a series of losses, which leads to his becoming mute. In order to communicate, he has Yes and No tattooed on his palms. He carries a day book which he fills with statements, some of which he reuses by flipping pages and pointing. He writes on shower curtains, walls, and even on skin--his own and the skin of his interlocutors.
These two narrates share themes: loss, grief, relationship conflict, and most powerfully, the use and misuse of language. Secondary characters reinforce these themes as well. Again and again we observe a father writing a letter or series of letters to a son. These letters fail to arrive in a timely manner. The sculptor's wife also writes, but these texts also fail to communicate. Her explanation? "Because I have crummy eyes." Oskar sends letters to several prominant figures, which all-too-often result in his receiving form letters or patronizing replies. Oskar also receives auditory "letters" or voicemails from two different characters. These messages also fail to communicate in a timely manner.
This novel was also challenging because it included nontraditional texts: photographs, pages from the sculptor's day books, pages filled with numerical codes, blank pages, sharpie doodles, diagrams, editor's markings, and pages with type that overlayed on each other until the message was unintelligible. All of these texts support the theme of decoding the soul of another through a text -- sometimes with success, but often not.
As the novel unfolds, we see that sometimes characters fail to communicate, sometimes they succeed, sometimes they persist until language finally bridges the gap between two people. Sometimes people stay isolated from each other despite their best efforts.
Thank heaven for the work of writers such as Foer for offering us a poetic view of the human quest for intimacy through language. He finds beauty in our strivings, even if imperfect or perhaps because of these imperfections. I was glad to find this love letter from Foer, which is set in the wake of the 9/11 attacks but entails themes that resonate not just with New Yorkers but with all those trying to use language -- often unweildy and insufficient -- to manage the challenges of the human condition. I am sorry that I let this letter go undelivered for so many years after its publication.