I thought about all the things that everyone ever says to one another, and how everyone is going to die, whether it's in a millisecond, or days, or months, or 76.5 years if you were just born. Everything that's born has to die, which means our lives are like skyscrapers. The smoke rises at different speeds, but they're all on fire, and we're all trapped. (p.245)
Oskar Schell is a precocious nine-year old boy dealing with the loss of his father in the 9/11 bombing, and with the emotional withdrawal of his mother. Finding a mysterious key (labelled 'Black') in his father's closet, he resolves to unravel the mystery -- which of New York's 162 million locks does it open? -- and he plans to do this by visiting every Black in the New York phone book in alphabetical order. (No, he does not seem to have heard of Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged. Or Winston Churchill.)
Oskar's father is an absence at the centre of this novel -- a blank space, a man who does nothing but whose absence affects a surprising number of people. His wife and son, obviously; his mother, who lives across the street. But also the father who fled New York before he was born, and Black, to whom the key belonged ...
The novel's not only very readable (Oskar is precocious but not incredibly so: he reminds me of Louis Drax) but typographically innovative: there are pages that replicate the paper pads on which art-shop customers test pens, pages where the text gets more and more cramped til it's just an intense inky blur, pages where the crackle of static in a cellphone conversation becomes white space ... pages where Oskar's grandfather's daybook (Oskar's grandfather doesn't speak, hasn't since he came to America from Dresden: he writes everything down in notebooks) has been edited with a cold emotionless red pen ... (Also, vexingly, two and a half pages entirely in 'phone-dial' code -- 2 for A B or C, 3 for D E or F ... I don't mind decoding a couple of sentences but nooooo. But! Does the author expect the reader to decode? Or is this a way of hiding more narrative -- or, given the circumstances, more honest, predictable, human communication -- in the heart of a written novel?)
Oskar thinks it's all about him, and he does have a terrible secret which he's unable to tell to his counsellor or his mother or his grandmother. But his simple self-centred observations (I use the adjectives descriptively not perjoratively) sometimes miss the hidden truth of the situation.
There's plenty in here about saying goodbye, about always telling the people you love that you love them: about the instant unpredictable destruction of bombing, whether Dresden (the paper made the house burn better ... descriptions of that bombing moved me more than reportage of 9/11, which I watched as it happened) or the Twin Towers: about how we all die and we never know when ...
Why didn't I learn to treat everything like it was the last time, my greatest regret is how much I believed in the future ... (p.281)
NB: Oskar is full of Facts. The one about '230 years of peace in the last 3500 years' (p.161) seems credible though I am unable to trace the actual calculation (would be grateful for more detail). I am, however, unconvinced by 'more people alive now than have died in all of human history'. (p. 3): I think it's the other way round by a large margin. ... Just saying!