Oskar Schell is our very precocious, smart-as-a-whip nine-year-old narrator and protagonist. He's interested in almost everything, and is forever writing letters to famous people to share his ideas. The book is about his journey to find out the purpose of a key he finds in his father's closet. What Oskar's hoping to find, although he never explicitly articulates it, is closure. This isn't a fantasy story, and Oskar is a realist. He never once thinks that this key might bring his Dad back to life or allow them to speak again, but he hopes it will reveal some sort of secret about his Dad's life that will make this sick, sad world we live in make sense.
Oskar's constantly inventing things in order to give order to chaos. What else do you expect from a kid whose cat, Buckminster, is named after Buckminster Fuller, the noted architect and futurist?
Here are a few of Oskar's greatest ideas:
Almost all of these inventions come from Oskar's fear and loneliness as a result of his father's death.
I could invent a teakettle that reads in Dad's voice, so I could fall asleep. (1.1)
He's done a lot of thinking about safety:
Sometimes I think it would be weird if there were a skyscraper that moved up and down while its elevator stayed in place. […] also, that could be extremely useful. Because if you're on the ninety-fifth floor, and a plane hits below you, the building could take you to the ground, and everyone could be safe, even if you left your birdseed shirt at home that day. (1.8)
The most poignant of the young boy's inventions, though, has to be that birdseed shirt. The birdseed shirt is an emergency item: by wearing a shirt covered in birdseed, birds (see our "Symbols" page for more about our feathered friends) can latch onto you and fly you to safety if you fall off a building like people did on 9/11. Oskar's haunted by a photo he saw of a person plummeting to his death. He thinks it might be his father, and he keeps the photo in his scrapbook. Thus, the birdseed shirt.
The book is filled with heartbreaking memories of his father, whom Oskar obviously adored.
Dad always used to tuck me in, and he'd tell the greatest stories, and we'd read the New York Times together, and sometimes he'd whistle "I am the Walrus," because that was his favorite song, even though he couldn't explain what it meant, which frustrated me. (1.27)
I touched all of his white t-shirts. I touched his fancy watch that he never wore and the extra laces for his sneakers that would never run around the reservoir again, I put my hands into the pockets of all of his jackets […] I put my feet into his slippers. (3.4)
We never hear Oskar tell his father that he loved him, but the evidence is everywhere. He sounds like a great Dad, always reading to Oskar and teaching him things, wanting him to learn to be confident and independent. Very early on in the novel, we understand the magnitude of the loss.
Oskar spends a lot of time by himself. His mother doesn't really talk to him all that much (and they usually fight when they do speak). He has two friends, Toothpaste and The Minch, but we never actually see either of them. He's never really been all that comfortable around people. He gets teased a lot by other kids, and imagines some awesomely clever comebacks, but never says them.
But as the book progresses, and he meets more and more of the people named Black who might have some info about the key, Oskar starts to come out of his shell.
Another thing I decided was that I would be as secretive about my mission as I could at home, and as honest about it as I could outside home, because that's what was necessary. (5.4)
And he is honest. He's extremely open and candid with the people he meets and manages to get pretty close to some of them. Despite all of his anxiety, he keeps contacting people because:
at the end of my search I wanted to be able to say: I don't know how I could have tried harder. (7.101)
And even though what he finds isn't exactly what he's looking for, it's not for lack of trying. This search kind of mirrors his Reconnaissance Expeditions; it forces him to be resourceful and independent, just like his father wanted him to be.
Oskar's always been an odd, eccentric kid with a zillion obsessions and anxieties, but since his father's death, everything's much worse. His father was always the one who could comfort him. He's a nervous wreck now, honestly, although he's found ways to cope with his anxiety. He carries a tambourine, which acts as a sort of musical stress ball, and he makes up inventions to calm himself down. He only wears white, which he had read reflects light in the event of a nuclear attack.
Even after a year, I still had an extremely difficult time doing certain things, like taking showers, for some reason, and getting into elevators, obviously. There was a lot of stuff that made me panicky, like suspension bridges, germs, airplanes, fireworks, Arab people in […] public places, scaffolding, sewers, […] smoke, knots, tall buildings, turbans. (3.2)
The way the author describes Oskar, he has a lot of the symptoms of what's called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He's anxious and fearful much of the time, and is always scanning the environment for possible danger. He's afraid of anything that triggers memories of that "worst day." He injures himself when he has strong feelings, and his therapist is worried he could seriously harm himself. His self-harm is a little call for help, as we see when Oskar writes that he wants his Mom to notice his bruises,
to ask me how I got them […] and to feel sorry for me […] and to feel terrible (because at least some of it is her fault). (7.169)
Here's an example of a traumatic flashback:
Even though I knew the view was incredibly beautiful, my brain started misbehaving, and the whole time I was imagining a plane coming at the building, just below us. I didn't want to, but I couldn't stop. I imagined the last second, when I would see the pilot's face, who would be a terrorist. (13.73)
He's angry at the world and sometimes just gets overwhelmed. But Oskar would probably tell you that he isn't an emotional person; he thinks he's rational and scientific. The one thing he does know is that he's really depressed. He calls this having "heavy boots." He also knows that he gets afraid when he thinks someone's angry with him.
He has an interesting image for how this feels. In this passage, he's feeling distant from his mother after she criticizes him for giving the mailwoman a key to their apartment:
She could tell that I was zipping up the sleeping bag of myself, and I could tell that she really didn't love me. (1.7)
Oskar finally tells someone, William Black, how soul-crushingly guilty he feels about not picking up the phone when his father called on "the worst day":
"He needed me, and I couldn't pick up. I just couldn't pick up. I just couldn't. Are you there? He asked eleven times. I know, because I've counted." (15.114)
When we first meet him, he's really an open wound.