The recovery room turned silent; everyone stared. Bruno groaned and turned toward the wall. That night I put him to bed. Bruno, I said. So sorry, he said. So selfish. I sighed and turned to go. Stay with me! he cried. (1.12)
Ambivalence between loneliness and companionship can be seen all throughout the novel. This is an especially interesting example: Bruno tries to commit suicide, and Leo saves him. Bruno apologizes for having been willing to leave his friend alone in the world. Then when Leo goes to leave him alone in the hospital, Bruno can't bear the solitude.
THE WALL OF DICTIONARIES BETWEEN MY MOTHER AND THE WORLD GETS TALLER EVERY YEAR (2.24)
The way that literature affects human relationships is a recurring theme. But here literature is a literal wall separating Alma's mother from the people around her. The more she immerses herself in that world, the more she's cut off.
The next table over there was a girl with blue hair leaning over a notebook and chewing on a ballpoint pen, and at the table next to her was a little boy in a soccer uniform sitting with his mother [...]. A wave of happiness came over me. It felt giddy to be part of it all. To be drinking a cup of coffee like a normal person. (4.5)
It's worth noting that Leo has very little in common with the people surrounding him—the blue hair, the young child. And because Leo so rarely has any contact whatsoever with other people, the simple act of drinking a cup of coffee together here is a profound experience for him. He feels united with other folks and experiences the joy of being alive.
The moment had passed, the door between the lives we could have led and the lives we led had shut in our faces. Or better to say, in my face. Grammar of my life: as a rule of thumb, wherever there appears a plural, correct for singular. (4.53)
But after all this time, why would the impulse to pluralize even remain? What does that say about the human instinct for companionship?
I live alone, which doesn't bother me. Or maybe just a little. (5.17)
No, how much, really? And why does he want us to think that living alone doesn't bother him at all?
I left the library. Crossing the street, I was hit head-on by a brutal loneliness. I felt dark and hollow. Abandoned, unnoticed, forgotten. I stood on the sidewalk a nothing, a gathering of dust. (7.62)
Once again, books and literature serve as a replacement for human companionship. Leaving the library, and the warm embrace of those millions of words, Leo realizes just how alone he is. The irony, of course, is that he lives in downtown Manhattan, where he's literally surrounded by millions of real human beings.
She asked me to make a copy of her key. I was happy for her. That she wouldn't be alone anymore. It's not that I felt sorry for myself. [...] And yet. I made two copies. One I gave to her, and one I kept. For a long time I carried it in my pocket. To pretend. (7.64)
This is really sad, right? We definitely pity him at this moment. But we have two questions here. One: do you think that's why he's admitting this to us? And two: how do you think the woman would feel if she knew he had made an extra copy of her key and carried it around with him every day? Would she feel sympathetic like us, or be totally creeped out? Those are two legit options.
In my loneliness it comforts me to think that the world's doors, however closed, are never truly locked to me. (7.73)
Think about the two instances in the novel where Leo uses his skills to sneak into a building. One is the empty, almost abandoned home of the son he never had the nerve to meet. The other is Carnegie Hall—a vast cathedral of empty seats, suggestive of all the people he might be surrounding himself with, but steadfastly avoids.
He didn't make any friends. He was no longer in the business of making friends. [...] There were other refugees around him experiencing the same fears and helplessness, but Litvinoff didn't find any comfort in this because there are two types of people in the world: those who prefer to be sad among others, and those who prefer to be sad alone. (9.9)
This passage seems to assume that the only people with whom Leo might communicate or associate would be other survivors of the Holocaust who experienced similar terrible things and could relate to his suffering. It also suggests that, for this group of people, being sad—either alone or in a group—is the only option. Being happy is out of the picture. Does that sound right to you?
When Alma was gone, and, two years later, Mordecai, there had been nothing anymore to stop me. And yet. (10.15)
Meeting his son has got to be number one on Leo's all-time wish list. Why does he find himself unable to introduce himself and tell him the truth, then?
BEING ALONE. Like the living, angels sometimes get tired of each other and want to be alone. Because the houses they live in are crowded, and there's nowhere to go, the only thing an angel can do at such moments is shut his eyes and put his head down on his arms. (12.15)
Does this remind of you of anything? Are any of the people in our story similar to these angels? Doesn't this image of putting one's head in one's arms resemble putting one's nose in a book?
"Yes, I do. I have plenty of friends," I said, and only as the words came out did I realize they weren't true. (13.22)
How could it be that Alma doesn't realize this? Or, rather, does it seem like that to you as a reader? Or does her immersion in the imagined worlds of Alma Mereminski and Zvi Litvinoff and Jacob Marcus make it seem as though she's surrounded by people all the time? Yes, we do like asking questions, thank you for asking.
I wanted to be like them. And yet. I didn't know how. I'd always felt different from the others, and the difference hurt. (16.49)
Leo is remembering how he felt as a child. How does he change as he gets older? Does he still feel different from others? If so, does feeling different still hurt like it did when he was a kid?