Oskar’s is a first-person narrative, typeset in a conventional literary way. The Grandmother’s narrative is a letter to Oskar, recognisable by unusually wide spaces between sentences – a visual que referring to the ‘tab’ space on the old typewriter composes the letter at. The Grandfather’s letters are taken from his ‘daybooks’ – he becomes mute after losing his first love in the firebombing of Dresden and communicates by writing messages in pocket books. His passages are recognisable by their erratic typesetting – sometimes a single line per page, as would be shown to someone he was communicating with, sometimes totally un-paragraphed stream of consciousness ramblings. This simple visual device assists the reader to distinguish between the three narrative voices, speaking across different continents and eras concurrently.
Unable to come to terms with the loss of his father, Oskar embarks on a fool’s errand – he discovers a mysterious key in his father’s closet and sets out to find the lock it fits, somewhere in New York. Along the way, he constructs a scrapbook he calls “Stuff That Happened to Me’. Images from this book are scattered throughout the novel. Interestingly, many images are of things that don’t ‘happen’ to Oskar; alongside photographs Oskar takes of people and places he encounters, are images he finds in newspapers and on the Internet. All these photographs relate to anecdotes or events in the written text, but they do not necessarily appear near that text. So, rather than illustrating the written narrative, the uncaptioned photographs allow the reader to see through Oskar’s eyes, providing a rich visual description of the world he exists in, and is a product of. Safran Foer considered “the visual world in which [children] are now developing”, (Khan 2005) sourcing the photographs from the Internet, newspapers and photo libraries. (Hudson 2005)
The seemingly haphazard way the photographs are presented – including a 15 page sequence of found images ranging from a wall of keys, a paper aeroplane diagram, a pair of copulating turtles and a body falling from a building when a sleepless Oskar flips through his scrapbook – emulates, for the reader, the visual world Oskar inhabits. Safran Foer says: “To speak about what happened on September 11 requires a visual language. My singular motivation was to create the most powerful book I could.” (Village Voice) The most effective way to evoke a bombardment of random images is to show the reader those images – sharing Oskar’s experience heightens our empathy with him.
Oskar finds a video of a man jumping from the second tower to avoid burning to death. Oskar speculates whether this man is his father – he feels he could cope by knowing exactly how his father died. Still images from the video appear throughout the novel – a visual reminder of how this mental image haunts Oskar. The novel closes with a series of these grainy photographs, but Oskar has reversed the sequence so the body floats back up into the building, reversing time and undoing the tragedy:
“Finally, I found the pictures of the falling body. Was it Dad? Maybe. Whoever it was, it was somebody. I ripped the pages out of the book. I reversed the order, so that the last one was first, and the first was last. When I flipped through them, it looked like the man was floating up through the sky.” (325)As readers, we are forced to participate in this act, making the image come ‘alive’ in our hands. It is at once beautiful and terrifying, especially if the images are taken from real video footage from the Internet – the reader visually reverses a man’s actual death. The photographs in the novel evoke a vivid visual landscape of what was, for many people, a very visual event.