Nine-year-old Oskar Schell uses a frenetic narrative style as he imagines inventing eccentric objects, such as a tea kettle that can mimic his dad’s voice. He envisions a birdseed vest that would attract enough birds to make a person fly—useful if they need to escape from a height. He jumps from subject to subject and from past to present. Oskar wishes he had his tambourine with him, because he likes creating a beat when he’s sad, which he calls getting “heavy boots.”
For Oskar’s ninth birthday the previous year, his grandma gave him his grandpa’s camera. His grandpa left his grandma thirty years before Oskar’s birth.
Oskar rides in a limousine for the first time to attend his dad’s funeral with his mom and grandma. He wants the limousine to drive past his school to show his friends, but his mom tells him they can’t be late. Oskar doesn’t understand why lateness matters because they’re not actually burying his dad. Tired of his grandma holding on to him, he uses a Stephen Hawking voice to ask the driver his name. The driver hands him a business card that says his name is Gerald Thompson. Gerald seems amused by Oskar at first, but when Oskar tells a joke Gerald doesn’t understand, Oskar decides that talking while driving is dangerous.
Oskar’s mom asks him if he gave a copy of their key to their postal worker and admonishes him not to give keys to strangers. Oskar scoots closer to his grandma, believing that his mom doesn’t love him and wishes he had been the one who died. He asks his mom if she still loves him, and she says she does. He thinks how beautiful his mom looks, and is pleased that she’s wearing a bracelet he made for her because making his mom happy is one of his “raisons d’être.”
Oskar reminisces about the “Reconnaissance Expedition” game he and his dad used to play on Sundays, where his dad would set up a scavenger hunt. The last time they play, Oskar’s dad gives him a map of Central Park as his only clue. Oskar asks if the lack of clues in itself is a clue, but his dad shrugs. At dinner, Oskar’s dad eats Chinese food with a fork instead of chopsticks. Certain the fork is a clue, Oskar returns to Central Park with a metal detector. He places the trash he finds in a bag. His dad won’t tell him if he’s on the right track. Oskar complains that he can’t know if he’s right without direction. Oskar’s dad counters that he can also never be wrong. Oskar notices that his dad circled the phrase “not stop looking” in the newspaper article that he’d been reading. Oskar believes this is a sign he’s on the right track and keeps hunting in Central Park although he doesn’t understand his goal.
A few weeks after the day his dad died on 9/11, which Oskar calls “the worst day,” Oskar begins writing letters that he sends using the rare stamps from his stamp collection because he wants to get rid of things. He writes to Stephen Hawking, the author of his favorite book, A Brief History of Time, asking if he can be Hawking’s protégé, and receives a form letter in return.