Nobody dies in Jonathan Safran Foer‘s 2002 short story “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease.” But looming over the characters is the omnipresent fear of death. The narrator of the story (whose name, like the author’s, is Jonathan) and his family have a genetic history of heart attacks–41 of them among his immediate family.
They’re also experts at leaving things unsaid. The Holocaust is referred to as “my grandmother’s life in Europe during the war,” and Jonathan’s dating life, monitored silently by his family, is a JDate disaster waiting to happen.
The story uses symbols to define each pregnant pause in the dialogue between family members. For instance, a “willed silence mark” is a black square which “signifies an intentional silence, the conversational equivalent of building a wall over which you can’t climb.” When one character says another’s name disapprovingly and then “dissolves into a suggestive silence,” it’s indicated by a ~. The story’s entire final scene is a conversation in these markings, which, surprisingly, becomes easy to understand.