October 31, 2002
Shedding Some Light
"Everything Is Illuminated" by Jonathan Safran Foer (Houghton Mifflin, $24).
Jonathan Safran Foer's new book, "Everything Is Illuminated" has garnered rave reviews everywhere, from The New York Times to Esquire, with front jacket quotes by Russell Banks, Nathan Englander and mentor Joyce Carol Oates; it has even been optioned for a movie by actor Liev Schrieber's prodction company.
Foer, a 25-year-old Princeton graduate, turned his short, unsuccessful trip to the Ukraine, where he searched for the woman who saved his grandfather from the Holocaust, into a bizarre fictional account of the search for a woman who saved his grandfather from the Holocaust. The novel, whose narrator is uncoincidentally named Jonathan Safran Foer, is interwoven with the hysterical correspondence from his language-mangling translator, Alexander Perchov, and tales of their trip around Ukraine with his narcoleptic grandfather, and a dog named Sammy Davis Junior, Junior.
With his silver-rimmed glasses and a slightly sardonic smile, Foer seems less like the literary wunderkind of the moment, and more like the really, really, really smart Jewish guy from your high school class who might not have gone to the prom because he was working on his science project. Actually, Foer had thought of "Illuminated" as a "project" the whole time he was working on it.
"I never used the words book or novel. I'm still not comfortable with calling myself a writer," he told The Journal last week after he appeared at The Los Angeles Times Book Fair.
Growing up the middle of three brothers, Foer was a member of the Conservative Addis Israel Synagogue in Washington, D.C. He did the weekly Hebrew school thing avec bar mitzvah, albeit reluctantly. "I didn't really think about [my Judaism]."
"It was the kind of experience that didn't reveal itself until much later," he said.
In the process of researching and writing the book, Foer -- the author, not the narrator -- discovered his strong ties to his roots. "I feel more connected to the past," he said. "In part because I did it on my own terms -- it was very liberating, not constraining." The book helped him "make something personal ... to depart from tradition."
Indeed , the "historical" parts of the book, in the late 18th century Ukranian shtetl Trachimbrod, are more irreverent than traditional.
Has this offended anyone?
"It's amazing how flexible Jews are. It's understood that it's a joke. I knew I was being true, the way I felt things, and there must be some good in that. I never made of or deflated anything," he said. "The Bible is about people who depart. That's what Judaism is about."
The acclaim of his book hasn't fazed him. Of course, it might just be that he's used to it. Foer's first book was as the editor of anthology of fiction, "A Convergence of Birds: Original Fiction and Poetry Inspired by the Work of Joseph Cornell" and he's already at work on is second novel, the story of a New York man who kept diaries during the Holocaust but was overshadowed by Anne Frank.
With the apparent success of "Illuminated" -- it reportedly pulled in almost half a million dollars in a book house bidding war -- Foer said that he feels more isolated. "People didn't want to talk about the book," he says of his close friends and family. His life hasn't changed much because the book has "nothing to do with real, fundamental substance."
Oddly enough, of all the glowing reviews he's received, he say the one that means the most to him is from The Forward, calling it "The Century's First Great American Jewish Novel."
"The Great American Jewish Novel has been, until now, a 20th-century convention, and with the exception of Henry Roth, its claimants have been primarily first-generation Americans whose fiction burst into a postwar literary landscape...." The review discusses Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, and says that "Illuminated" "at once recalls the literary tradition of these novels and invents something all its own."
What that something is, isn't entirely always clear, concise or pretty, but in the end, perhaps it reveals the most about Foer, both the author and the character.
He used this device of calling the narrator himself because, "It's the way it had to be. I know the story I wanted to tell, and using myself was the key to get it."
But he isn't sorry.
"In retrospect, it made me vulnerable."