Jewish-American author Jonathan Safran Foer has been called one of the most controversial and influential writers of the last decade. He was born in 1977 in Washington, D.C., and earned his bachelor’s degree at Princeton University. While an undergraduate, Foer earned creative writing prizes from Princeton all four years. Under the guidance of Joyce Carol Oates, he finished a manuscript of “Everything is Illuminated” before graduating in philosophy.
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Jonathan Safran Foer is a Brooklyn-based author of the novels “Everything is Illuminated” (2002) and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (2005). He is the middle of three sons; his two brothers are also involved in editing and writing. The Safran family originated in Ukraine, where many perished in the Holocaust, a major subject in Foer’s fiction. Foer was born and raised in the Washington, D.C., area, and was educated at Georgetown Day School. Later, at Princeton University he studied philosophy, literature, and creative writing. In 2004 Foer married Nicole Krauss, author of the novels Man Foer, Jonathan Safran Walks into a Room (2002) and The History of Love (2005), and the couple welcomed their first child, a son, Sasha, in 2006.
Foer’s arrival on the literary scene owes much to the remarkable mentoring of teachers Joyce Carol Oates, Russell Banks, and Jeffrey Eugenides. He is best known for his novels but has also published several short stories. His first literary project was an edited anthology entitled A Convergence of Birds: Original Fiction and Poetry Inspired by the Work of Joseph Cornell (2001), which contained his story “If the Aging Magician Should Begin to Believe.” The anthology was completed while Foer was still at Princeton. The story “The Very Rigid Search” from Everything Is Illuminated first appeared in The New Yorker in June of 2001. In 2002 “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease” appeared in The New Yorker and “About the Typefaces Not Used in This Edition” appeared in The Guardian. The story “Room after Room” was included in Best of Young American Novelists 2 in the journal Granta in 2007.
Everything Is Illuminated launched Foer into overnight literary eminence. It came out of what
Foer has described as an ill-conceived, mostly farcical 1999 trip to Ukraine to research the life of his grandfather Safran. Much of the novel’s humor and poignancy develops out of those portions purportedly written by the young Ukranian narrator, Alex, an appealing and zany operator in a family tour business which exploits naive American Jews trying to trace their family history and genealogy in Ukraine. The supposedly collaborative account Alex and Jonathan create together features Alex’s hilariously tortured English, whose dictionaryderived syntax and tortured word choices provide much of the book’s charm and humor. Beyond this, Foer examines an American’s bewildering attempts to plumb the history of the Holocaust and an eastern European family. Steadily the book reveals the painful denials and layers of subterfuge of the Holocaust generation, and the suffering of the postwar Americans and Ukrainians, with their family dysfunctions, ethical responsibilities, and ignorance. Everything Is Illuminated, which developed out of Foer’s thesis at Princeton, won the senior thesis creative writing prize. The book received both wildly enthusiastic and wildly critical reviews, some commenting on its highly creative, eccentric, brilliance, and hilarious humor.
Publisher’s Weekly called the novel the work of a “demented genius”-the word demented also appeared in Francine Prose’s New York Times book review. Other critics dismissed it as a catalog of derivative modernist and postmodernist literary tricks, a nuisance to wade through, and ultimately a pretentious failure. The book is now garnering more moderate literary critical responses. By now the book has been translated into 30 languages, and has earned Foer such awards as the Guardian First Book Prize, and the New York Public Library Young Lions Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book of the Year award. Foer has also been named in Rolling Stone’s “People of the Year,” and Esquire’s “Best and Brightest,” and won the National Jewish Book Award. Liev Schreiber’s film based on Everything Is Illuminated appeared in 2005.
Foer’s second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), also received accolades. The word stunning echoes through the reviews. Most reviewers recognized his concentration on suffering, history, human rights abuses, and memory. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close features protagonist Oskar Schell, a nine-year old atheist mourning the death of his father in the September 11, 2001, tragedy. The book features a grab bag of modern and early postmodern experimental devices, such as pastiche and magical realism. It employs Yiddish vocabulary, photographs, pictures of door knobs and keyholes, blank pages, typography of various kinds, letters, flip book pages, and the like. While some critics describe these devices as irritating, fraudulent, silly, mannered, pretentious, melodramatic, and demanding, others marvel at Foer’s willingness to place such tremendous demands on his readers and comment on his brilliance, humor, compassion, psychological insight, and sheer inventiveness.
Foer has also published a variety of nonfiction op-ed pieces for the New York Times, and even a libretto for an opera. Though nervous about being pegged as a Jewish-American writer, Foer admits that he is grateful to have such a rich Jew-90 Foer, Jonathan Safranish heritage. Currently, he teaches creative writing as a visiting professor at Yale University. Foer has been a vegetarian from age 10, and is also an animal-rights activist. “If This Is Kosher,” a video protesting the animal abuses at AgriProcessors Inc., appeared in 2006, targeting the largest glatt kosher slaughterhouse in the American kosher butchery industry.
2.2 The novel “Everything Is Illuminated”, Summary and Analysis
“There was nothing”. With these words and a grassy field too dark to see, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated (2002) brings its protagonists’ hilarious search for the former shtetl Trachimbrod and a woman named Augustine to a provisional, anticlimactic close. The Ukrainian wannabe-translator Alex Perchov, his grandfather, their crazy dog Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior, and the Jewish American tourist not-so-accidentally named Jonathan Safran Foer find “nothing” on their journey into the past, nothing that would exist beyond or outside of the imaginative realm of lost memories and proliferating stories, no referent to history that might move beyond the trivial non-sense of a grassy field. For Alex and Jonathan, grandsons of a Ukrainian perpetrator and a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, the grassy field in the midst of the Ukrainian countryside reveals “nothing,” as Alex, the eccentric narrator of the novel’s quest story, does not fail to emphasize in his wonderfully awkward English:
When I utter “nothing” I do not mean there was nothing except two houses,
and some wood on the ground, and pieces of glass, and children’s toys, and
photographs. When I utter that there was nothing, what I intend is that there
was not any of these things, or any other things. (184)
In the conspicuous absence of “things” that would provide traces of and referents to the destroyed shtetl and its murdered inhabitants, “place” loses its significance as intergenerational memory site, shifting the grounds of memory work instead to the frail generative realm of language, storytelling, and the productive powers of the imagination. Consequently Everything Is Illuminated (re-)opens the past to a Pynchonesque realm of creative guesswork and endless (re-)interpretation, severely shaking what referential foundations the culture of Holocaust remembrance may continue to cherish. The novel’s experimental form reflects this far-reaching challenge to the notion of historical referentiality as it loses itself in meta-narrative discussions and persistently questions its own reliability. Like V., however, Everything Is Illuminated does not ground this destabilization in the workings of a self-reflexive language alone but ties it to the interpretive powers of the subject. The novel takes delight in rehearsing the sheer, unlimited possibilities and destabilizing potential of the subject’s imaginative powers, rushing headlong into a world of storytelling that is both outspokenly inventive and excessively creative. And yet, unlike V., it manages to simultaneously resist the impulse of a radical epistemological destabilization. The dialogical structure set up by the implicit exchange of stories and letters between Alex and Jonathan-each contributing their own passages to Jonathan’s evolving “novel” , commenting on the other’s draft and revising their own-frames the creative (re-)invention of the past as an intersubjective affair and lends a compelling moral urgency to the collective project of writing a “truthful” piece of fiction.1 As it thus ties its negotiation of concepts such as ‘truth’ and ‘meaning’ to the return of the epistolary subject, Everything Is Illuminated draws the reader into an intimate world of private exchange that may indeed be highly unreliable-and may self-reflexively reveal the traces of its own artificiality-but nonetheless opens up a space of creative possibility where stories matter and fiction can (once again?) change lives. Alongside the mind-boggling “nothing” of the grassy field and the exuberant playfulness of the imaginative stories to which it gives rise, we thus find a moving family (hi)story and an ending that allows the meta fictional letter-writing enterprise to take a final turn to action: Having learned of his grandfather’s tragic role in the murder of his best friend-Alex Sr., we learn, once pointed his finger at the Jew Herschel to save his own life-young Alex rids his family of his abusive father, relinquishes his dream of “altering residences to America” , and takes responsibility for his mother and brother. The novel ends with a letter to Jonathan in which Alex translates his grandfather’s suicide note, expressing the old man’s ardent wish for his death to allow his two grandsons to “begin again”.
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As the novel thus negotiates the creative and social spaces delineated by the simultaneous absence and presence of a remote and yet proximal past, challenging conventional notions of referentiality while exploring the grounds on which the past can or must remain ‘meaningful’ for today’s young generation of Jewish Americans and Eastern Europeans, it recasts creativity and consensus as interconnected modes of human sense-making, opening up a paradoxical and yet highly productive realm of oscillating textual in/stability. Everything Is Illuminated has it both ways. Combining a dazzling Pynchonesque excess of creative guesswork and proliferating stories with deep yearning for moments of intersubjective exchange and social empowerment, the novel explores the premises of a new fusion where exuberant creativity is intersubjectively induced and consensus is reconfigured as an open-ended creative possibility. The remarkable effect of this renewed merger might be called what Rohr, in her reading of Peirce, refers to as a “volatile stability-instability”, a text that “permanently oscillates between the poles of stability and instability” continuously holding out the promise of ‘making sense’-both in itself and of the past-while simultaneously undercutting any move towards interpretive closure, allowing the letter-writing enterprise to culminate in action while reaffirming the outspoken inventiveness of its historical (re-) constructions.
Creativity and consensus, that is, come together in a frail open space of opportunity as Everything Is Illuminated explores the grounds of a new epistolary (inter)subjectivity where generically mediated constructions of the reading and writing epistolary subject celebrate the subject’s enormous productive powers while situating it within the margins of a delicate process of intersubjective exchange. As the novel’s reader is drawn into a textually construed in/stable realm of (inter)subjective letter exchange and becomes, inscribed as both witness to and participant in the strikingly process of collectively reading and writing the world into being, the novel’s latent negotiation of creativity and consensus becomes intricately tied to its overt concern with processes of memory, (fiction-)writing, and the challenging (im)possibility of ‘making sense’ of the Holocaust. The epistolary mediations
that shape the novel’s readerly politics and drive its (re-)enactment of ‘meaningful’ (inter)subjectivities thus bring Peirce’s concepts not only to the twenty-first century but to the familiar question of Holocaust representation as well, confronting both with contemporary notions of performativity and opening up promising new ways of thinking ‘(inter)subjectivity,’ ‘responsibility,’ and ‘meaningful’ representation.
Everything Is Illuminated readily embraces the radical destabilizations of a markedly postmodernist textuality as it confronts its readers head on with a dazzling world of profound ambiguities, manifold (im)possibilities, and seemingly unlimited creative potential. Much of this frolicking force and creative excess arises from the unique narrative performance Alex, the eccentric Ukrainian translator-guide, tirelessly puts on as he relates the comical story of his bizarre summer adventures with his grandfather, their silly dog Sammy Davis, Junior,
Junior, and Jonathan, oftentimes simply referred to as “the hero”, who has come to the “totally awesome former Soviet republic” on a trip with “Heritage Touring”, a small travel agency run by Alex’s father for, as Alex puts it, “Jews who try to unearth places where their families once existed” . Steeped in sly wit, strewn with awkward puns, and awash with odd twists and a skewed logic, this narrative delights in the sheer unlimited possibilities of its own inventiveness, staging Alex’s productive powers and celebrating the unrivaled vitality of his storytelling verve. The dynamic of textual destabilization and creative play that is thus set in motion is heightened by the novel’s second narrative strand. Narrated by Jonathan, this strand relates the fabulous story of Trachimbrod and its eccentric inhabitants from roughly 1791 to the shtetl’s destruction in 1942; or rather, it relates Jonathan’s fantastic version of it, for the
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