Jonathan Safran Foer the author of the white-hot new novel “Everything Is Illuminated” (Houghton Mifflin) and Jonathan Safran Foer the protagonist in the white-hot new novel “Everything Is Illuminated” share only one salient similarity besides name and age.
They both traveled to the Ukraine with a photograph of a mystery woman, young and luminous, a woman said to have saved their grandfather from the Nazis during World War II.
Here their narratives diverge.
The fictional Foer returns with a rucksack of memories of peculiar encounters as surreal as dreams. His search for the woman in the photo puts him in the company of three oddly matched tour guides: There’s Alexander Perchov, a boasting, Ukrainian 20-year-old, son of a travel agent, who is proud of his “fluid” English and his all-around “premium” guy-ness. Then, there’s Alex’s melancholy grandfather, (also Alex) who says he’s blind. Filling out the group is the elder Alex’s seeing-eye dog, Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior (named for “grandfather’s beloved singer” and " the Negro of the Rat Pack!”), who is as passionate as she is dim. Together, they take a meandering road trip to locate the vanished shtetl of Trachimbrod, a journey that unearths secrets that tip them all toward unexpected answers and questions.
As for the flesh-and-blood Foer, he returned with nothing.
Or so he thought.
“My trip to the Ukraine in 1997 resembled the purpose of the trip in the book,” says Foer, taking a few days off from his book tour to write and collect his thoughts in his Queens apartment. “I did have a photograph of woman who I had been looking for, who I had been told saved my grandfather during the war,” he explains. “But it ended up like nothing. I didn’t find anything resembling anything. There was no person like Alex. There was no person like Alex’s grandfather. There was no person who resembled this woman we were looking for. There was really just nothing. And not an inspiring nothing. Just a real nothing.”
But once he got back to Prague, his base that summer, the blank space somehow opened onto a promising path. He teased out one sentence, toying with a self-made riddle inspired by a plaque he’d seen in on his journey to Trachimbrod: “It was March 18, 1791, when Trachim B’s double-axle wagon either did or did not pin him against the bottom of the Brod River.”
That ambiguous beginning unlatched something. He asked himself: “Wouldn’t it be more exciting if [Trachim B.] got away? Or more exciting if we didn’t know? Could I just side with my own imagination? Is there anything wrong with that?”
His imagination tantalized the publishing world, with Houghton Mifflin outbidding 15 other publishers for a two-book deal. And over the last month, effusive praise for what Foer wrought from “nothing” has splashed across newspaper arts and book pages. The New Yorker ran an early excerpt, trumpeting a new generational voice. Actor Liev Schreiber grabbed the film rights. The book appeared at No. 9 last week on The Times’ bestseller list. And Foer, barely 25, became the subject of magazine profiles and radio interviews--ranging from too earnest to too quirky--in which he’s found himself “disconcertingly” discussing himself in the third person, or explaining how he is--or isn’t--like the Jonathan Safran Foer in the book.
“Everything Is Illuminated” isn’t a memoir, but it treads on the edges of truth. Not just facts-and-dates truth, but the truths that emerge when time and retelling reshape family stories.
While Foer’s wild, form-bending novel work has drawn comparisons to Mel Brooks and “staggering genius” Dave Eggers, and everything from the magic realism of Isaac Bashevis Singer to the fractured English of Desi Arnaz, comparisons don’t quite get at what he’s attempted to do. His briskly paced and often humorous book is not simply an atypical turn on a Holocaust memento but a rethinking of the very plane of the page with prose transformed like poetry--words scattered among rows of periods or run together in breathless chunks.
The text, a lively cut-and-paste snipped from various trains of thought, spans three centuries. Foer sets down a backdrop, fancifully outlining knotty political and religious histories. He overlays that with explorations of the lingering effects of hate and compassion, both in their extremes. And into the spaces between, he fits a teasing mix of linguistic sleight of hand and broad humor. Consequently, the book feels more like an impressionistic canvas than a manuscript as it swings from voice to voice, narrative to narrative.
Foer finds the most texture in the often gray area between family stories and family secrets. “Everything Is Illuminated” is powered by once-secret stories that gain--or change--meaning as they are cast and recast like the bronze statue, the Dial, that stands in Trachimbrod’s public square.
“The heart of the book is retelling, the inherent good of that,” Foer explains. “Everyone in the book has a version of everything that happens. There is nothing even resembling a definitive story. And in the end, retelling becomes the effort to learn .... We retell [familiar stories] and make them contemporary. And in doing that, we figure out ways that they can influence our lives for the better.”
His own exercise in storytelling was a bit like experiencing a thaw. “The emotions happened when I wrote the book,” emotions difficult to pin down, says Foer: “Happiness and gratitude. Anxiety and self-doubt .... It changed. But it was always there. It was more like--" he pauses, searching for an image. “Imagine listening to your stereo. You can be listening to classical music, or rock or the traffic report, but it all comes out of the same speaker. So I think for me it was the question of the volume of the emotion rather than the quality of it.”
The challenge, he says, became “making sure that I didn’t stray from what I felt. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t ever lose the rawness of the emotion"--whatever it might be. “The best book was the one that strayed least far from the emotions that inspired it.”
The story begins at the end--as an over-the-shoulder glance--after the fictional Jonathan has returned to the States from Lvov and his trip with Alex, and both are left to unravel mysteries ancient and new.
Over the miles, a lively correspondence springs up between Alex and Jonathan. Alex sends letters and a quasi-factual A-to-B retelling of their trip in his thesaurus-bludgeoned English. Jonathan’s installments unfold as a wild and baroque history of his grandfather’s shtetl from its beginnings to its literal last breath. As the pages move back and forth, their stories overlap, then blur. “With our writing, we are reminding ourselves of things,” writes Alex. “We are working on the same story.”
Perhaps it is no coincidence that “Everything Is Illuminated” is a collage of voice, intentions and form. While a student at Princeton University, Foer conceived and began recruiting writers for a collection called “A Convergence of Birds” (Distributed Art Publishers, 2001), an assemblage of ruminations on the curio-filled boxes of artist Joseph Cornell by writers including Robert Pinsky and Foer’s creative writing teacher, Joyce Carol Oates.
And though the first draft of “Everything Is Illuminated” took only eight weeks, Foer spent a good part of 21/2 years fine-tuning his own curio-filled shadow box--carefully choosing details, arranging things on the page. This meticulous self-editing, he says, he squeezed between all manner of odd jobs: “tutor, ghost writer, receptionist. I lived on a farm for six months,” he says. “If you can think of it, I probably did it.”
Once the book was done, the former philosophy major tucked it away and put his mind to other endeavors. “I did nothing for a while,” he says. “I didn’t know that I should.” He stops for a moment. “I mean, I wasn’t naive, but it never occurred to me that it was a pressing thing.” It may have sat longer had another writer friend not asked him: “So what is it you do anyway?”
The fast-forward turn of events that followed--the agent, the film option, translations into 13 languages, the “voice of Gen-Y” coronation-- flummoxes Foer, who, to hear him tell it, didn’t then, and doesn’t quite yet, see himself as a writer per se.
“It never occurred to me that there was something that I or anyone else would refer to as ‘my writing’ and that someone would like it,” says Foer. “But I knew I needed outlets creative outlets And it was life or death.” Before he realized that writing was his outlet, admits Foer, with a hot bloom of bashfulness passing through his voice, “I ended up having lots of crushes.”
That energy, says Foer’s editor, Eric Chinski, felt, even at first read, fresh, not coy or like Foer was showing off. “It really leaps off into the realm of the imagination,” says Chinski. “He really trusts his imagination rather than staying so close to what he knows. He’ll try bigger themes and is willing to take risks.” Part of that willingness, explains Chinski, probably has much to do with Foer’s attempts to shrug off the romanticized writer mantle.
“It’s really important to him to try to deflate this idea that a writer is in commune with the muses. He sits down every day whether he’s inspired or not--and writes. He sees writing as a dialogue rather than a monologue A book is a table that two can sit at.”
For the most part, what finds its way onto the page is unconventional. And the book’s disjointed form has given some readers pause: “It has frustrated some people,” Foer acknowledges. “It doesn’t really resemble traditional storytelling. It’s just a different kind of investment a reader has. My hope was all of these little images--just as in a collage--all those little images do make a big picture. Something recognizable. But it will never have the same kind of unity as, say, a painted portrait. Which is not to say that it is better or worse.”
The world of the fictional Foer has, for the moment, upended the real Foer’s life and tipped it at a new and strange angle. Grateful for the success, he is keen to reassemble the bits and pieces that make up his old routines. (“I love the institutions in my neighborhood: my post office. The Chinese restaurant. The 7 train. My mailbox.”)
“There’s been a lot of moving around mentally and physically,” says Foer with a wistful tinge. “Often, the things I’m most proud of tend to happen in corners of rooms. In very intimate spaces. When you’re exploring.” Stories, just like life, he contends, are not linear. “I sort of believe that we don’t live in a traditional storytelling manner. The way that we process and experience the world happens in these little pieces.”