Not quite 25, author Jonathan Safran Foer gives new meaning to the phrase, "talent to burn." In his extraordinary first novel, "Everything Is Illuminated" (Houghton Mifflin), fire and light appear everywhere, and especially in the Polish Ukrainian shtetl of Trachimbrod, whose fantastical history Foer dramatizes. There, festive boats sparked by fireworks sail along the deceptively quiet River Brod. Bucolic fields are showered by lightning storms. Ultimately, a satanic firestorm, ignited by Nazi invaders, obliterates the town so thoroughly that its name disappears from memory.
Or almost. More than half a century after Trachimbrod's destruction by Hitler's army, a young American writer named Jonathan Safran Foer reverses the journey taken by his grandparents, and embarks on a search for the obscure village from which they nearly failed to escape. His only clues are a long outdated map and a 50-year-old photograph of a young woman who may or may not be named Augustine; who may or may not have saved his grandfather's life; who may or may not still live in the area, or for that matter, still be living.
A greenhorn in the country of his forebears, the author innocently enlists the aid of an Odessa-based outfit called Heritage Tours, which caters to American Jews who wish to visit their ancestral villages in Poland and Ukraine. Alas for the naïve author, the tour company's expertise appears to lie more in the realm of comic burlesque than travelogue. In hilarious, fractured English, the supposedly crack translator explains, "All of my friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name." Alex's half-blind, narcoleptic grandfather - who won't go anywhere without his frisky seeing-eye dog - is the driver. Not only can't the tour guides and the author speak intelligibly to each other, Alex and his grandfather speak a different dialect from that common to the region where Trachimbrod once existed. Can this trip be salvaged?
At the same time, from a literary perspective, Foer takes us on a wild and wondrous ride through a multitude of literary styles, high and low, from magical realism to Borscht Belt slapstick to a sophisticated self-reflexive post-modernism. If that's not dazzling enough, the influence of Philip Roth, I.B.Singer, and Vladimir Nabokov, among others, can be spotted throughout. Clearly, Foer has read--and read--and absorbed everything, blending and mixing these disparate styles into an original, super-charged virtuoso display.
Interestingly, prior to publishing his novel, Foer edited "A Convergence of Birds: Original Fiction and Poetry Inspired by the Work of Joseph Cornell." What Cornell--the eclectic American artist best known for modernist, dream-like collages packaged in mysterious wooden boxes--seems to have inspired in Foer is the literary equivalent of collage. Foer's technique is to present a mélange of narrative voices and viewpoints, thereby forcing the reader to constantly rethink the story and its meaning. As in a dream (or nightmare), we are constantly kept off balance, while we delve ever deeper in search of definitive answers that will always remain elusive.
The novel's most engaging parts are letters written by Alex (he signs them, "Guilelessly, Alexander") to the author, rehashing their journey, misstep by misstep.
But that is only the first layer of this many-layered narrative. Alex also sends the author (whom Alex, in stilted English refers to as "the hero") chapters of the book he is writing about the trip. Foer then intersperses these with chapters chronicling the fantastical history of Trachimbrod. Even within these chapters, Foer can't resist inserting set pieces purporting to be passages from official town documents, registries, and diaries.
For the most part, this scheme is ingenious and invigorating. By the end, though, the structure has begun to feel cumbersome, overweighted with bravura turns. Foer is absolutely brilliant, to be sure; but I doubt I will be alone in wishing he knew how to edit his excesses.
Yet it's impossible not to admire Foer's determination and invention. And he himself admits the limitations of cleverness, as in this conversation (quoted as it appears in the book) between Alex and the author:
"You are very funny, Jonathan." "No. That's the last thing I want to be."
"Why? To be funny is a great thing." "No it's not." "Why is this?" "I used to think that humor was the only way to appreciate how wonderful and terrible the world is, to celebrate how big life is. You know what I mean?" "Yes, of course." "But now I think it's the opposite. Humor is a way of shrinking from that wonderful and terrible world."
Even this passage is somewhat deceptive, however. Foer does not use humor to shrink from the horror of the Holocaust or to minimize the human capacity for evil. On the contrary, he keeps us laughing all the way to the inferno. He diverts us with sly wit, when all the time we should be running for our lives.
That is what history is all about, his novel tells us, and Jewish history in particular. Read it and be illuminated.