EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED by Jonathan Safran Foer
Though I have no idea what he looks like, on paper, Jonathan Safran Foer is a dumpy magician garbed in a tattered black cape with a red velvet underside, waving his hands wildly, brandishing a cane purchased at Woolworth’s, a shabby magician’s hat propped on his balloon-shaped head, forever mugging and attention-grubbing, radiating spittle and a desperate need to be liked, nasalizing the same stale jokes ad infinitum, while the audience laughs wanly and with painful politesse. His overeager face comes too close to yours, his tongue impending over his lower lip, which is bespattered with saliva.
Consider Foer’s massively popular Everything is Illuminated (2002). While it is not the worst book that I have ever read, it is easily the smarmiest. Nearly every page is dripping with dollops of cynically contrived pap, mawkish kitsch that appeals to the child in all of us. You know, that child who is beguiled easily and who doesn’t know the difference between art and tripe.
The novel is structured according to two temporal continua. The first continuum is narrated from the perspective of Alexander Perchov, The Loveable Ukrainian Tour Guide of one “Jonathan Safran Foer” (also known in the text as “the hero” and “the ingenious Jew”). “Foer” is searching for the woman who saved his grandfather from death at the hands of the Nazis. To create Alex’s language, the writer takes ordinary sentences in English and substitutes certain infelicitous words for more felicitous ones. This gimmick grows tedious after the first three pages, and nothing, of course, is more uncouth than an American writer who mocks the speech patterns of those who speak English as a foreign tongue. Alex’s malapropisms, however, are more pleasant to read than “Foer’s” prose in the second continuum, a turgidly narrated history of Trachimbrod, a Ukrainian shtetl, from its foundation in the late eighteenth century until its destruction during the Second World War.
Both continua are interlaced–as the first continuum culminates in the discovery of Trachimbrod by “Foer” and his tour guide, the second culminates in an account of the mass murder of its inhabitants; the fatality of Alexander’s grandfather is superimposed on the fatality of “Foer’s” grandfather, and so forth. The point, plangently, is that “everything” in the present is “illuminated” by the past. The alleged “cleverness” of this narrative device escapes this reviewer.
Every one hundred pages or so, a striking passage or sentence emerges from the thick, grey, monotonous mass that surrounds it, a passage or sentence that seems, at first glance, almost profound. And, on further examination, these profundities reveal themselves as specious banalities.
Let me allude to two examples of Profound Truths in Everything is Illuminated:
“God loves the plagiarist… God is the original plagiarizer… the creation of man was an act of reflexive plagiarizing; God looted the mirror” [Olive Edition, 185].
In other words, if you paint a portrait of yourself, you are “plagiarizing” yourself. If you photograph yourself in a mirror, you are “plagiarizing” yourself. To say that the creation of man was an act of plagiarism is to void the word “plagiarism” of all meaning. There is, nonetheless, genuine theft in Everything is Illuminated: Foer does God’s work by pilfering the entire final section of David Grossman’s See Under: Love, “The Complete Encyclopedia of Kazik’s Life.” Foer isn’t so much influenced by Grossman as he is dominated by him.
Another “profound” moment:
“The only thing more painful than being an active forgetter is to be an inert rememberer” .
Foer here forgets that active forgetting (a term taken from Nietzsche, aktive Vergesslichkeit) is the same thing as inert remembrance.
Friedrich Schlegel once said of Denis Diderot: Whenever he does something truly brilliant, he congratulates himself on his brilliance. In my essay on Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, I write the same thing about Tom Robbins. The term brilliant must be supplanted in the case of Jonathan Safran Foer, however: Whenever he writes something sentimental, Foer congratulates himself on his easy sentimentalism. It is difficult to sell a crowd-pleasing novel about the Shoah unless everything is sentimentalized.
Dr. Joseph Suglia