(Jump down to read a review of Everything is Illuminated)
"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close"
(Reviewed by Poornima Apte MAR 27, 2005)
With his sensational debut, Everything is Illuminated, the young and talented Jonathan Safran Foer displayed a special ability for wild inventiveness and to portray characters on a mission. While his earlier “Jon-fen” worked his way to relate to survivors of the Holocaust, Foer’s new protagonist, 9-year-old Oskar Schell’s wanderings are rooted in more current history – specifically, the horrific events of 9/11.
In Foer’s latest, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Oskar has lost his father in the attacks. Months after the tragedy, he is desperately trying to cope with the huge emotional crisis it inflicted. He cannot cope with the apparent calmness with which his mother seems to have moved on: “I wanted to tell her she shouldn’t be playing Scrabble yet. Or looking in the mirror. Or turning the stereo any louder than what you needed just to hear it. It wasn’t fair to Dad, and it wasn’t fair to me,” Oskar says. Foer coins special phrases that are barometers of Oskar’s moods: he gets “heavy boots” when depressed or “hundred dollars” when happy. Oskar also has to live with the terrible burden of being the only member of his family to have heard all the phone messages that his father left behind on the family answering machine, minutes before the tower he was trapped in, went down. “That secret was a hole in the middle of me that every happy thing fell into,” he says.
One day Oskar comes across a key that is left behind by his father. It is tucked away in an envelope labeled “Black.” He is convinced that finding the true owner of the key would somehow lead him to answers about his father’s death. So Oskar sets off on an improbable mission to track down everybody with that surname in the city. While not much can be revealed about the search, the process itself proves to be a cathartic one for the young hero.
Interwoven into the story are stories of Oskar’s grandparents, about the emotional baggage they brought with them to the New World from Dresden, Germany, where they were witness to the horrors of war. Oskar’s grandparents lived a marriage of convenience laced with abrupt desertion and uncomfortable reunions. “I regret that it takes a life to learn how to live, Oskar. Because if I were able to live my life again, I would do things differently,” the grandmother says in a letter to her grandson. While Foer does not actively seek to make his novel a discourse against war, the book does include a chilling scene from Hiroshima. “Nine out of ten significant people have to do with money or war,” a character in the book says. Foer’s handling of 9/11 is done with respect and grace without a hint of sentimentality; the novel does not exploit the horrific tragedy.
As with his earlier novel, Foer uses many inventive techniques to separate the voices of his characters. Grandpa Schell leaves blank pages behind because speech has deserted him, Grandma’s letters are stilted with spaces in between them and the book is peppered with a few pictures of role models whom Oskar worships, even ones of turtles, elephants’ eyes and doorknobs. These techniques are arrestingly visual in their treatment yet at no time do they degenerate into cute gimmicks inserted merely as devices to keep the reader hooked.
With his new novel, Foer has firmly established himself as a true artist-- one who knows how to work the power of words, both literally and visually. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is an engaging and deeply-satisfying novel and proves that Jonathan Safran Foer is here to stay. Oskar Schell is another of Foer’s memorable characters. It takes talent to empathize with a 9-year-old and Foer has managed it extremely well. In his last sentence, Oskar reaches for some measure of closure by mentally rewinding the events of the fateful day so his dad would never have left. “We would have been safe,” Oskar predicts sadly. It is a measure of the power of Foer’s narrative that you want to gather up the child in your arms and protect him. Once again, you desperately wish that one could indeed have stopped and rewound time to the point where “the worst day” had never happened.
- Amazon readers rating: from 634 reviews
"Everything is Illuminated"
(Reviewed by Shannon Bloomstran MAR 31, 2003)
"Grandfather is not a bad person, Jonathan. Everyone performs bad actions. I do. Father does. Even you do. A bad person is someone who does not lament his bad actions. Grandfather is now dying because of this. I beseech you to forgive us, and to make us better than we are. Make us good."The Blind Assassin on our face-to-face book club. (Michelle, I still say it's brilliant!) Coincidentally, Judi, the editor here, put the book, newly out in paperback, up for review. Never one to overlook a good coincidence, I agreed and am glad I did so. Everything is Illuminated is messy, confusing, and at some points, startling, but remains one of the few books I've read recently that remains true to its story while still challenging the reader to experience the work on a different level.
I have to admit that I'd read a bit about Everything Is Illuminated when it first came out and felt it was probably not the book for me. Other reviews praised Foer's use of unusual punctuation, the incorporation of magic realism and his ability to maintain multiple story lines, which to me, raised numerous red flags. However, I must stand humbled and corrected. While Foer does use some "literary trickery," as I've come to call it, things like not offsetting lines of dialogue, or playing with different margins, or even runningseveralwordstogetherlikethis, it serves only to enhance rather than marginalize the story.
Actually stories would be a better noun, since Everything Is Illuminated is many stories together in one. Ostensibly, the main story is one of a young American Jew named Jonathan Safran Foer who travels to the Ukraine searching for the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis in 1941. We read of his search through the eyes of his Ukrainian guide and translator, Alex, whose fractured English provides comic relief, especially early on. Alex's grandfather, who may or may not be blind, also accompanies the two young men on their journey as does his "official Seeing Eye bitch," Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior. Although not everything in the story actually is illuminated, the origin of her name is. Anti-Semitism still runs unchecked through the Ukraine although Alex believes Jonathan is "not troublemaking, but a good person, and that you are not a Jew with a large-size letter J, but a jew, like Albert Einstein or Jerry Seinfeld."
Foer plays with a variety of linguistic styles and the whole work seems to be a rumination on the meaning of sex, history and fiction. If that's not enough for you, he also throws the very nature of truth and reality in our faces throughout the novel. Part of the story of Jonathan's search is told in straightforward prose, but part is told through letters from Alex. Other stories are told in dreams or in plays. Concurrently, we also get the story of several of Jonathan's forbears, going as far back as 1791. Jonathan's five times great grandmother Brod has a fantastic life, from her fantastic birth to her later marriage to a man with part of a saw embedded in his skull. Echoing Maimonides, she also catalogues 613 types of sadness including "Mirror sadness. Sadness of Domesticated Birds. Sadness of Being Sad in Front of One's Parent..."
These flashbacks are full of deliberate anachronisms, as Foer has Alex note, "I trust you have a good purpose for your ignorance." We follow Jonathan's lascivious grandfather Safran, over numerous amorous encounters, although Jonathan doesn't ever find the woman who saved his grandfather or maybe he does. Alex discovers that his grandfather is far from the person he believes him to be. Had Jonathan had a chance to know his grandfather (he died not long after coming to America during the war) he also would find him to be far different than he imagines. Foer manages to integrate these disparate stories quite well, choosing not really to change narrative style, but to let the events and characters carry the story.
Reviewers around the world have heaped praise on Everything Is Illuminated, which to me, often results in too high of expectations for the reader. In this case, however, I think the praise is worthy. It's more of an experience than a book, a challenging and thoughtful and still rewarding work. Michelle was right again.
- Amazon readers rating: from 467 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Everything is Illuminated at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- A Convergence of Birds: Original Fiction and Poetry Inspired by the Work of Joseph Cornell (2001)
- Tree of Code (November 2010)
- Eating Animals (November 2009)
Movies from books:
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- Wikipedia page on Jonathan Safran Foer
- The Guardian First Book Award 2002
- Reader's Guide for Everything is Illuminated
- New York Metro.com review of Everything is Illuminated
- Salon.com reveiw of Everything is Illuminated
- SFGate review for Everything is Illuminated
- Reader's Guide for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
- ReviewOfBooks.com review of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
- MostlyFiction.com review of Eating Animals
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About the Author:
Jonathan Safran Foer was born in 1977 in Washington, D.C. He is the editor of the anthology A Convergence of Birds, and his stories have been published in The Paris Review and The New Yorker.
Everything Is Illuminated began as a thesis at Princeton under advisers Joyce Carol Oates and Jeffrey Eugenides, and Houghton Mifflin reportedly paid somewhere around half a million dollars for the rights. The novel was inspired by a four-day trip he had made to Ukraine in search of his family's pre-Holocaust history. Deservedly, this first novel appeared on Best Books of 2002 lists internationally, won several literary prizes, including the National Jewish Book Award and The Guardian First Book Award, and has been published in twenty-four countries.
He and his wife, author Nicole Krauss, live in Brooklyn, New York.