The greatest trap an affiliated, young, Jewish writer can fall into is confusing his religious self-awareness and identity with good and interesting story-telling. With a vast number of educated and ambitious (and perhaps delusional) Jewish men and women growing up in a time of unparalleled creative freedom, we are bound to suffer countless essays, manuscripts, novels, plays, screenplays, and short stories flaunting (and unintentionally exploiting) the culture, traditions, history, and voice of authentic Judaism – all in the name of self expression and art of course. Unfortunately for the generation, statistics don’t allow for many phenoms – Statistics tells us that genuine quality is rare and precious. As Jonathan Safran Foer (JSF for brevity) argues in his 2002 novel, Everything is Illuminated, there are certain born writers, and as he told Esquire magazine at the time, everyone else is just faking it. What is most painful for the aspiring young Jewish writer, like myself, is to read a work like Illuminated, a novel written by a twenty three year old Foer, and accept that you are faking it and that he is a born writer.
Safran Foer wrote something by twenty-five that I and my kind will never equal if we live a hundred years – it’s not a pleasant thought but it's true. So for all us young Jewish “writers’ burning with jealousy here, looking to put down the nerdy looking dude on the book jacket (Zing!), let's give Joyce Carol Oates some credit – this guy is supremely gifted in both his technique and imagination. When you read his novel, you can feel his cerebral cortex popping, his neuro-synapses expanding with electric, untamed juices. He is simply better. I was convinced (or tried to convince myself) after the first fifty pages that his youth and inexperience were showing, that the seemingly gimmicky writing was pretentious and merely a cover for amateurism, but he draws you in and proves himself over and again.
After completing the somewhat humorous, but mostly sad (and entirely satisfying) novel, I felt for Mr. Safran-Foer who could not possibly be pleased with the film adaptation. While the book’s strongest, most touching and vibrant sequences and language use come from the flashbacks to the shtetl in the Ukraine beginning at the end of the 18th century and concluding with the Nazi invasion in 1942, the version on screen skips that element of the story all together. Liev Schreiber’s movie rather concentrates on the less compelling (and certainly less Jewish) storyline involving a character known as “the hero”, named JSF, who is escorted through obscure Ukrainian villages by a suspiciously profound thinking young Ukrainian named Alex and his tortured grandfather. The film terribly represents the book, both in essence and purpose. The book is about a lost past and a loss of innocence, both personal and global; the movie sticks us with Elijah Wood acting like an alien disguised as an FBI profiler bagging everything into Ziplocs.
The magic of JSF’s writing lies in his ability to reach beyond his conceivable experience and assemble prose like a sage author who has seen and felt things from a time gone and forgotten. Yes, occasionally he exposes some weakness – mainly in the modern day story (he is laughably turned on by the word “bitch”). It is possible that Foer relates more closely to a time a hundred years before his birth than our own. When he writes as Alex, he purposely wields the English language with unruly abandon, yet some of his choices fall flat (“cinchier”!). But this is merely looking for faults. Foer is a young person with the courage and confidence to tackle lofty subjects in an adult way and we can forgive him the awkwardness of Alex, a means to sometimes explain himself more clearly. It is sometimes as if the real novel takes place in Trachimbrod (the Ukrainian village of his ancestors) and is about a spirited, lovely, heartbreaking Jewish community wiped out, and Foer felt that in order to separate himself from the pack, in order to give the old world relevance, he needed to supply a modern person looking back, committing to a rigid search. For me, I would ask JSF to relax and have faith in the brilliance and worthiness of the mystery of the overturned wagon, the love of Brod, and the sadnesses numbering six-thirteen. Foer takes us unto the shtetl with his very acute prodding of Jewish politics and custom, and reflects much of the absurdity in an amusing, curious, insightful, and innovative way. Sometimes he gets out of hand with the outlandish metaphors (like Safran’s father-in-law’s blueprints within blueprints), but overall he makes the unbelievable not only palatable, but appealing and endearing. Brod, “his” great, great, great, great, great, grandmother is to my mind one of the most engaging, difficult, and provocative characters ever put to paper. JSF is less successful with his other major depiction, that of “his” grandfather, Safran. Though the disaffected character is intriguing with his aphrodisiac dead limb, Foer formulates him in a way that finds the author indulging in a fantasy to become sex obsessed Philip Roth a la his equally wonderful slice of Judaica, Portnoy’s Complaint.
In the book, toward the end, JSF writes as Alex that, “we often make ourselves appear as though we are foolish people, and we make our voyage, which was an ennobled voyage, appear very normal and second rate.” The hero of Everything is Illuminated has taken, and takes his readers on a very noble voyage and has shown himself to be an exceptional literary talent. Sure, once in awhile he makes himself appear second rate, normal, and mortal, but for a first novel written before his twenty fifth birthday, we would be devils to ask more from the man.