Saturday, June 28, 2003

Everything is illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

It's difficult to talk about this novel, because there are at least two and as many as four novels inside this one. There is the story of Trachimbrod/Sofiowka, a Ukrainian shtetl (that means village) with a rich and convoluted history. There is the story of Sasha/Alex, a young Ukrainian man who tells the story of his grandfather, his grandfather's flatulent dog Sammy Davis Junior, Junior, and the search for a village called Trachimbrod/Sofiowka which they conduct at the behest of an American Jew named Jonathan Safran Foer, who is seeking the woman who saved his grandfather during the Holocaust. There is the story of Sasha/Alex and his family, his distant father, his younger brother Igor, and Alex's own insecurities. And from out of these three stories rises another, a frustrating and incomplete one which attempts to connect them all and make some sense of them.

It's appropriate that sense cannot be made of these stories, at least, not entirely. The history of Trachimbrod/Sofiowka is disjointed and skips about frequently. Sasha/Alex's tales are told in a broken English allegedly caused by Jonathan Safran Foer's suggestion that he use a thesaurus to help write his story. The three pieces mesh hardly at all in subject matter and not at all in tone. (In addition, the use of Alex's poor English to deliver laughs is rather grating, particularly at the beginning of the novel.) But the revelation which they all point towards is surprisingly affecting, despite not being unexpected. Foer also wins points by portraying himself not as a hero, but rather as a spoiled and difficult ugly American, managing to create some true comic moments in the process. Still, the structure at times suggests an author with a short attention span, which I found off-putting. If his story doesn't hold his own interest, why should it hold mine?

In some respects I would almost rather reserve judgment on this novel until reading more by Foer, which of course wouldn't be appropriate. I'm a firm believer that a work should stand on its own merits. But I have misgivings about certain aspects of the book--the forays into magical realism seem at times gratuitous, the reliance upon scatological humor seems lazy--which a look at another of his works might support or refute. The problem being, of course, that he hasn't published another novel yet. When he does, I guess my wish would be to see less in the way of fancy literary devices and more old-fashioned storytelling. There's room for the one, but not at the expense of the other. Waiting to see more.


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