Last year, The Guardian's Novel of the Year Award was won by Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth, a graphic novel (a very long comic book for adults in which the cartoon characters are often either angry or sad). Critics, perhaps fearful of looking un-hip, or simply caught up in the novelty of the thing, fell over themselves to offer praise. Though it may very well have been the best novel of that calendar year, Jimmy Corrigan was not the work of transcendent brilliance some took it to be. Its dizzying clever execution, however impressive initially, came to stand in the way of a decent, if a bit familiar, portrait of pain passed on through generations. Though frequently ingenious and hilarious, the book was, on the whole, only 'pretty good'.
Jimmy Corrigan is one of the more interesting examples of a new wave of American writing¨which also includes New Yorker Jonathan Safran Foer's celebrated first novel, Everything Is Illuminated¨attempting to forge a new, more approachable version of postmodernist fiction, a kind of nouveau roman with sneakers and bed-head hair. Young writers like Rick Moody, Dave Eggers, and Donald Antrim dispense with much of the old-school prickliness and difficulty still occasionally engaged in by contemporaries like David Foster Wallace and William T. Vollmann, or their mentor, Thomas Pynchon. Instead, these writers emphasize playfulness, self-deprecation, and infinite amusement. However they twist their narratives or language, they are always to one side of their own inventiveness, giggling along with the reader. Yet they still desire to be taken as 'serious novelists', and so frequently force onto their narratives more weight than they can bear. In this, their true mentor is not Pynchon, but Martin Amis, who repeatedly ruins his own books by refusing the role of the brilliantly droll comic novelist that is his birthright, craving, along with the laughs, respect. There is nothing worse than a writer who demands that you both like and love him.
Jonathan Safran Foer's novel, though nowhere near as cynical or grasping as books by Moody or Eggers, shares their desire to be both loved and liked. For the most part, Everything Is Illuminated is a charming, clever, comic novel that is almost criminally well-written and enjoyable, especially given Foer's current age¨25 (now figure out how old he was when he wrote the thing). Most of the book is narrated by Alexander Perchov, a twenty-year-old Ukrainian obsessed with America. The most immediately striking thing about Alex¨and, by extension, the novel¨is his shaky grasp on English. Though he considers himself "fluid" in the language, his narrative is dense with malapropisms. Most often, the nature of the error is one of thesaurustic transference¨"easy to say" becomes "flaccid to utter", the first of the month becomes "the dawn of the month", "it took us only half the time" becomes "it captured us only 50 percent of the time", and so on. Some of the errors are quirkier, as with calling sleeping "manufacturing Z's". Foer walks a very thin line with Alex's troubled English. A single, endlessly recurring gag rarely makes it the length of a novel. As with Jimmy Corrigan, where the delivery quickly outgrew its welcome and merely got in the way, Alex's malapropisms threaten to get old fast. In fact, the longer they stay around, the more improbable they become¨how can Alex's vocabulary be so poor when his sense of English grammar, structure, and rhythm are impeccable? Why is the speech of native-English speakers rendered accurately? How could he be making these mistakes in the first place since, presumably, to use a thesaurus to find a wrong or inappropriate word, he would have to know the correct one? Interestingly, Alex's muddled voice, though never correcting itself, becomes the book's most compelling one. His errors begin to appear natural, even elegant. The slightly out-of-focus nature of his narrative serves to make the reader more attentive.
The real problem is that the oddities of Alex's voice, however amusing, bear only a vague resemblance to the tone and rhythm of an actual Ukrainian or Russian struggling to express himself in English. Therefore, we can only assume that the voice of Alex is a construct created to illuminate a particular notion of Foer's, and not to illuminate character. Foer takes a similar approach to all of his characters, which makes it difficult for him when he suddenly decides, about three-quarters of the way through, that the book he is writing is about real people, not mere ciphers, or conduits for some good jokes.
What Alex recounts is a trip he makes with his Grandfather and his grandfather's "seeing-eye bitch", escorting a young American writer wannabe, an "ingenious Jew" named Jonathan Safran Foer, to Trachimbrod, a small shtetl destroyed by the Nazis. Foer (the character¨let's call him "JSF") wants to track down a woman he knows as Augustine, who, he believes, saved his grandfather in the war, and of whom he has a faded photo. The early scenes of this trip are the best thing about the book. The Ukrainian's bafflement over JSF's vegetarianism is a nice, funny touch¨even better for positioning JSF himself as the butt of the joke. Another good running joke is JSF's difficulties with the demented, flatulent, and overly-amorous "seeing-eye-bitch". If the premise is a little tired¨really a version of the 'civilized man abroad' genre of comedy, with a nanve, slightly pompous Westerner beset by quirky, conniving, but charming foreigners¨it is at least interesting to see Foer making it his own by updating it for a generation of spoiled backpackers¨at one point, for giving them directions, the non-smoking JSF offers a "petrol man" a pack of Marlboros because his guidebook said to give them as tips. Alex quickly inquires, "You are informed that you will be paying for this trip with currency, yes?"
Interspersed with Alex's account of their trip to Trachimbrod and search for Augustine is JSF's story of his lineage, encompassing the history of the shtetl from its naming to its destruction. These chapters are presented through a fey, pallid form of magical realism, with babies born at the bottom of a river, a group of chain-smokers that never leave the roof, and momentous couplings that occur during thunder storms. As with most writers' attempts at magical realism, there is some brilliant writing in these chapters, and some terrible, precious writing. Foer's attempts to portray the coming of the Nazis as being part of an Old World myth is interesting, but as a writer he is not yet up to the task. Some of the writing is unintentionally funny¨he renders the approaching German shells as "KA-BOOOOOOOOOOM! KA-BOOBOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM! KA-KA-KA-KA-BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!" The earnestness that takes over in these chapters leaks out to bloat the rest of the book, robbing a sharply comic novel of its punchline. It is somewhat disingenuous for the book to suddenly demand of its reader an unearned reverence, given all the gags and joking around about farting dogs and such, and especially after all the postmodern narrative conceits, such as naming a character after the author, or having Alex write letters to JSF throughout, discussing the preceding chapters.
Unless of course the unevenness of the Trachimbrod chapters is intentional. All three streams of the story head inexorably towards one destination¨the Holocaust. Foer has received both praise and approbation for daring to approach such a massive event in a book full of gags (as did Amis, coincidentally, for Time's Arrow). I am still not convinced that Foer was not attempting some kind of metafictional stunt by having the book shudder apart over the last seventy-five pages, so as to demonstrate how impossible it is for JSF, or Foer himself, or his generation, or whomever, to fully grasp the import and scale of the Holocaust. If this is the case, he needn't have bothered. Alex's account of the trip already demonstrates this neatly and comically, and it's a shame that Foer didn't bring that narrative thread to its full conclusion. It is frustrating, after having read the book, wondering where Foer will take it, which thread will win out, to discover after all that he takes it nowhere in particular. Though his characters stagger around from its impact, the revelation that is the climax of the book is anything but unexpected. Its power is also sapped by the sheer brevity of the novel¨to be as affected by it as we are clearly intended to be, Foer would have had to abandon the book's breezy tone much earlier and built characters instead of caricatures. It is difficult to accept the darkness of a character's heart when we were just getting used to the fact that he has one at all.
Still, for much of the book is it very easy to forget that Everything Is Illuminated is a first novel. It is an odd paradox that a writer's first books are usually his least lively and energetic¨those are the books he writes while still trying to earn himself a place at the grown-ups' table. Whatever the flaws of this book, it is illuminated by outsized ambition, cutting wit, and undeniable energy. Writers tend to get gradually better and better, or else blow everything they have in the first couple of books and go into a steep decline. If Jonathan Safran Foer follows the first path, he will become a monster. ˛