Road To Odessa

We are writing: Jonathan Safran Foer
Marion Ettlinger
Everything Is Illuminated
Houghton Mifflin

Everything Is Illuminated is, to be honest, the kind of publishing event a great many readers will hate on sight. That response to the fiction debut of Jonathan Safran Foer would not be in the least unfair. Let's break it down: a young wiseacre tunes in his professional connections (the first half of the novel was excerpted last year in the New Yorker) and is turned on by his own wit? Time to drop out. Everybody already read, or at least dutifully picked up a copy of, The Corrections. How much self-conscious smart-boy lit does any one person really need?

The surprise here is not that Foer transcends his artistic influences--the stylistic precepts that have presumably been transmitted orally through the ages by acolytes of David Foster Wallace. (A particular high--or low--point in this book's intellectual high jinks is the page-and-a-half spread devoted solely to the phrase we are writing.) The trick in enjoying this book is not to bypass or overlook these gestures, but to enjoy them as goodies of the genre--the inevitable byproducts of a style of writing and thinking that demands intellectual overheating. Which is to say that the novel would simply not be as much fun if it made less of a mess. Battling, and sometimes succumbing to, his tendency to overdecorate every good idea that comes his way, Foer embodies his subject--the struggle to rescue human meaning from loss, truth from artifice--as convincingly as he writes about it.

The more humane, and frequently hilarious, portion of the tale is narrated in thesaurus-ravaging English by one Alex Perchov. The novel's protagonist, who shares the author's name, spends several days in the modern-day Ukraine in the company of Alex, attempting to meet the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. In alternating chapters, Alex comments on "Jonathan's" share of the book, a reconstruction of life in his family's hometown, Trachimbrod. In the process, Alex, who cherishes a perhaps inflated opinion of his mastery of the English language, takes pains to inform us of his heroic sexual prowess ("many girls want to be carnal with me in many good arrangements, notwithstanding the Inebriated Kangaroo, the Gorky Tickle, and the Unyielding Zookeeper"). So, too, he boasts that he is "a premium person" because he likes to "disseminate very much currency in famous discotheques in Odessa," and in general can be counted on to "spleen," as he puts it, those around him with his stubbornness and high spirits.

Accompanying Alex and Jonathan are Alex's choleric grandfather (also named Alex), and, as mascot, grandfather's moronic, oversexed dog, Sammy Davis Junior, Junior. Blundering through the wheat fields, this odd squad is not always peaceable. "Tell him to shut his mouth or I will drive us off the road....The Jew must be silenced or I will kill us," Grandpa proclaims at one juncture, which the younger Alex tactfully translates as, "The trip will perhaps be longer than we were desiring." Throughout, the quartet clashes hilariously over matters of decorum and taste: Informed that Jonathan does not eat meat, the grandfather replies, "Yes he does."

Eventually, they do manage to run across the sole living remainder of Trachimbrod. What follows by way of revelation does not exactly shock, though, as Foer particularizes the gross wartime violations of honor, neighborliness, and simple human generosity that took place under the Nazis.

Along the way, young Alex becomes more than a pathetic subject of mockery, a would-be hipster undone by his shoddy post-socialist suit. As he learns to smooth his own bumpy version of another language, he also works his way into a sidelong friendship with the author. Alex's touchy relationship with his father ("I do not care what you want," being Dad's most frequent utterance) and with his grandfather becomes as important as Foer's own quest into his family origins.

Somewhat less successful than Alex's chapters are the "Foer" ones that document shtetl life in Trachimbrod. This history spans the years from the town's low-comic founding on March 18, 1791, when "Trachim B's double-axle wagon either did or did not pin him against the bottom of the Brod River," to its destruction by the Nazis exactly (for that too-cute touch) 151 years later. While moments in these sections both charm and amuse, taken in total they become irritatingly playful, as if Foer had decided to trash-compact the ribaldry and whimsy of the entire Isaac Bashevis Singer canon into one Ur-shtetl just to see if it could be done.

Still, as brainiac lit, this novel delivers the pyrotechnic goods. And as a social comedy of globalization it is often sidesplitting. If it doesn't quite reach the pained Holocaust remembrance that Foer would like to convey; perhaps that's too much to ask of any smart boychik, at least the first time out.

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