by Jonathan Safran Foer
[extended as of 8/26/05]
In the New York Times Magazine profile of the author, a few months back, Mr. Foer was quoted as saying something like “I don’t write to make people think I’m smart, or that I’m a good writer. I write so that I can feel less alone.” (=rough paraphrase from memory). Then it is mentioned that when he was very young, he wanted a flamboyant suit to wear, and then his mother is quoted saying something about how he has always been able to come up with the most moving things, things that touched her deeply.
I hadn’t read the book at the time, but I found all this off-putting. It didn’t bode well for his writing, in my mind. I finally read the book, and all my fears came true.
When I was a freshman in high school, I was still very uncomfortable with how I might or might not fit into the social life of the classroom, even during academic time. I didn’t trust that my contributions would be appropriate and wouldn’t annoy teachers and/or students; I had the sense that at most times, other people generally “knew what was going on” and that I fundamentally didn’t, even if I intellectually felt like I understood the material or the social situation or whatever. So I had various strategies for coping and not losing too much face. One strategy was to say only one or two things per class, but have them be “intriguingly outside the box.” “Intriguingly outside the box” is pretty easy to pull off if it’s your only criterion – you just have to sit tight for a while and notice which way the conversation is headed, and then imagine some other direction it could have gone and then mention that in a way that suggests that it’s an intellectual mistake to ignore it. As long as what you say is both surprising (because it fights the natural flow of conversation) but blatantly on-topic, you get credit from teachers for contributing something “valuable” and at the same time, little risk of having to defend yourself or get corrected, because nobody was thinking about it. So this little gambit was a safe way of regularly scoring enough points to stay afloat without really entering into a game that I didn’t think I could play properly.
My story is that during that freshman year, my English teacher used to sit among the students while we discussed our reading, and one day while I was making one of my “but what about THIS?” comments, she apparently leaned over to one of my fellow students and whispered “isn’t he funny? – he thinks he’s so wise.” Apparently, she thought I was so clearly absurd a character that nobody would think to report this to me. I don’t know what she was thinking, really. But it’s beside the point.
The point is that I was doing this calculated thing, yes, exactly, to get points for seeming wise, because I desperately needed some kind of points and I had hit on this thing I could pull off. And the moral of this anecdote is that it didn’t fool anyone: my teacher (and everyone else) thought it was comical; my “wisdom” was contrived and formulaic; my self-serving motivations were irritatingly apparent. I had taught myself a method for creating the impression of thoughtfulness and was relentlessly enacting it to meet my own psychological needs.
Ahem. Before I go on, let me point out that I have the utmost sympathy for my past self, as well as for anyone else who behaves similarly. Social interaction is tough, and I think it’s not just forgivable but in fact necessary for people to rely on these sorts of preset “systems” for creating pseudo-spontaneous effects. Happens all the time. It even, in fact, happens in literature all the time. My anecdote here is simply meant to show that when it’s too transparent, it’s annoying (even to teachers), and that it is possible for “wisdom” to actually be nothing more than a formulaic bid for approval.
So: Jonathan Safran Foer thinks he’s so wise. But since he’s a widely-praised author and his books are enormously successful, I, unlike my 9th-grade English teacher, cannot find the generosity of condescension in my heart to say that I think it’s “funny.” It just frustrates and annoys me.
His wisdom-generating-machine is of a different variety than mine ever was, and based on the Times profile (which is really quite a piece of work – I just now found it online again, via the link on this page), it sounds as though he turns its crank near-constantly.* He certainly does in this book.
He plays not for the “he sees things that other people miss” crown, as I did, but rather for the laurel of “he is so sensitive: he says the most moving things, and he can find beauty and magic in anything!” And he does so expertly. His pretentions are finely honed and virtuosic; his bids for our admiration have more grace and sophistication to them than those of even the most extravagantly self-indulgent personalities I met in college. He is, I have no qualms about saying, a true artist of the form.
Everything Is Illuminated intends to be a swirling whirling wonderworld of emotional truth, it wants to first dazzle us with a thousand tricks and treats, and then reveal that they are all tied to the painful, joyous throbbing heart that is all human experience. Right, so far so good. But have I, by writing that sentence, actually found the material to write such a book? Not hardly. I would need to first of all have something to say about human experience.
This book does not have anything real to say. And it says it in many many ways. Does it have things in it that might make people cry? Oh sure, sure – like, slowing down time to a stop during the naively ordinary instant during World War II just before an innocent peasant village is bombed to oblivion and everyone is killed, prolonging it to typographically flamboyant extremes through two pages of “. . . . . . .,” and shouting stuff like “(run while you still can!)” in parentheses because we know that they did not and will not no matter HOW MUCH WE WANT THEM TO!, and saying so explicitly, etc. etc.
That example is actually the climax of the book, in some ways. Sorry I just gave it away. But this exact same stunt actually happens at several other points, where time slows down cartoonishly to the point where the meager, unconvincing poignancy Foer has built up can be strenuously, blatantly mined out from under the toenails of the moment. So to speak.
I can tell you how that passage might make Jonathan Safran Foer’s mom cry. First of all, it’s built around the idea that the inevitability of that which has already happened (the destruction of this shtetl) still has the potential to be upsetting. Next, it refers to the fact that people will mentally dwell on such moments with the active desire to change them, even though that is of course impossible. Elsewhere in the book, he has talked about the fact that some people may desire to “rectify” history fictionally when writing it down, in attempt to psychologically address the pain of some irreversible past event. Foer is not discovering these truths for us, or even presenting them for our analysis; he is simply using them. And what is he using them to say, or do? He is trying to make mom cry. What does this book offer us? That experience of being made to cry in this way, and that is all.
Perhaps knowing that he needed more, Foer made the book structurally complicated. The structure, in fact, has a lot of potential. “Jonathan Safran Foer” and his Ukrainian translator (you’ve read excerpts, you don’t need me to tell you about that) alternate chapters, one writing about the present and one writing fantastically about the past. Interspersed are the Ukrainian’s responses to JSF’s work, which sometimes mention unseen responses sent from JSF to the Ukrainian. Guess what! JSF finds the Ukrainian’s chapters VERY MOVING, ALMOST HEARTBREAKING, and the Ukrainian finds JSF’s to be ALSO VERY MOVING! They also frequently find time to mention that they found the events that are being described to be VERY MOVING. Only we the readers get the pleasure of knowing that this all amounts to self-congratulation by exactly one real live dude.
The subject matter is JSF’s family history, but as he imagines it, which means a torrential helping of soggy faux-folk “Jewish heritage!!!” whimsy, which incorporates a good deal of “earthy” sex that is almost entirely off-putting. The present-day stuff, ostensibly “realistic” by comparison, is about JSF seeking out said family history in Ukraine and not finding it, plus some stuff about the Ukrainian that takes center stage by the end even though it remains only very loosely sketched.
The emphasis on family, on Jewish lore and tradition, on loss and memory – this stuff would seem to indicate literary substance, and he increases that impression by running many, many parallels and ambiguities up and down through the already overwrought folksy parts of the text. But the impression of substance is circumstancial, superficial. You may untangle as much as you like, but you will not find a coordinating wisdom. Writerly resourcefulness, certainly, but none of the precious WISDOM that is implicitly advertised on every page.
In fact, the more untangling you do, the less well-crafted the structure starts to seem. If you finish the book and learn all there is to learn, and then begin again, you’ll see that much of what comes at the beginning isn’t quite exactly in keeping with what comes at the end. “Moving” effects from early on make little sense in the context of the whole. I tried to work out a generous theory that made this all out to be intentional, and just another layer of the book’s interest in the artifice of writing, but I couldn’t find a way to make it work out. There’s just no getting around it: the book’s more complicated than it can handle.
I am also put off by the attitude toward dealing with Jewish heritage that is in evidence here. The real Jonathan Safran Foer seems to think that by portraying “Jonathan Safran Foer” as a spoiled American with no real cultural clue, he is demonstrating that his interest in his own Jewishness is somehow better founded than his alter ego’s. What it ultimately is is a conflation of sentimental memories of his grandmother with secondhand Yiddish folklore/Isaac Bashevis Singer. Plus some New York-y “You’ll know we’re the chosen people when you taste this delicious bagel, nu?” crap. Then he acts as though being able to channel this bunch of charoseth (in combination with a penchant for making mom cry) puts him in good standing to take a whack at recreating the emotional truth of the Holocaust. Maybe it’s wrong of me, but I found this aspect distasteful. I felt like the book was establishing Jewish “cred,” which ought not to be a prerequisite for writing about the Holocaust or about one’s grandmother. I was offended that he seemed to think it was necessary/appropriate to put this Jewish-ish stuff in, and I was also uncomfortable with the fact that this is the specific blend of stuff he picked.
Yesterday I stood and flipped through Harry G. Frankfurt’s tiny hardbound essay On Bullshit, which you’ve probably seen in large quantities at the bookstore. From my breeze-through, it seemed like a well-considered blend between very dry cuteness and legitimate light philosophy, and I’m pleased to think that it’s selling well, even if it’s for the most superficial reasons. I’m sure Princeton University Press is pleased too. Anyway. Frankfurt’s point (which he makes far more precisely than I’m about to) seems to be that bullshit, which is so prevalent in contemporary life, is distinct from lying, in that it represents not an attempt to disseminate falsehood but rather a complete disengagement from the concept of truth. It fundamentally disregards the obligations that follow when one takes seriously the possibility of being accurate, being correct. It does not actively defy those obligations but lives outside them.**
Anyway, Everything Is Illuminated does the artistic version of just that. It is artistic bullshit. It does not tell us anything about life (even though it seems to), but it is not because Foer is trying to deceive us; it’s because he has opted for a project that, for all its tears of pain and joy and love and death and war and family, does not believe that it is necessary to be concerned with those things. They are just used as the playing field for another game entirely.
Here is the score of the game: Yes, Jonathan Safran Foer, some of those things you wrote about are sad and whimsical things. Yes, I do not know anyone else who has thought of quite so many of these particular sort of sad and whimsical things. You manufacture many premium notions. You also write much better than, say, me. I. Your book was interesting to read. But it wasn’t about anything, and it acted like it was about important things, and so I didn’t like it. I know that you might not actually think you’re so wise. I know this book probably wasn’t who you are. It’s just something you’re trying to do. Despite your protestation, I think you did write this to convince people that you’re smart, and a good writer. And you know what? You convinced me. But I do not think this book will help you to be less lonely, as you claimed to want. Were you really trying to connect? It’s much simpler than all that, but very different.
I hope to god you never actually read this, and this second person thing is pure affectation on my part. Good god, Jonathan, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry. Lots of people I know loved this book. That’s in fact why I read it. I just wasn’t the target audience.
Oh, but just this one last thing – among the reviews of this book at amazon.com can be found the following nugget of white-hot condescension:
You people who “loved this book!!!!” are slaves. This book doesn’t even qualify as a shadow on the wall of the cave.
It made me laugh.
[THREE DAYS LATER, 8/26]
I think I have a little bit more to say. Two things.
First: the humor in the book is grating, in that it is both smugly deadpan and yet hopelessly secondhand. I tried to read the opening chapter when it was published in the New Yorker before the book came out, and couldn’t manage to finish it, because it was so obnoxiously proud of itself over an incredibly tired gimmick. It, and a good deal of this book, was essentially the old “Wild and Crazy Guys!” routine. Yes, Foer puts his own spin on it by keeping this character around for a whole book – and the idea of taking old joke stereotypes seriously is in fact kind of interesting. But he doesn’t acknowledge it as an old joke. He thinks it’s clever.
I’m not going to go into it here at too much length, but I think you’ll know what I’m talking about when I say that there is humor and there is “humor,” and that the latter is not actually a form of creativity, but merely a sort of social quirk that rarely contains any real invention. Pre-fabricated sarcasm (“welcome to my world!”), deadpan conceits (“you my pimp daddy, Doug”), put-on mock-pretend lying (“I hate you, honey.” “I hate you too.”) all qualify as this lesser thing. There are also more elaborate quasi-comedic constructions that nonetheless are this thing, or at least are equally kin to this thing as they are to real humor. Much of the humor in this book is like that. I grant that I may be indefensibly oversensitive to this distinction. But in the context of all that affectation, it seemed baldly, irritatingly insufficient. Not unlike a teenager who is infuriatingly confident that because he can casually and dryly drop “you my pimp daddy, Doug,” he is too cool for, among other things, school.
Second: Above, I describe the “protracted moment of doomed innocence” passage and complain that its only purpose is to make us cry, as though that’s a problem. In fact, I say throughout that what the book lacks is a “point,” and imply that mere emotional manipulation is artistically inadequate. But that was a mistake: I don’t actually think that at all. I don’t look to art for philosophical news (though I appreciate it when it’s there) – I look to it for aesthetic experience, and, yes, emotional experience. Art doesn’t have to have a “point” to be good and satisfying; not a “point” beyond its inherent aesthetic effect, at least. It’s not even at all damning, I don’t think, for a writer or a reader to be uncertain what the “meaning” of some emotional effect is, so long as they derive some kind of aesthetic satisfaction from it. I confused myself into complaining that substance and purpose were lacking, but that’s the wrong complaint.
I got confused because it’s a very hard line to draw. I’m reminded of the discussion I had with a friend after leaving Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997). My friend said that the movie had been terrible because it was so manipulative. I said that I liked that movies can be manipulative, I like being manipulated, so I didn’t think that was the problem. She said that she was insulted and offended by the form of manipulation in this particular movie, which I agreed with. But it was hard for either of us to quantify what it was the movie had done to become offensive, what line it had crossed.
I have theories about how to formulate the distinction between pleasurable and infuriating manipulation, but I’m not really fond of any of them. My other complaints about this book, above, are good indicators of the direction of my thinking – I suspect it has something to do with feeling “used” by the artist himself, not just the work. Maybe.
I’m going to think about the question some more and if I come up with anything good I’ll write about it here. Anyone else wanna take a whack at this?