Jonathan Safran Foer’s debut novel (published when he was only 25) is woven out of three narrative strands. The first is the story of Jonathan’s trip to the Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather’s life during the Holocaust. It is told by Alex, Jonathan’s Ukrainian tour guide, who speaks the kind of English you might speak if you had learned it entirely from a thesaurus. The second strand is made up of Jonathan’s fabricated and fantastical stories about his grandfather’s shtetl, Trachembrod, and the Jews who lived there centuries ago: how the village was named, the quarreling synagogues, the festivals, the stories of Jonathan’s ancestors, and the eternal questions of life and death. The third strand, connecting the two, is letters from Alex to Jonathan, commenting on Jonathan’s writing and asking advice on his own sections.
It took me a long time to warm up to this novel. I’ve read interviews with Foer, and he claims that you’re going to love or hate the book based on Alex’s voice, which I think is supposed to be funny. I didn’t hate it, but it didn’t work for me, either: I mostly found it inauthentic and irritating. Here’s a sample:
Father toils for a travel agency, denominated Heritage Touring. It is for Jewish people, like the hero, who have a craving to leave that ennobled country America and visit humble towns in Poland and Ukraine. Father’s agency scores a driver, guide, and translator for the Jews, who try to unearth places where their families once existed. OK, I had never met a Jewish person until the voyage. But this was their fault, not mine, as I had always been willing, and one might even write lukewarm, to meet one. I will be truthful again and mention that before the voyage I had been of the opinion that Jewish people were having shit between their brains. This is because all I knew of Jewish people was that they paid Father very much currency in order to make vacations from America to Ukraine. But then I met Jonathan Safran Foer, and I will tell you, he is not having shit between his brains. He is an ingenious Jew.
Real second-language speakers don’t make those sorts of mistakes. I don’t speak Russian or Ukrainian, but I would expect mistakes with tenses and syntax (he uses the pluperfect here, good Lord, and relative pronouns!), not the appearance of having been hit with a thesaurus going sixty-five miles an hour. This may seem idiotically nitpicky, but instead of being able to relax into the narrative, or even to read it critically, I kept wondering what on earth was going on with Alex’s speech patterns. It was like having something in my eye.
The sections about Trachimbrod were far better, at least for me. They had a sense of folklore about them, as stories about long-ago-and-far-away sometimes do: this is how this ritual came to be; this is why the synagogue shifted place; this story you will never hear anywhere but from me. Some of them verged on magical realism, like the story about the festival of Trachimday, when everyone in the village is engaged in such vigorous sex that it creates a glow, a spark that can be seen a generation later from space. The stories are sometimes rollicking and sometimes sad and sometimes both. Often they go on a bit too long, as if Foer was enjoying the sound of his own voice and wasn’t sure when to stop, but overall I enjoyed them.
Alex’s letters linking the two narratives might be the best part of the book. They are still in that vexing Johnny-Foreigner sort of English, but it is in these letters that Alex reveals his real personality, and shares more and more of himself with Jonathan. I warmed to him enough here that I could forget my irritation with the style and see what Foer was trying to do: the strands of the narrative came together, and ideas about lost identity, silence, family, and what it means to love came floating to the surface.
This book was published ten years ago, and I think it has probably suffered in that time. It feels postmodern-gimmicky: the author as a character, the style-shifts, the supposedly “irreverent” voice, the almost-but-not-quite magical realism, and what I might term multiculturalism for dummies — it’s been done, and it sags. But buried in the shifting stylistic devices, there is some real writing and some real thought about the human condition. If you persevere, as I did, you might find it.