- How Jonathan Safran Foer Made Love
What causes the literary establishment to fall in love with a first novel now, in America, after the turn of the twenty-first century? This essay takes Jonathan Safran Foer's well-received first novel Everything Is Illuminated (2002) as a case study that answers this question in a particularly revealing way. The novel's path to fame is not representative of how first novels emerge into the twenty-first-century marketplace, but it does illustrate how first novels that do become famous can become famous in a market dominated by established authors, a market generally indifferent, or, at worst, hostile, to new names. In a memorable scene in the novel, Foer imagines the earth—as seen from outer space—to be literally illuminated by the legendary love-making of its author's fictional namesake, Safran, and the many others who follow his amorous lead. I argue that the novel's cosmic spectacle of loving in turn lights up a constellation of social factors that, as we will see, are maximally conducive to an author's being loved by the literary establishment.
Among the most powerful of these social factors are responses to the kind of story this novel is—a new version of a traditional Holocaust story. What does it mean to make a Holocaust story innovative in the context of the elite literary field in which Foer aspired to make his way? Innovation is, after all, one of the field's key requirements. In laying out how a third-generation American Holocaust story can seem innovative in a literary sense, we can see exactly how Foer positioned his novel in relation to the literary world that he aspired to enter and whose love he hoped to gain. And gain it he did: the reception this novel enjoyed in the literary press, classrooms, book clubs, readings, and the film industry encompasses perhaps [End Page 607] everything an ambitious author could want. What those things are, and what it means to want them, is what we might call the sociological subject of this essay, a subject that is not separate from the novel itself or the interpretive work required to understand it. To put the point another way: close reading and sociological analysis are not competing agendas in this essay but the two halves of the shell that produce and contain whatever insights I might have to offer.1 In reading Foer's novel and its cultural framing, we simultaneously observe the contemporary preconditions for literary fame, the aesthetic forms those preconditions take, and the kind of aesthetic attention—the kind of love—that so many writers of literary fiction strive to elicit today.
Everything Is Illuminated is a novel of four strands. In one, a young man named Jonathan Safran Foer searches for the Ukrainian woman who helped his grandfather Safran escape from the German massacre of the Jews in their village. In the second, a young Ukrainian man named Alex and his grandfather act as Jonathan's guides in his search, and in the process Alex discovers his own family's relationship to the massacre. In the third strand, we get the fairytale story of the shtetl, Trachimbrod, as it existed in the eighteenth century, and of one particular girl named Brod, a foundling, who lives out her life there and is one of Jonathan Safran Foer's forebears. At the intersection of these strands is the larger European tragedy of the Holocaust: the utter destruction of Jewish communal life in all its fullness of love and pain and tradition, and the consequences of that loss for the moral fabric of the world. The novel's fourth and final strand consists of letters passing between Alex and Jonathan about the process of writing their shared story.
In interviews, Foer reflects on his approach to the novel's historical subject in a way that will probably be familiar to anyone who has followed academic or popular discussions of Holocaust representation in the last three decades: "I wondered," he recounts in one interview, "is the Holocaust exactly that which cannot be imagined? What are one's responsibilities to 'the truth' of...