A First Novel’s Many Twists, Like a Postmodern Pretzel

Everything Is Illuminated , by Jonathan Safran Foer. Houghton Mifflin, 276 pages, $24.

Jonathan Safran Foer wants to charm you right away. He’s in a hurry because he knows that if he doesn’t make you laugh quickly, he may well lose you. Which would be a shame, because Everything Is Illuminated , his extraordinary first novel, though painful and convoluted, is also funny and enchanting.

Mr. Foer launches a two-pronged charm offensive: On the first page you’re addressed by a Ukrainian youth, born in 1977, who tortures the English language with thesaurus-mad locutions; he’s very funny. A half-dozen pages later, you’re reading a story, in conventional English, about a shtetl in 1791. The shtetl is maniacally odd; the story is quirky and engaging. If you’re up to the challenge of making these disparate elements fit together, Mr. Foer has won the battle.

Or perhaps not. He may have lost you on the first page, where you discover that this is one of those novels in which there’s a character with the same name as the author. Be warned: In Mr. Foer’s postmodern pretzel of a book, a character named Jonathan Safran Foer is busy writing a book that looks a lot like the one you’re reading.

A further warning is required: It’s pretty soon obvious that Mr. Foer means to come to grips with the Holocaust (that maniacally odd shtetl is obliterated in 1942). You’d think that charm, laughs and postmodern playfulness would be for this darker purpose irrelevant or worse, and yet this is where Everything Is Illuminated distinguishes itself: What’s easy and pleasing turns out to be as important as what’s difficult and profound.

Untangling Mr. Foer’s plot feels a bit like defusing a bomb-one wrong move and there’s nothing left but fluttering shreds of paper.

But here goes: The Ukrainian youth, Alex, identifies himself as having been the translator for one Jonathan Safran Foer (“the hero of this story”) when Jonathan made a pilgrimage to the Ukraine to try to locate the shtetl where his mother’s family came from. Everything Is Illuminated is woven from three strands: Alex’s letters to Jonathan, written in his comical English (they’re signed “Guilelessly, Alexander”); drafts of Alex’s account of Jonathan’s trip to the Ukraine, also in Alex-speak; and chapters from Jonathan’s novel in progress, a fantastical tale of 200 years in the life of a shtetl on the Polish-Ukrainian border.

“Like you know, I am not first rate with English,” Alex writes. “In Russian my ideas are asserted abnormally well, but my second tongue is not so premium.” “Enough of my miniature talking,” he writes. “I am making you a very boring person.” Actually, he’s never boring, in part because his language evolves as our understanding of his character deepens.

Alex begins full of bravado, boasting about girls and money and nightclubs in Odessa. Gradually, sad truths begin to emerge: His father is a drunken brute who beats him and beats his little brother; his mother is “humble,” as he puts it; his grandfather is burdened with unbearable guilt. Eventually we learn that there are no girls, no nightclubs, no money, and that Alex’s life in Odessa is lonely and pathetic. His botched idioms are funny and sad and they also show us the world in a new light (everything is illuminated). Witness his argument with Jonathan about truth and fiction in the stories they’re writing and exchanging: “We are being very nomadic with the truth, yes? … [I]f we are to be such nomads with the truth, why do we not make the story more premium than life?”

Trachimbrod, the shtetl in Jonathan’s novel-in-progress, is at the outset more premium than life, a Chagall canvas crowded with irrepressible Jewish vitality and magic-realist kookiness. Here’s the kind of story he tells: His great-great-great-great-great-grandmother was miraculously rescued from a river as an infant and raised by an old man who cherished her with fairy-tale intensity. Impossibly beautiful and brainy, she became the object of the entire shtetl ‘s lust-and ended up a battered wife. Or this: Jonathan’s grandfather had a “dead” arm (he was born with a full set of teeth, which made breast-feeding painful for his mother, “and it was because he got no milk that his right arm died”); the dead arm is wildly attractive to women-but though he’s comically promiscuous from the age of 10, the grandfather only learns to love when he has lost love. And so on. Jonathan can’t bring himself to dispense happy endings-Alex complains to him that “again and again you insist on evil.” This, of course, is because the ending for this shtetl , as for so many others on the Polish-Ukrainian border, is tragic: The tanks will roll in, the Germans will bark orders, the synagogue will burn, the flames will “illuminate” the Jews locked inside. (That “illuminate”-a bit of Alex-speak-is a bitter pun; Mr. Foer will play with words at any moment, even in the teeth of tragedy, which is one way to muffle pain.)

Jonathan and Alex eventually find Trachimbrod-but there’s nothing left except a memorial to the dead. As they get closer to the object of their quest, a friendship blossoms between the young Jew in search of his roots and the young Ukrainian (who had never even met a Jew before Jonathan appeared). But that friendship is strained by the fact that Trachimbrod’s Jews were slaughtered and the shtetl razed, a total annihilation that could not have been accomplished without the complicity-or at least the acquiescence-of the Ukrainians. In a harrowing episode, Jonathan and Alex hear the confession of a Ukrainian who denounced his best friend, a Jew, by pointing him out with his finger to save himself. Like everything else in Mr. Foer’s novel, this event is remembered, recounted, discussed, translated, written up as fiction, revised (and then published and read by us)-in other words, the postmodern distancing is very thorough.

One of the very few Jews to survive the destruction of Trachimbrod says: “It is not a thing that you can imagine. It only is. After that, there can be no imagining.” (“No poetry after Auschwitz,” said Theodor Adorno.) It’s impossible to capture, unmediated, the horror of the Holocaust-writing, after all, is a form of mediation. You can’t get to the thing itself, but you can try-and people do, again and again. This is what Mr. Foer is writing about: how to write about the horror that can’t be written about. Which is justification enough for the novel’s many convolutions.

Mr. Foer’s shtetl is a place where people wrote. Someone was always scribbling, whether on a scrap of paper or on a ceiling or on a tree trunk. Collectively, the inhabitants compiled an endless, encyclopedic tome called The Book of Antecedents (which allows Mr. Foer to toss more postmodern digressions into his already crowded novel). Here’s a riff on “Art”: “Art is that thing having only to do with itself-the product of a successful attempt to make a work of art.” But Art, as the Trachimbrodians knew, is always the product of mixed motives, “i.e., I want to sell this , or I want this to make me famous and loved , or I want this to make me whole .”

Everything Is Illuminated is no more perfect than it is pure (it sold to Houghton Mifflin for $500,000 and may well make its author famous and loved, if not whole). Mr. Foer is too excitable, especially in the shtetl sections: Trachimbrod at times resembles a pomo fun fair. But the heart of the book-not the Nazi shoah but the astonishing, improbable, utterly convincing friendship of Alex and Jonathan-is golden. The friendship can’t last, of course (Mr. Foer is as grudging as Jonathan when it comes to happy endings). We’re left with what passes for consolation: “Every love is carved from loss.”

It’s wonderful to think that the very young Jonathan Safran Foer-he was born in 1977-can be writing so well and with such lofty aspiration. It will be wonderful if he writes many more books and inches ever closer to Art. But for now, let’s give Alex, Mr. Foer’s delightful creation, the last word, a tribute to a book packed tight with intelligence and compassion: “Volumes had happened, just as volumes now happen, just as volumes will happen.”

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.