After finishing this book, I told Michael that I wish I could invite Jonathan Safran Foer over for tea. I have so many questions for him, and, from his writing at least, he seems like someone fun to hang out with. Then, on Tuesday, July 1, KQED presented a City Arts and Lectures conversation with Jonathan Safran Foer! He didn't answer all MY questions, but he gave some pretty interesting answers to the ones posed to him.
Here are some more of my thoughts on the book, interspersed with excerpts and Real Audio clips from the Foer interview. Can you find the word, PENIS?
"Publisher's Weekly" criticized Foer's made-up "historical" portions of the book:
"Though there are some moments of demented genius here, on the whole the historical sections are less assured. There's a whiff of kitsch in Foer's jolly cast of pompous rabbis, cuckolded usurers and sharp-tongued widows, and the tone wavers between cozy ethnic humor, heady pontification and sentimental magic-realist whimsy."
I don't think they get the point. Imagination is extremely important in this book. After experiencing unspeakable horrors, Augustine is no longer able to imagine. When Alex's grandfather insists that if he were in her place, he would try to forgive those who refused to help her, she says,
"You can only say that because you cannot imagine what it is like....It is not a thing you can imagine. It only is. After that, there can be no imagining."
For the character, Jonathan Safran Foer, it is imagination that saves him. His search ends without his ever finding the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis and without his knowing the real history of his grandfather's people. And for the real Jonathan Safran Foer, his actual search ended without finding anything at all... nothing in this story actually happened, except that he went to Ukraine and found nothing. It is imagination that gives him a sense of connection, that helps him understand, that fills the void. The fanciful stories make sense if you read them as an expression of the deep longing of the character, J.S. Foer. After all, the stories are the only way this character ever speaks in the novel. Everything else is told through Alex.
In the interview, Jonathan Safran Foer responds to those who criticize the book for being inaccurate:
"To those I say, 'You're missing the point. Emotional truths may come at the expense of historical truths, linguistic truths, psychological truths.... You have to tell a certain kind of lie -- sometimes -- to get to a certain kind a truth.' And in my case, it was just a truth about feeling."
Foer goes on to talk about how, when he actually arrived in Ukraine, he found absolutely nothing:
"You know, when I went to the Ukraine on this trip, I discovered really nothing. And it wasn't a poetic nothing, and it wasn't an interesting nothing, it wasn't even a melancholic nothing. It was just nothing. Nothing there... no people to talk to..."
His trip lasted only 3 days. Perhaps he creates a more meaningful nothingness for himself in the Trachimbrod of 1999. Alex expresses what they find there:
"I implore myself to paint Trachimbrod, so you will know why we were so overawed. There was nothing. When I utter, 'nothing' I do not mean there was nothing execpt for two houses, and some wood on the ground, and pieces of glass, and children's toys, and photographs. When I utter that there was nothing, what I intend is that there was not any of these things, or any other things."
Foer says that he writes to fill in absences. Here is an audio clip of Foer talking about writing as "filling holes:"
J.S. Foer's reasons for writing feel different than Dave Eggers'. I don't know why I feel such a need to belabor the differences between the two. (See my comments in previous entries below.) I guess because they are both celebrated young American male authors writing about some pretty heavy stuff, one of whom I'd read over and over again, and the other I'd like to slap. Anyway, here is Foer on writing and laughter:
And on how writing is like singing in the shower:
See, according to Foer, he doesn't worry about "how things will appear to others" in the first phase of writing. Unlike Eggers, who is the epitome of self-consciousness, Foer is more interested in delighting himself. And in so doing, he is a delight to read! Here is Foer on "self-consciously smart" writing:
On whether or not he is postmodern:
"I don't think of myself." And that's just the point, isn't it? Of course, after the first free, uninhibited burst of writing, there is a place for revision. Here is Foer on writing as singing in the shower: phase 2:
"Hoping that others will sing along," he lets the book go into the world. At that point, it no longer belongs to him alone. It's community art, community property:
Let's hear it for humility. Okay, okay, I can hear the naysayers grumbling that talking about humility is antithetical to actually being humble. But he's a kid, for god's sakes, and his book is clearly written by someone who is able get outside himself and get a little perspective. So give him a break! I did. Anyway, speaking of being a kid...
I think it's partly his innocence, actually, that allows him the freedom to experiment with forms... move randomly through time ("Who on earth lives a linear narrative?")... find new words. On creating new ways to express old ideas:
On the meanings of "illumination":
On the word "penis" and other things to do with SEX:
"The book is the invitation; it's not the party..."
QUESTIONS TO ANSWER IF I READ THE BOOK AGAIN:
Now, I must check out, A Convergence of Birds, the book he edited with writing inspired by the art boxes of Joseph Cornell, about which J.S. Foer says, "Art is a box. [Joseph Cornell] never made things. He only rearranged things. That's what writers do."
There is certainly artifice going on here, as I wrote in frustration on June 14, but also real honesty in spite of it. There are valid reasons for the way the book is written. I don't want to go into that stuff now, though. What I want to talk about is how it is that this book, with its fairytale bits, crazily concocted narrator, and contrived structure, touches my heart in a way that the hyper-candidness of Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius never did.
The character, Jonathan Safran Foer, does not talk about himself in the book. His part of the narration is a history of his ancestors in Trachimbrod, told in the magical realism style of perhaps Salman Rushdie, Isabel Allende, or even Jeanette Winterson. Perhaps he can't write about real events and feelings in the first person. Instead, he creates fantasies that are both delightful and tender. And I think these fantastic stories illuminate the actual events that are taking place in the present.
What we learn about Jonathan Safran Foer in the present are from the writings of Alex Perchov, his Ukrainian "translator." In this way, Foer steps back from himself. He's not caught up in the convolutions of his own messy mind. Instead, Alex reports what he perceives of the character, Foer. And does so, perhaps, with much more objectivity and even compassion than Foer might be able to muster for himself. Of course, Alex is as fictional as the inhabitants of Trachimbrod. It's a pretty transparent device. But the resulting honesty and heart in the writing excuse the contrived structure. It's this objective compassion that is missing in Eggers' book.
I can better illustrate this point by comparing a passage from each of the books. First, here is Eggers agonizing over his own self-consciousness and the fact that he is planning to later record the actions he is performing, those actions being disposing of his mother's ashes:
How lame this is, how small, terrible. Or maybe it is beautiful. I can't decide if what I am doing is beautiful and noble and right, or small and disgusting.... Is this white trash? That's what it is!.... Oh this is so plain, disgraceful, pathetic --
Or beautiful and loving and glorious! Yes, beautiful and loving and glorious!
But even if so, even if this is right and beautiful.... I am doing something both beautiful but gruesome because I am destroying its beauty by knowing that it might be beautiful, know that if I know I am doing something beautiful, that it's no longer beautiful. I fear that even if it is beautiful in the abstract, that my doing it knowing that it's beautiful and worse, knowing that I will very soon be documenting it, that in my pocket is a tape recorder brought for just that purpose -- that all this makes this act of potential beauty somehow gruesome. I am a monster. My poor mother. She would do this without the thinking, without the thinking about thinking --
Eggers believes that his desire to record, to preserve, somehow diminishes that which is being recorded. Now, watch how Foer handles a similar theme through the voice of Alex Perchov:
I gave the hero [Jonathan Safran Foer] each picture as she gave it to me, and he could only with difficulty hold it in his hands that were doing so much shaking. It appeared that a part of him wanted to write everything, every word of what occurred, into his diary. And a part of him refused to write even one word. He opened the diary and closed it, opened it and closed it, and it looked as if it wanted to fly away from his hands.
Perhaps Jonathan is having the same struggle as Eggers over whether or not a poignant moment should be recorded. But through the voice of Alex, he has compassion for himself. It's human to want to record things. It's human to think about recording things even as they are happening... to have a mind split between the present moment and the art to be created from it in the future. And even to think about thinking. But afterwards, one needs to be able to step back. And that is what Foer has done.