(BE YE WARNED! This post contains some sexual descriptions that might make the sensitive Mormon set uncomfortable)
I’m not sure where to start really. I’ve just finished reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything is Illuminated and I want to describe my reading of it, but I don’t know where to begin.
The novel has flashes of genius and sustained periods of highly enjoyable reading. The chapters comprising the Ukrainian “translator” Alex’s letters to Jonathan about the novel are wonderful to read, and some of the most ingratiating fiction I’ve read in a long while. However, the chapters dealing with the history of the protagonist’s ancestors in the small town of Trachimbrod annoyed me to no end. Let me explain.
When Gabriel García Márquez (GGM) won the Nobel for Literature in 1982, the book that crowned his amazing oeuvre and won him the prize, was One Hundred Years of Solitude (OHYOS). One of the most important books of the 20th Century and the masterpiece of the Magic Realism literary movement, the book centers on a small town where incredible things happen that seem a commonplace, and yet ordinary things seem absolutely fantastic to the characters. A gypsy bringing flying carpets to town is interesting, but a player piano or an icemaker, both with provable scientific processes, are marvels that only a wizard could conjure.
GGM will not let anyone adapt OHYOS for the screen. He won’t let anyone adapt any of his writing into films unless he writes/approves the screenplay. Although he is a gifted author, the film adaptations of his work have been abysmally rendered (low budget, bad acting, etc.). I believe that he limits these adaptations due to his fear of clashing with his readers’ mental texts.
The reader of any text responds to the chains of signifiers in a subjective way based on his or her understanding of the words, impression from the reading, mood, intelligence, life experiences, previous books read, knowledge of the material contained in the text, access to search engines, and any other myriad combination of semiotics and signifiers “through which [one] forms the ‘gestalt’ of the text” (Iser, The Implied Reader 283). Traditional thought maintained that the author has exercised a patriarchal hand over his or her readers and basically controlled their response by his or her construction of the text. Well-written comedy could elicit laughter from an audience; tragedy could bring them to tears. Melodrama could cause any number of emotional responses, and erotic literature can cause a physical response.[i] It comes as no surprise that the traditional view of the author was essentially one of awe and reverence, as the author was seen to exercise a God-like control over his or her characters. The personages were considered pawns at the whim and caprice of their invisible creator, similar to Jorge Luis Borges’s chess player and pieces in his poem “Ajedrez.”
No author, no matter how adroit with words, can completely control the reader’s mental text, the mental response to a text. In the case of erotic literature, the authorial intent might be to cause a stimulus response to the text. This may be accomplished, but the author cannot control the mental images, the express content of each reader’s mind, something we can term “the mental text” or, along with Wolfgang Iser, “passive synthesis” (The Act of Reading 135). One reader’s mental text upon reading the multiple sexual encounters in the novel will differ from another’s. Each individual can rightly claim to have read, visualized, and understood the novel, to have felt the same erotic stimuli, and even to have later indulged in the memory of those stimuli while engaged in erotic behavior, but the mental text that they construct while reading the work and revisiting the experience, is their own.
Each reader’s vision of Alex, Grandfather, Augustine, and Jonathan Safran Foer will be different. One reader might picture the protagonist just as he appears in the photograph on the novel’s cover, and another will envision him in a different way. I see him as always looking like one of my best students ever, a brilliant young man from NYC named Jonathan Katz. Is your vision of the author the same as mine? It cannot be expressly the same JSF in Reader A’s mind as it is in Reader B’s because both have received the text and produced their own version of it in their imagination. Though their creations may only slightly differ, they will be unique to the individual.[ii] There are now two JSF, each dependent on the mental text of their receiver/reader. This mental text adds the reader into the creator/created mixture by their ability to claim pseudo-authorship of the work they see in their mind.
For example, Gabriel García Márquez wrote the screenplay to “Un señor muy viejo con unas alas enormes”, made into a movie by Fernando Birri in 1988. Having read García Márquez’s short story of the same name previous to my viewing of the film, the version that I had constructed in my mind had nothing to do with the version I saw displayed on the screen. Though the plot and characters were the same, I found this filmic version an intrusion into the mental world I had comfortably built. The result was unsatisfying and left me feeling that I preferred the book to the visual work.
I mention GGM because he has been very influential in literature. Oftentimes we emulate others that we find interesting. Yet, it is incredibly difficult to define the boundary between inspiration and derivation and tedious repetition of that which has already been done. JSF takes pains to even claim that God plagiarized when he made man in his own image. To me the novel reads like a Jewish-American version of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Only instead of leaving me filled with the beauty of the human experience like I felt at the end of GGM’s novel or the closing scene of the Shawshank Redemption, JSF’s novel leaves me feeling like I just got a Pepsi when I asked for a Coca-Cola. Sure it’s sweet and refreshing, but it cannot, and never will be original or as good as the other thing. Remember the first time you heard Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit?” Sure, you might have bounced your head along to STP “Moderation”, Soundgarden’s “Black Days,” and Candlebox’s “Maybe,” but you knew that nothing would or could (to rob a line from Everything is Illuminated) be as good as that first time you heard Nirvana. And that’s not saying that other songs can’t make you feel that way: Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” and “Alive” had the same effect on me.
That’s the problem with a movement, and then the subsequent revisiting of it. Right now the Killers and Jimmy Eats World are making 80’s inspired rock-and-roll, and doing it well. There are countless others that are bombing. And then there are the shameless people that just copy and give no credit. This is how I felt when I watched that Kevin Spacey movie K-Pax. The entire time I’m screaming, repeat, screaming at the screen, “How can you not give at least an ‘inspired by’ credit to Hombre mirando al sudeste?” It was as if the director of the Spacey film thought that by translating the movie, it was something new. I had this same level of revulsion of unabashed ripping off when I read Isabel Allende’s House of Spirits. Her novel is an onion skin away from being called One Hundred House Spirits of Solitude. Even before she became an Oprah Book Club denizen, I despised her “work,” because, to me, it feels like I’m reading someone else’s novels and stories when I read ones with her name on the spine.
While I don’t think that JSF was plagiarizing, even indirectly, what I do see in his writing is a postmodern attempt to renew the magic chemistry of the original magic realism. It’s like those new Mustangs Ford is making. They are hybrids of the old design, but with new technology. At the end of the road however, you are still driving something that pales by the original. His attempt falls flat, not because it is wholly derivative, but because it is tedious, and well, perhaps I’m not the target audience.
There are several target audiences for this book:
1. People that can’t get enough stories about the horrors of the Holocaust. Edna Aizenberg has written about the difficulties of representing the catastrophe of the Holocaust in fiction. She mentions the oft-cited Theodor Adorno quote that writing poetry after Auschwitz is “barbaric” as she explains that “certain apprehensions do, however, exert pressure on imaginative writing and account for some recurrent themes of Holocaust fiction” (Books and Bombs 133). She goes on to explain that the “incorporation of historical discourse as a means of underlining truthfulness” along with an “allusive or distanced telling with gaps” are both present in the “precise historical anchoring” that marks tales about the Holocaust (133). This melding of fact and fiction becomes a species of God-is-in-the-details approach to coming to terms with the reality of the Holocaust.
2. JSF’s psychologist. If he ever needs counseling, he should just present this novel to the shrink and insist that she read it. That should clarify what his hang-ups and issues are.
3. Young men (Ages 15-36). If you like erotic literature, these pages (164-168) will certainly get a rise out of you.
4. Old Men (Ages 55+). ED got you down? Read pages 169-177.
5. Middle Aged Married Men (Ages 37-54). Keep the book by your bedside. You’ll become physically aroused several times while reading it. When this happens, wake your wife and make love to her, and try and not pretend you’re the Kilker or Safran and that she is the Gypsy Girl, or Brod, or any of the other 132 “other mistresses” the novel so vividly describes.
6. God (Prove to the author that You exist)
7. JSF’s family, save his grandmother.
8. Those that from a long way off look like flies.
9. The present classification.
10. Teenaged boys (puberty-15). This book may not be read in the bathroom!
11. Other writers. The novel is dying in the First World.
12. Future female sexual partners of Jonathan Safran Foer. You should read the novel to know your partner better. He obviously likes big-busted women, so take care to use pushup bras and low-cut tops. His preferred sexual positions are (in order):
B. From behind
Be sure to remain faithful; you should know that he is a touch misogynistic when betrayed. He will exact his revenge by making you let him orgasm all over your body, like some dog pissing the borders of his territory to reclaim his turf (don’t believe me? Read page 200). Oh, and he will castrate the offending Other too.
As you might have guessed, the novel contains no small amount of sexual imagery, dialogue, etc. It reads like the fantasies of a virgin, or whose only experiences were so tainted by porn imagery/culture that it leaves him insatiable for that desire that cannot be quenched. Notice how the ancestors can never love? The Safran grandfather has sex 2,700 times before he ever orgasms. And he does this because he is “in love,” not with his partner (his wife), but with the daughter that his ejaculation produces. The narcissistic guarantee that he will live on in that generation is the only thing that can arouse him to the point of climax.
The book ends with me feeling ultimately dissatisfied, leaving me asking myself “I just spent three days reading that?” It plays in stereotypes and all the things one would expect from a “first novel” by a young Jewish-American writer, meaning that the climax that “will break your heart,” as Joyce Carol Oates is quoted on the front cover, of course, centers on a Sophie’s Choice-type decision that leads to the death of a Holocaust victim.
Jonathan Safran Foer is a gifted writer, there’s no doubt about it. I could not have produced anything even remotely close to what he has done. No matter. If the end result in this reader is a negative one, no amount of artistry in the crafting of prose, no amount of subtlety and nuance of inventions with the language of Alex’s translated Russian-Ukrainian-English is enough to make me think highly of the book.
Remove the back story chapters, remove all the wondrous schlock about how quirky, blah blah blah, the Trachimbrodians were, and the novel could, would soar. I just don't buy into the notion that everyone's ancestors were quirkily cool, and that ethnic minorities have to always be painted as magically real and a touch neurotic. It gets old.
The book is composed by a hero who decides himself a premium person, who wishes to be carnal with many womens, who wishes many currencies from the publication of his autograph, and who would be much spleened by my overview of his love labor.
[i]. Robert Holub would argue that “the literary work is neither completely text nor completely the subjectivity of the reader, but a combination or merger of the two”. In this case, the various physical or emotional responses in the reader to the text can be theorized into feeling that the reader would most likely not have experienced those same things had they not first received the text. (Holub 84)
[ii]. It is also entirely possible that two readers or even two historical authors might conceive of the same or very similar story at the same time or at different times. There are always lawsuits after a hit movie because someone will claim that so-and-so lifted or plagiarized material from their screenplay, when oftentimes, the one had never been aware of the other. John Lennon insisted this was the case with his use of the line “Here come old flattop” in the song “Come Together” in spite of Chuck Berry’s insistence in his legal claim against Lennon that the line was from his song “You Can’t Catch Me” (Turner 173).