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Considered one of the best young authors in the United States in the early twenty-first century, Jonathan Safran Foer writes about difficult subjects like the Holocaust and the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States in unusual, challenging ways. Both of his novels— Everything Is Illuminated (2002) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005)—feature sojourning protagonists trying to understand what happened to an important family member. Foer also weaves in visual elements, primarily in the latter work, to underscore his themes and characters.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Born Performer
Born February 21, 1977, in Washington, D.C., Foer is the son of Albert Foer and Esther (Safran) Foer. His father was a jeweler who later founded the American Antitrust institute, while his mother is a Polish emigre and president of a public relations firm. Foer is the middle of three sons, all of whom pursued media careers, and he was raised in a middle-class household.
As a child, Foer was a natural performer and colorful character. However, he was traumatized by an incident that affected his later writing. He was eight years old when he was one of the victims of a chemical explosion that occurred while he was attending a summer program at an elementary school. The event had a profound impact on him.
Embraced Writing Career
Foer attended Georgetown Day School, a private prep school. A popular high school student, he decided he wanted to be a brain surgeon and was the valedictorian of his class. When Foer entered Princeton University, he studied philosophy and literature instead of medicine. He was awarded the Writing Thesis Prize from his freshman to senior years. one of his teachers and mentors was the novelist Joyce Carol Oates, who boosted his interest in writing and helped him become a professional writer.
During his college years, Foer had an experience that led to his first novel. in 1997, Foer traveled to the Ukraine to increase his knowledge of his family’s history. Specifically, he wanted to delve into the life of his grandfather during World War ii and find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Holocaust. Even before Nazi Germany launched what became a globe-encompassing war in 1939, leader Adolf Hitler regarded Jews as an inferior people. After depriving them of their rights in the late 1930s, he implemented a plan to murder all the Jews in Europe. The Holocaust was the result, a program of extermination intended to kill all Jews. Though Hitler did not fully succeed, millions of Jews died as a result. World War II itself was the most destructive war in world history. After his journey to the Ukraine, Foer began writing Everything Is Illuminated while still a student.
Foer earned his BA in philosophy from Princeton, then held a variety of jobs as he worked on what became his first novel. Among his posts were morgue assistant, receptionist at a public relations firm, math tutor, ghostwriter, jewelry seller, farm sitter, and assistant archivist. While working at these jobs, Foer was publishing short fiction, receiving the 2000 Zoe-trope: All Story Fiction Prize. In 2001, he served as the editor of Convergence of Birds: Original Fiction and Poetry Inspired by Joseph Cornell.
That same year, Foer published an excerpt of what would become his first novel in the New Yorker. Titled ”The Very Rigid Search,” the excerpt built interest in his forthcoming publication. Before the novel was put in print, Foer published another significant short story, ”A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease,” in a 2002 edition of the New Yorker. Foer would also publish short stories in such magazines as the Paris Review, Conjunctions, and the New York Times.
Foer’s impressive first novel, Everything is illuminated, was finally published in 2002. The title comes from a line in the novel by Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984). The novel is a fictionalized account of Foer’s 1997 journey to the Ukraine with the fictional Foer as the main character. Praised by many major publications, Everything is Illuminated won the National Jewish Book Award and the Guardian First Book Award in 2002 and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing in 2003. The novel was turned into a film in 2005, then a stage play in 2006.
Foer published his second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, in 2005. Again dealing with difficult subject matter, the story focuses on the reaction of nine-year-old Oskar Schell to the death of his father during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. On September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked a number of commercial airliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Thousands of people lost their lives in the attacks, and American society has been unsettled in the years following the event. Over the course of the novel, Oskar, an overeducated, oversensitive, and possibly autistic son of one of 9/11’s casualties, discovers a key to the meaning of the 9/11 tragedy. Like Everything Is Illuminated, the novel was well received, translated into several languages, and is being adapted for film.
In 2005, Foer also wrote an opera libretto, Seven Attempted Escapes from Silence. He continues to write while living in Brooklyn, New York, with his novelist wife Nicole Krauss, whom he married in 2004, and their son, Sasha.
Works in Literary Context
Foer’s two novels emphasize the importance of searching in the past to understand one’s self and, perhaps, the present. He uses innovative literary techniques as well as visual art to underscore and enhance his stories. Foer also employs historical events like the Holocaust, the bombing of Dresden, and the September 11 attacks as a part of the motivation for his characters’ journeys. While his themes are socially relevant—the desire to understand what happened to members of their family predominates—Foer includes elements of empathy and humor as well. As a writer, Foer has been influenced by his own family’s history, his knowledge of Judaism and New York, contemporary events like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the visual arts. He also cites the influence of such authors as Isaac Bashevis Singer, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Orhan Pamuk, and Bruno Schulz.
Journey of Discovery
In both of Foer’s novels, the main characters go on journeys of discovery. The journey is a time-tested narrative device in fiction, going back to the Odyssey by Homer. Some of the greatest American novels, such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, follow their protagonists into unknown lands and situations. In Everything Is Illuminated, Foer offers a fictional account of his 1997 journey to learn more about his family history in the Ukraine. He goes to the country only with the knowledge that his grandfather had escaped from the Holocaust with the help of a woman in his Ukrainian hometown, the Shtetl (small Jewish village) of Trachimbrod. The fictional Foer is helped by Alex Perchov, an entrepreneurial young Ukrainian translator whose family owns a travel business catering to Jews seeking their roots. Oskar’s journey in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close also involves family. His father, Thomas, was killed in the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. While looking through his father’s possessions, he finds a key labeled “Black.” This key compels Oskar to find all New Yorkers bearing this last name in hopes of gaining information about the attacks and his father. In addition, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close includes information about Oskar’s grandparents’ journey of discovery: their lives.
Lack of Knowledge
While Foer’s characters go on a journey of discovery, they do not always gain the knowledge they desire. Foer’s fictional visit at the center of Everything Is Illuminated, like his real one, provides little illumination about his grandfather’s past. For example, the only trace of Trachimbrod is a memorial plaque, so the character Foer begins writing a novel about imagined history of the town from its founding in 1791 to its destruction during World War II. He shares excerpts with Perchov in the letters that form the core of the novel. In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Oskar also does not gain the knowledge he seeks about his father’s death, though he does meet a range of New Yorkers during his quest. Both Oskar and the people he interacts with learn something about themselves and each other. However, both novels emphasize the importance of the journey over whatever knowledge the protagonists acquire.
Works in Critical Context
Foer’s novels are praised by critics for their sincerity and power. His strong writing style and humor are often lauded, as is his ability to elicit an emotional response from readers. Many critics also note Foer’s strong characterizations, interesting characters, and distinctive voice. While some detractors find the author’s work gimmicky at times—especially in the presentation of parts of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close—Foer is generally highly regarded as a leading voice in the new generation of American literature.
Everything Is Illuminated
Everything Is Illuminated was praised by many critics for offering a distinct voice and vision. Marie Arana, writing in the Washington Post Book World, argues that Foer lived up to the high expectations created by the New Yorker excerpt. She writes, ”Rarely does a writer as young … display such virtuosity and wisdom. His prose is clever, challenging, willfully constructed to make you read it again and again.” The New York Times’ Janet Maslin concurred, stating that the novel
”is a complex, ambitious undertaking. … [T]he payoff is extraordinary: a fearless, acrobatic, ultimately haunting effort to combine inspired mischief with a grasp of the unthinkable.”
In reviews of Everything Is Illuminated, critics also commented on the novel’s mix of comedy and tragedy. In the Chicago Tribune ”Books” section, Molly McQuade writes, ”The author offers sympathy and irony without shrinking from their contrasts. Although the novel seeks to resurrect the memory of a community of Jews massacred by the Germans, Foer doesn’t shy away from applying warm mockery to the wiles of their forebears.”
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Like Everything Is Illuminated, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was well received by critics when it was published in 2005. In Commentary, Sam Munson observes that Foer demonstrates ”a natural gift for choosing subjects of great import and then pitching his distinctive voice sharply enough to be heard above their historical din.” Other reviewers praised the depth of the novel. Matthew L. Moffett of the School Library Journal comments that the novel’s ”humor works as a deceptive, glitzy cover for a fairly serious tale about loss and recovery.” Moffett also notes that Foer leads the story to ”a powerful conclusion that will make even the most jaded hearts fall.” Entertainment Weekly contributor Jennifer Reese finds enjoyment in Oskar’s ”wonderfully unquiet brain and his sweet soul, his ageless questions, silly school jokes, uncanny observations, and raw misery, all of which bring home a little more of the specific human pain of 9/11.”
- Arana, Marie. ”Dream Time.” Washington Post Book World (April 21, 2002): 5.
- Codde, Philippe. ”Philomela Revisited: Traumatic Irony in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” Studies in American Fiction (Autumn 2007): 241.
- Kohn, Robert E. ”Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated.” Explicator (Summer 2007): 245.
- Maslin, Janet. ”Searching for Grandfather and a Mysterious Shtetl.” New York Times, April 22, 2002.
- McQuade, Molly. ”Novel’s Joint Narrative Creates an Enchanting World.” Chicago Tribune, “Books,” May 19, 2002.
- Moffett, Matthew L. Review of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. School Library Journal (July 2005): 131.
- Munson, Sam. ”In the Aftermath.” Commentary (May 2005): 80.
- Reese, Jennifer. ”Mourning Glory: In Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, 9/11 Haunts a Young Prodigy.” Entertainment Weekly, March 25, 2005, p. 75.
- Solomon, Deborah. ”The Rescue Artist.” New York Times Magazine (February 27, 2005): 40.
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