Fore, Jonathan Safran 1977–
Fore, Jonathan Safran 1977–
PERSONAL: Born 1977, in Washington, DC. Education: Attended Princeton University. Religion: Jewish.
ADDRESSES: Home—Brooklyn, NY. Agent—c/o Houghton Mifflin Company, Trade Division, Adult Editorial, 8th Fl., 222 Berkeley St. Boston, MA 02116-3764.
CAREER: Writer. Worked as receptionist at public relations firm, morgue assistant, jewelry seller, farm sitter, and ghostwriter.
AWARDS, HONORS: Zoetrope fiction prize, 2000; Guardian Prize for a First Book and National Jewish Book Award, both 2002, both for Everything is Illuminated; New York Public Library's Young Lion Award, 2003, for Everything Is Illuminated.
Everything Is Illuminated (novel), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2002.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (novel), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2005.
Contributor to magazines, including Paris Review and Conjunctions.
ADAPTATIONS: Everything Is Illuminated was made into a film starring Elijah Wood, directed by Liev Schreiber, and released by Warner Independent Pictures in 2005; Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has been optioned for film by Scott Rudin Productions in conjunction with Warner Brothers and Paramount Pictures.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A novel tentatively titled The Zelnik Museum.
SIDELIGHTS: Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, was the subject of eager anticipation after an excerpt was published in the New Yorker in 2001. The novel grew out of a trip he made to the Ukraine in 1997 in an effort to increase his knowledge of his family history, especially of his late maternal grandfather. The grandfather had escaped the Holocaust with the help of a woman in his Ukrainian hometown, the small Jewish village, or shtetl, of Trachimbrod, but the family knew nothing beyond that. Foer's visit illuminated him no further—for one thing, the only trace of Trachimbrod was a memorial plaque—so he began writing a fictional version of his search, interwoven with an imagined history of the town from its founding in 1791 to its destruction in World War II.
In the novel, the protagonist bears the author's name and is the same age, twenty, that Foer was when he went to the Ukraine. The fictional Jonathan Safran Foer joins forces with an entrepreneurial young Ukrainian translator, Alex Perchov, a gentile whose family travel business caters to Jews seeking their roots. Accompanying them in their week-long search are Alex's curmudgeonly grandfather and the grandfather's none-too-bright seeing-eye dog, which, although female, is named after Sammy Davis, Jr., with an extra "Jr." The novel takes the form of correspondence between Alex and Jonathan after Jonathan returns to the United States. Alex sends letters filled with reflections on Jonathan's visit, written in "thesaurus-bludgeoned English," as Los Angeles Times reporter Lynell George put it. In reply, Jonathan sends excerpts from his novel in progress, a fictionalized chronicle of his ancestral village, which Time reviewer Lev Grossman called "a lyrical, fairy-tale creation, a Yiddish idyll of the Fiddler on the Roof variety, inhabited by randy, gossipy villagers," including Jonathan's grandfather, a man of remarkable sexual prowess.
"The two voices come at the plot from both ends at once," Grossman explained, later adding, "The two stories collide when the searchers stumble on Trachimbrod's last surviving inhabitant, who tells the horrifying secret of how the dreamy little village met its end in the nightmare of World War II." The novel's mix of comedy and tragedy drew comment from several reviewers. "The author offers sympathy and irony without shrinking from their contrasts," observed Molly McQuade in Chicago Tribune Books. "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, so spiritually fractious that they had to split into two righteous bodies, the Upright Synagogue and the Slouching Synagogue."
Alex's mangling of the English language provides much humor as well. "Alex's vocabulary mistakes, turned by Mr. Foer into a source of great delight, are easily under-stood," reported Janet Maslin in the New York Times. "When he picks the wrong synonym for 'hard,' he winds up with phrases like 'amid a rock and a rigid place' and 'an American in Ukraine is so flaccid to recognize.'" Alex's distinctive voice, however, is more than comic relief, according to some critics. McQuade remarked, "Alex's words embody, syllable by syllable and clause by clause, the character's struggle to learn his place in the future and Jonathan's place in the past. They graze the reader with a furious, greedy, uncompromising impurity that is sheer inspiration."
Maslin concluded that Everything Is Illuminated "is a complex, ambitious undertaking, especially as its characters and events begin to run together in keeping with the author's ultimate plan. Mr. Foer works hard on these effects, and sometimes you will, too. But the payoff is extraordinary: a fearless, acrobatic, ultimately haunting effort to combine inspired mischief with a grasp of the unthinkable." Washington Post Book World critic Marie Arana thought Foer had lived up to the high expectations created by the New Yorker excerpt. "Rarely does a writer as young as Jonathan Foer display such virtuosity and wisdom," she commented. "His prose is clever, challenging, willfully constructed to make you read it again and again. His novel is madly complex, at times confusing, overlapping, unforgiving. But read it, and you'll feel altered, chastened—seared in the fire of something new."
Foer followed the success of his first novel with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. In the story, Oskar Schell's father has just been killed in the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. Oskar's journey begins when he finds a key labeled "Black" in his father's things. As he sets off to find all New Yorkers bearing that last name, he "meets a range of eccentric characters whose peculiarities mirror and even equal his own," according to Francine Prose in People. Matthew L. Moffett, writing in School Library Journal, commented that the novel's "humor works as a deceptive, glitzy cover for a fairly serious tale about loss and recovery," and Foer leads the story to "a powerful conclusion that will make even the most jaded hearts fall."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Book, January-February, 2002, Elaine Szewczyk, "Jonathan Safran Foer," p.37
Independent (London, England), April 21, 2002, Sarah Bernard, "The Natural Surrealist," pp. 12, 14.
Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 2002, review of Everything Is Illuminated, p. 10.
Los Angeles Times, May 30, 2002, Lynell George, "A Light Is Shined on the Edges of Truth," p. 1.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 28, 2002, Mark Rozzo, review of Everything Is Illuminated, p. 14.
New York Times, April 22, 2002, Janet Maslin, "Searching for Grandfather and a Mysterious Shtetl," p. E6; April 24, 2002, Joyce Wadler, "Seeking Grandfather's Savior, and Life's Purpose," p. B2.
Observer (London, England), June 2, 2002, Clark Collis, "Foer Play," p. 28.
People April 11, 2005, Francine Prose, review of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, p. 51.
Publishers Weekly, February 4, 2002, review of Everything Is Illuminated, p. 48.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, summer, 2001, Peter Donahue, review of A Convergence of Birds: Original Fiction and Poetry Inspired by the Work of Joseph Cornell, p. 167.
School Library Journal, July, 2005, Matthew L. Moffett, review of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, p. 131.
Time, April 29, 2002, Lev Grossman, "Laughter in the Dark," p. 73.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), May 19, 2002, Molly Mc-Quade, "Novel's Joint Narrative Creates an Enchanting World," p. 4.
Washington Post Book World, April 21, 2002, Marie Arana, "Dream Time," p. 5.
Jewish Week, http://www.thejewishweek.com/ (December 20, 2001), Susan Josephs, "The New New Thing."
Jonathan Safran Foer Official Site, http://www.jonathansafranfoerbooks.com/ (March 2, 2006).
New York Magazine, http://www.nymag.com/ (April 15, 2002), Sarah Bernard, "A Fan's Notes."
The Project Museum, http://www.jonathansafranfoer.com/ (March 2, 2006).