Foer, Jonathan Safran 1977–

views updated

Foer, Jonathan Safran 1977–

PERSONAL: Born 1977, in Washington, DC; married Nicole Krauss, 2001; children: Sasha (son). Education: Attended Princeton University. Religion: Jewish.

ADDRESSES: Home—Brooklyn, NY.

CAREER: Writer, novelist, and illustrator. Worked as a receptionist at a public relations firm, morgue assistant, jewelry seller, farm sitter, math tutor, archivist's assistant, 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 Il-luminated; New York Public Library's Young Lion Award, 2003, for Everything Is Illuminated; Victoria & Albert Museum Illustration Award, 2005, for Extremely Loud and Terribly Close.


(Editor) A Convergence of Birds: Original Fiction and Poetry Inspired by the Work of Joseph Cornell, Distributed Art Publishers (New York, NY), 2001.

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 adapted as 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.

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 Foer made to 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 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 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 understood," 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. The protagonist of the novel is nine-year-old prodigy and Renaissance child Oskar Schell, a multi-talented inventor, collector of rare coins and Beatles memorabilia, Francophile, designer, amateur archaeologist, computer consultant, origami expert, percussionist, pacifist, and thinker, among other skills and talents. Oskar's bustling imagination brings forth marvelous inventions, including teakettles that recite Shakespeare when they steam; buildings that shuttle up and down while elevators remain stationary; a birdseed shirt that humans can use until they get wings of their own; digestible microphones that pick up the sound of heartbeats; and other fanciful items. Narrative duties are shared by Oskar's grandmother, who inadvertently types her 1,000-page life story on a typewriter with no ribbon, and his grandfather, mute from wartime trauma in Dresden, who communicates with the words "yes" and "no" tattooed on his palms. In the story, Oskar's father, Thomas, has just been killed in the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, which traumatizes the young man profoundly. 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 the 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." 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," observed Sam Munson in Commentary. A reviewer in Asia Intelligence Wire called the book an "appealing and expertly rendered novel," while Prose named it "inventive and imaginative." Newsweek critic David Gates commented on the physical presentation of the book, noting that "an indulgent publisher has let Foer lay on the postmodern bells and whistles—photographs, typographical gimmickry—and a mildly tricky narrative flatters the reader's decoding skills. It's the perfect package." In a review for O, The Oprah Magazine, writer Pam Houston called Oskar an "unforgettable character," and declared that Foer's work is a "funny, wise, deeply compassionate novel that will renew readers' faith that the right book at the right time still has the power to change the world." Entertainment Weekly contributor Jennifer Reese concluded that 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."



America's Intelligence Wire, September 28, 2005, "Audiences Finding Illuminated Great," movie review of Everything Is Illuminated.

Asia Africa Intelligence Wire, June 26, 2005, Kevin Wood, "Extremely Incredible," review of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Austin Chronicle, April 26, 2002, Roger Gathman, review of Everything Is Illuminated.

Book, January-February, 2002, Elaine Szewczyk, "Jonathan Safran Foer," p. 37.

Bookseller, May 27, 2005, review of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, p. 14; June 3, 2005, "Close but No Cigar: In the Press: A Follow-Up Fails to Impress," review of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, p. 42; December 9, 2005, movie review of Everything Is Illuminated, p. 40.

Commentary, May, 2005, Sam Munson, "In the Aftermath," review of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, p. 80.

Design Week, December 15, 2005, "Safran Foer Scoops Top V&A Illustration Award," p. 9.

Entertainment Weekly, March 25, 2005, Jennifer Reese, "Mourning Glory: In Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, 9/11 Haunts a Young Prodigy," review of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, p. 75; September 23, 2005, Lisa Schwarzbaum, movie review of Everything Is Illuminated, p. 62; March 24, 2006, Alisa Cohen, movie review of Everything Is Illuminated, p. 57.

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.

Library Journal, December 1, 2004, Barbara Hoffert, review of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, p. 88; March 1, 2005, Rebecca Miller, review of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, p. 78.

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.

Mother Jones, May-June, 2005, Joshua Wolf Shenk, "Jonathan Safran Foer: Living to Tell the Tale," interview with Jonathan Safran Foer, p. 78.

Newsweek, March 28, 2005, David Gates, "Are We Illuminated? Jonathan Safran Foer's Ambitious Sophomore Novel Sees 9/11 through a Precocious Nine-Year-Old's Eyes," review of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, p. 53.

New York, April 22, 2002, Daniel Mendelsohn, "Boy of Wonders," review of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

New Yorker, March 14, 2005, John Updike, "Mixed Messages," review of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, p. 138.

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.

O, The Oprah Magazine, April, 2005, Pam Houston, "Boy, Interrupted: Jonathan Safran Foer Follows His Smash Debut, Everything Is Illuminated, with a Witty, Heartbreaking Tour de Force," review of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, p. 158.

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; March 28, 2005, Daisy Maryles, "Illuminated Again," p. 16.

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.

St. Paul Pioneer Press (St. Paul, MN), September 29, 2005, movie review of Everything Is Illuminated.

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.

U.S. News and World Report, March 28, 2005, Marc Silver, "A Finicky Illuminator," interview with Jonathan Safran Foer, p. 16.

Washington Post Book World, April 21, 2002, Marie Arana, "Dream Time," p. 5.

Wisconsin Bookwatch, February, 2006, audiobook review of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Yomiuri Shinbun/Daily Yomiuri, April 17, 2006, "Premium Novel Poorly Illuminated in Film Adaptation," movie review of Everything Is Illuminated.


BookPage, (December 5, 2006), Alden Mudge, "Up Close and Personal: Jonathan Safran Foer Examines Violence through a Child's Eyes," interview with Jonathan Safran Foer., (May 26, 2003), Robert Birnbaum, interview with Jonathan Safran Foer.

Internet Movie Database, (December 5, 2006), filmography of Jonathan Safran Foer.

Jewish Week, (December 20, 2001), Susan Josephs, "The New New Thing."

Jonathan Safran Foer Home Page, (December 6, 2006).

New York Magazine, (April 15, 2002), Sarah Bernard, "A Fan's Notes.", (December 5, 2006), Dave Weich, "Unlocking Jonathan Safran Foer," interview with Jonathan Safran Foer.

The Project Museum, (March 2, 2006)., (April 26, 2004), Laura Miller, review of Everything Is Illuminated., (September 16, 2006), "Everything Is Illuminated Comes to Screen September Sixteenth," transcript of online chat with Liev Schreiber.