In the aftermath of great tragedies, it is often difficult for society to cope with the loss of loved ones or the wreckage of disaster. Both of Jonathan Safran Foer’s highly praised novels, Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, tackle that need to cope and the intense sadness that comes with it, but Foer does so with an elegant touch of humor that allows the reader to heal along with the main characters.
Born in Washington, D.C. and educated at Princeton University, Jonathan Safran Foer showed his promise as a gifted writer by winning Princeton’s Creative Writing Thesis prize in his freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior years. He also won the Zoetrope: All Story Fiction Prize in 2000. Not long after graduating from Princeton, Foer traveled to the Ukraine to research his grandfather’s life, which led to the planning of his first book, Everything is Illuminated. It was with this book that Jonathan Safran Foer made his mark on the literary community with an experimental writing style and new voice in the realm of modern fiction.
Everything is Illuminated largely follows the letter correspondence between the narrator, Alex, and the protagonist, Jonathan; because the narrator’s English is “not so premium,” as Alex puts it, the correspondence is often intensely funny but also heartfelt and unusually sincere. Combined with a quirky and often humor-laced outlining of the history of the small village in which Jonathan’s grandfather lived until the Nazi invasion, the novel combines the historic horror of the Holocaust and brutality of the Nazis with the burgeoning intellectual relationship between the narrator and protagonist. The novel also immerses the reader in the Jewish culture, bringing an otherwise obscure world into the forefront of the reader’s mind.
In his second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer used similar elements to create a starkly different tale with the same humorous voice. His narrator, ten year old Oskar Schell, is also somewhat unreliable because of his age, despite his precociousness, but this also lends to honesty and sincerity an older narrator may have been unable to achieve. Jonathan Safran Foer this time chose the events of September 11, 2001 as the backdrop of his narrative, as Oskar’s father dies in the attacks. Oskar finds a key among his father’s possessions and embarks on a journey — much like Jonathan in Everything is Illuminated — to discover more about the father, who was taken from him before he had a chance to know the man. Foer also interspersed the text with seemingly random photographs that garner deeper meanings as the novel progresses, a technique both praised and belittled by critics. As was the case in his first novel, Foer mixes several different storylines throughout the novel.
While generally praised by critics, Jonathan Safran Foer is not without his detractors. In the midst of intense praise for his debut novel, some critics felt his writing came off as cheap and silly, and not worth the literary praise he had been receiving. Either way, Jonathan Safran Foer’s work had cleared itself a niche in the literary community as the product of a gifted writer.