This week’s was Jonathan Safran Foer’s polemic Eating Animals, and in the interests of full disclosure I should say that I ate a sausage sandwich, a pork and peppers casserole, a shepherd’s pie and salt beef bagel during the reading of it. Not bad, but philosophically naive. The whole argument depends on a definition of life – and the moral consequences of ending one in order to survive. He doesn’t really do the arguments from evolution either: sure we have canine teeth, which didn’t develop to deal with eating a particularly fibrous parsnip; but sure, we evolve morally as well as biologically. Somewhere in the limbo of expired web pages is my review of his debut novel, which I’ll post after this; despite it being eight years old and somewhat breathless in tone compared to my reviews now.
Scotland on Sunday 16 June 2002
DESPITE numerous death-knells predicting its imminent demise, the novel persists and changes – and occasionally, a book like Jonathan Safran Foer’s unreservedly wonderful debut comes along, as if to prove that the novel is not just alive, but still the most dangerous, exhilarating and affecting genre in literature.
In recent years, America has been at the forefront of experimental fiction, boasting such talents as Dave Eggers, Jonathan Lethem and Mark Danielewski. Safran Foer’s name will soon be uttered in the same breath.
At the centre of the novel is a journey, in space and time, to the Ukrainian shtetl of Trachimbrod (or Sofiowka) where the author/narrator’s grandfather was (or wasn’t) saved from the Nazis. He is assisted (and hindered) on the quest by Heritage Touring,a two-bit outfit comprising a hapless translator, a possibly blind and geriatric driver, and a ‘seeing eye’ dog with the glorious name Sammy Davis Jnr Jnr.
Part of the novel is Foer’s recreation of the village and its history; a phantasmagoria of stories, from the matriarch Brod, born from the river and author of the definitive 613 Sadnesses, to a narcoleptic potato farmer, current curator of the Book of Recurrent Dreams. From the 18th to the 20th century, he conjures a wealth of traditions in a plethora of styles: encyclopaedia entries, plays, verses. Spliced into this is the translator’s account of the contemporary journey, and his later epistles to the author, written in the most deliriously idiosyncratic English – a thesaurus-raiding, dictionary-defying wrestle with language.
The opening gives some of the flavour: “My legal name is Alexander Perchov. But all of my many friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name. Mother dubs me Alexi-stop-spleening me! because I am always spleening her. If you want to know why I am always spleening her, it is because I am always elsewhere with friends, and disseminating so much currency, and performing so many things that can spleen a mother.”
These two narrative strands twist and tango throughout, echoing, revising, contradicting and complementing each other. With masterful subtlety, Foer elides from high comedy to points of sublime tenderness, and, as they approach where the village should be, darkens the tone considerably. As an account of the brutalities and extremely painful moral compromises of wartime, it is rending; the lighter moments perfectly offset and heighten the darkness.
By blending the two most prominent features of postmodernism – magic realism and Nabokovian metatextuality – Foer actually forges a wholly original approach to storytelling. The double narration offers more than just differing perspectives: Alex and Jonathan have radically opposed ideas about the function of fiction and the extent to which writers can alter reality.
In one exceptional scene, Alex, in his broken English, pleads that a character should not suffer, since in fiction it is possible to have happy endings. These are not the ‘tricks’ or ‘games’ which the postmodern is so frequently accused of, but techniques with real purposes in the novel. Instead of an either/or between tragedy and comedy, Foer’s stylistic gamble allows for a simultaneous vision of possibilities. As he says: “This was celebration, unmitigated by imminent death. This was imminent deat h, unmitigated by celebration.”
The novel galvanises all these techniques to pose, and answer, profound questions. Why do we write? How can memories be present? How can language approach the unspeakable nature of joy or terror? This is not just a good, funny and moving book, it is an important book. It shows what can be achieved, and how the novel can develop. I cannot recommend it enough.