Literary cultures often produce the wunderkind they need–or perhaps deserve–in times of dramatic stress. In America, for example, during the sentimentally reckless 1920s, we had Edna St. Vincent Millay; in the hauntingly depressed 1930s, Delmore Schwartz; the viciously passive 1950s brought us Norman Mailer. Each of these writers was famous by the age of 25, and each was experienced as some blazing incarnation of an underlying mood of the time.
Not every writer who achieves literary celebrity young, however, is a child wonder. Among the books written by those under the age of 25 are The Pickwick Papers, Buddenbrooks, The Red Badge of Courage and Notes of a Native Son. None of the authors of these books was thought of as a wunderkind. It’s interesting to consider why some are, and others are not; the distinction might be worth making.
Jonathan Safran Foer is definitely a wunderkind: a writer immensely celebrated some years ago for a remarkable novel that he began as an undergraduate and completed before he was 24 years old. This novel–Everything Is Illuminated–was received as a major event in publishing not only because of the writer’s youth and talent but because it seemed to encompass the breadth of human experience, and in a manner richly compatible with that of our moment. Daniel Mendelsohn, for instance, wrote that while the book pretended to be about what it said it was about, it was really about “love, history, memory, narrative, and death–and that’s just for starters.” This review was typical of the generous pleasure with which readers everywhere greeted an ambitiously complicated fictional scheme that wove three voices and two strands of storytelling together with a degree of energetic inventiveness that was indeed exhilarating.
At this point I must announce a churlish reservation: The emotional–not to mention intellectual–wisdom that had sent all this virtuoso writing into action left many readers (myself included) more puzzled than gratified.
In Everything Is Illuminated a character named Jonathan Safran Foer goes to Ukraine in search of the woman who supposedly saved his grandfather from the Nazis. He employs a Ukrainian youth named Alex (who travels with his own grandfather, also named Alex) to help him (Jonathan) find his way to the village of Trachimbrod, where he hopes to track down the woman in question. Alex narrates the story of their journey. Interwoven with his narration is an imagined tale of magic realism that recounts the history of Trachimbrod from 1791 to World War II; this is the second narration. The third narration is Jonathan’s overview of the entire adventure. In short: The novel is multilayered and much crosscut.
The creation of Alex is the book’s true enchantment: His fractured English is pure joy. Using a thesaurus to figure out how to write in English, Alex composes sentences like