ENGL 291: The American Novel Since 1945
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The American Novel Since 1945
ENGL 291 - Lecture 24 - Students' Choice Novel: Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated
Chapter 1. Foer’s Formative Ambition [00:00:00]
Professor Amy Hungerford: All right. So, today we’re going to talk about Everything is Illuminated, and Eli has actually agreed to stand next to me for the whole lecture and translate my lecture into Ukrainian dialect. Thank you, Eli. I’ll call you up in a minute. For anyone visiting the class today, what we are doing is talking about Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated. This book was chosen by the class as the last book on the syllabus, and Eli here gave a wonderful presentation, reading from it in a very funny Ukrainian accent, and I think that’s why everybody chose it. God knows if there would be another reason. No. Just kidding.
Now, when you meet a new novel, there are various things you need to do after you’ve decided whether you like it or not, that is, if you’re either a professor in an English class having to teach it, or you are a student having to talk about it or write about in your papers. Beyond that, even beyond vocational necessity, there is the desire, I hope, that many people have, to understand how new work fits into the body of existing literature. And, especially, I think that’s the case when an author is as openly ambitious as Jonathan Safran Foer is. It is very clear, the minute you open this up and you start reading, that Foer is aiming at a conversation with literature that has preceded him. It’s also clear from his interviews, and I was particularly struck by something he said in an interview about his second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which is about 9/11. And, I’ll say a little bit more about that novel, which I haven’t read but I’ve read enough reviews of it to know a few facts about it which I think are relevant to this novel. He said about it…he was asked by an interviewer, “Well, doesn’t it seem risky to take on 9/11 as a subject?” And he said, “Well, what seems risky to me is not taking on the important subjects of your time. That seems like the risk for a writer.” And he says in another place, “You have to justify the fact that you’re sitting alone in a room writing all day. What you do has to be somehow world changing.”
So, for a twenty-something-year-old writer, this is a heavy task. And I think you can feel the heaviness of it in the novel, partly in its formal ambition, and partly in the subjects that it takes on. It doesn’t take on 9/11, but it does take on the Holocaust. So, I will have a whole argument about that aspect of the novel and how it fits in to literature of the post-45 period, because–lucky you–I happen to have written a book on this that came out in 2003, about genocide in literature. So, this is actually a perfect novel for me to lecture on in that respect.
When you first meet a novel of this kind, with these ambitions, there are certain things that you do, and for me those things include noticing just about everything I possibly can about the novel and then thinking about what other things that I’ve read seem to be speaking to it, or it seems to be speaking to those things.
Chapter 2. Dialog with the Literary Tradition [00:03:58]
Now, I promised that I would not conduct this entire lecture in Q&A, but I did not promise that I wouldn’t ask any questions, so here goes. What novel seemed related to this novel, from our syllabus, to you? Well, you can go outside our syllabus. That’s okay. Did you have another idea? Yes.
Student: Marquez”s One Hundred Years of Solitude
Professor Amy Hungerford: Yes. That’s certainly in dialog with this novel, yes, and Foer talks about that as a novel that really was important to him. Okay. What else? What from our syllabus seems to be related to this novel? You’ve never seen anything like this before? Yes.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Lolita. Why? What in Lolita?
Professor Amy Hungerford: Okay. Yes, some of that humor. Yes. What else? What else from our syllabus? Yes.
Student: –Oh, I was going to extrapolate on Lolita.
Professoer Amy Hungerford: Yes. Sure.
Student: …experimenting with speaking through the voice of a character.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Yeah. Absolutely yeah, inhabiting a voice that seems very foreign. Yeah. To the writer. Yes. What else? Yes.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Yes.
Professor Amy Hungerford: And what was it about Barth that you think Foer learned from?
Student: I think kind of writing about writing.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Yes. Yeah, absolutely. Yep, definitely. What else? Roth? Did anyone not see Roth in this novel? Okay. Roth is certainly here. Pynchon is very strongly here, if you think about the episodes in Crying of Lot 49 with the Paranoids, all those funny jokes and their songs. Foer learned a lot from Pynchon, and certainly even more from Pynchon’s other novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, I think, particularly, than from Crying of Lot 49, which doesn’t–because of its length– doesn’t quite go to the operatic, playful lengths that a longer Pynchon novel can go to. Pynchon is also very interested in the eighteenth century, and so that interest is something that Foer shares, in this novel. Foer is someone who learned a lot from the group of writers that we would call “postmodernist” and that I would call “late modernist.” He learned to be very self-conscious about his language and to make that evident on the surface of the novel.
He also learned, though, from Toni Morrison. (Come on in.) He learned from Toni Morrison. In particular, I think, he learned the value of time travel in a novel. This was something that I brought up with respect to Edward P. Jones, as well, but it’s certainly here, and there is one very, very clear reference to Morrison. This is on page 51, when he’s talking about the name of the shtetl and how it was called. Now, my Ukrainian is not very “premium,” so I will butcher this name. “Of course no one in Sofiowka called it Sofiowka. Until it had such a disagreeable official name, no one felt the need to call it anything, but now that there was an offense that the shtetl should be called that shithead’s namesake, the citizens had a name not to go by. Some even called the shtetl Not Sofiowka and would continue to even after the new name was chosen.”
In Song of Solomon, written in 1979, I think, Toni Morrison has a street that’s called Not Doctor Street, because it was given an official name at odds with what the black community called it. And so, they had called it Doctor Street. The town christened it something else, I think Main Street or something, and so then they called it Not Doctor Street. So this little, teeny piece is lifted directly from Morrison. You can see her footprints on here in that sense. Toni Morrison was, of course, a teacher at Princeton when Foer was there. I don’t know if he took courses with her. He certainly studied with Joyce Carol Oates, but Morrison was around and I’m sure he has read that novel. It would be surprising to me if he has not. So, the other thing that he takes from Morrison is that sense of collective history, that history is something passed down in oral tradition in an intensely verbal culture. So, the Jewish shtetl culture that Foer imagines, and the black community that Morrison imagines, are both intensely verbal cultures. Now, the Jewish community of Foer’s novel is also intensely literary, in the sense of literate. They write everything down, also, so that’s a slight difference between Morrison’s vision and Foer’s.
I want to go in to some detail about what I think Foer has learned from Roth, because Roth is the person I see most strongly behind his writing. We didn’t see the playful, metafictional side of Roth very much in The Human Stain. Roth’s work is straddling both sides of that line, between realism and very hyper-metafictionality. So, some of his novels have alternate endings. He has several novels that feature Philip Roth. So, Foer takes the conceit of naming a character after himself directly from Roth. So, there are ways that he is, on the surface, citing Roth, but there is a more profound way that he is working in Roth’s terrain, and that is in the terrain of desire. So, thinking back to Roth’s first novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, which is all about masturbation, Alex Portnoy’s masturbation, we see that he’s taken the name Alex, Alexander Portnoy. Alex appears in this novel as well, and then we have Safran, who is this sort of love machine. So, he is a double of Alex Portnoy, with a difference, though; so, instead of masturbation, it’s sex with the needy, essentially, sex with the love starved, virgins, older women, widows, etc.
Chapter 3. Absence at the Heart of Desire: Foer’s Negative Spaces [00:11:23]
So, the immediate difference that Foer is pointing to, is the difference between something like solipsism or narcissism, desire as the fuel for that narcissism, versus desire as the fuel for community and connection. This is not without trouble, though. And it’s the trouble that interests me, and that I think he takes from Roth: and that’s the impossibility of ever actually making that connection, of it ever finally coming home. And you see that in the story of Safran, just in the fact that–by the time he finally gets married, and finally has a proper orgasm–what he falls in love with, at that moment, is not his wife, but the baby that he is engendering in that moment (and of course it’s a baby that doesn’t even exist yet). So, the very absence at the heart of desire, the blankness or the impossibility, is demonstrated even in those moments of overwhelming connection.
And, I think it’s telling that Foer imagines sexual energy as light, rather than some other kind of phenomenon. So, “Everything is Illuminated”; remember, there is that image of the world being lit up by people making love, that it actually generates light that you can see from space. It’s not a concrete engendering act, even when it is. It creates something else, and that something else seems to be related to knowledge; how can you know your past? This is a problem in the novel, and it’s a feature of the quest element. And I’ll say more about that in my second lecture on the novel, but I think it has to do with a vague understanding that is imagined to illuminate the world as a result of desire’s fulfillment, or almost fulfillment. But that theme of sex and desire is abstracted into lots of other forms. And the couple that I want to look at–one is sort of religious. This is on 140. Here, we’re learning about the veneration of Brod’s husband, the Kolker, who is then bronzed and made into a statue in the town after he dies, still with the saw blade embedded in his head. This is at the bottom of 140.
This little moment of reflection on religious ritual, or quasi-religious ritual, is related to some things that I want to say about the role of Judaism in my next lecture. But, as a practice, it is a practice of negativity, of acknowledging the impossibility of connection to that god and the impossibility of fulfillment from that god. But, nevertheless, it is committed to the fulfillment of the effort to make that connection. So, it’s belief in belief. And, in fact, the book that I’m writing right now is all about belief in belief, and so this confirms my sense that this is an important way of imagining how belief works in the current moment. You believe in the act of belief.
So, that’s one kind of negativity. Then there is a visual image that we get over and over again, and that’s of the hole, the empty hole. There are a couple of examples here, on 135. This is after Brod and the Kolker have separated themselves with a wall because the Kolker keeps beating her up. He’s deranged in part–part sane, part deranged–by his saw-blade embedded in his head. And so they have this hole between them through which they can communicate, but the wall protects Brod from his rages so he won’t beat her up.
So, here we’re offered two versions of negativity. One is all of the words that had come to mean nothing, and the other is this physical emptiness, the hole. So, the words that mean nothing are an emptiness that is frustrating, a blockage, but the emptiness that is the space, the visual space, comes to be a space of imagination, that gets filled with imagination. So, they see each other from a distance for the first time, and are overwhelmed by the connection that can then be formed between them. So, it’s the very absence of the physical presence, one’s distance from it, that becomes the fulfillment for this couple. So, I hope you can see the structural similarity, or the logical similarity, between believing and belief. And we’re told of Brod, remember, also, on page 83, that she was constitutionally unable to love anyone. This is at the top of 83.
So, if this is the lie, that our love for things is greater than our love for our love for things, the truth is that our love for our love is greater than our love for actual things or actual persons. It’s the same structure as the belief in belief. Of course, that story of Brod and her father telling each other stories–both about their love for each other, and, in her father’s case, Yankel’s case, about her mother, her fictional mother, who he says died before she was old enough to remember her–all of the stories that Yankel makes up become the fullness of his life with Brod. So, they replace the loss of his first wife who abandoned him.
And so, this gives fiction a very powerful brief in the world. This is not unlike the structure that I was pointing out in The Human Stain, where the blankness of Coleman and Faunia allows Nathan to re-inhabit life by imagining onto them all the dynamics of their desire, all of the facts of their life, all of the details of their biography. So, likewise, Foer uses blankness as a way of pumping up the power of fiction. It plays this role despite the threat it will always pose to fiction that you get here, or on that little passage I just quoted before, about the nothingness of words. So, the nothingness that gives fiction its blank space to inhabit, also can seep into and infect words as in the repetition of a word like “Malkovich.” It is an infection that bothered critics about this novel. They felt that the postmodern play of the novel was essentially trivial, because these kinds of play had been conducted in novels thirty years, forty years before (and many more than that if you count Tristram Shandy in the eighteenth century, but took powerful hold in American fiction in the ’60s). They felt that Foer was simply taking out those tools and deploying them again, but not for any new sort of payoff. So, some critics were frustrated with this.
Chapter 4. Bringing Together Sentiment and Formal Play: A Social Postmodern Novel [00:22:05]
Now, this brings me to a second kind of context that I would bring to this novel, or I do bring to this novel as I think about it. In 2001, Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections won the National Book Award. The Corrections attempted to make a marriage between the postmodern novel, as he understood it, the novel filled with those kinds of verbal play [and the social]. And Franzen modeled his novel on William Gaddis’ novel The Recognitions, which is about an art forgery. It’s about 900 pages of incredibly experimental prose. It’s extremely hard to read. But for Franzen that novel had enough in it of character development and human investment to go along with its verbal playfulness that it made him want to keep reading it. So, in homage to that novel, he called his novel The Corrections and tried to give us a story where the verbal play would not drain the sentiment from the novel. So, he described it as the social novel coming to meet the postmodern novel. He announced this to great fanfare in an essay, and of course the novel then became famous.
And he became infamous when he was invited by Oprah to go on Oprah’s Book Club with The Corrections, and he refused. It was quite a scandal in the literary world. And then he tried to go back on it and say, “Oh, okay, Oprah. I really wasn’t being a snob. I’ll come on your show,” but then she said “No. Sorry. We’re scheduled for that week now.” It was really a mistake on Franzen’s part, but it also demonstrated his own ambivalence about the very project he had set out to accomplish, which is to make a novel that people really want to read, that has some sentimental purchase on you, that has characters you could care about, as well as being extremely ambitious in this way, in this formal way. Now that novel, the way it tried to get sentiment and verbal play to line up, was in part by making one of the central characters an Alzheimer’s patient. So, it’s about a family, a midwestern family, and the two parents get extended treatment in the novel, as do the three children, grown children, in the family. And the father has Alzheimer’s, and so there’s a very Pynchon-esque scene, when his, actually, his shit starts talking to him, and this is taken right out of Gravity’s Rainbow. There’s a scene very similar to this in Gravity’s Rainbow.
So, Franzen tried to make that poignant by making it something that the modernists tried to do, which is the representation of the actual workings of the human mind in a daily situation. And the terror of it, for that character, I thought, when I read the novel, came across quite powerfully. So, for me, in part, it worked. Foer is doing something that is related. He is trying to have both sentiment and formal play. How many of you felt for these characters? How many of you felt that they were really inaccessible to you, flat, unemotionally interesting to you? Okay. Just one. So, I think he succeeded, probably, to a greater degree, if you read the critics (and you can read that in this incredibly bulked-up blurb section in the packaging of this novel). A lot of critics did really like this novel, and I think that’s why, that for most readers, he did succeed. Now, I have things to say about that, but in a minute.
Chapter 5. The Campus Novel [00:26:39]
I want to say that there is another kind of context that I think you could attend to productively, and that is the quality of this novel as a campus novel. Now, that’s probably not exactly what you were thinking of when you read this novel. It’s a campus novel because it was written on a campus, and it’s also a campus novel because it is in part a coming of age novel about someone who goes from needing a lot of help with his writing to kind of writing on his own. So, what you see is the displacement of a narrative that looks very much like Foer’s development, or you would imagine the development of a writer in a writing program at Princeton over time, at first needing suggestions from a mentor. And, a lot of the way that we come to know the character Jonathan Safran Foer in the beginning, through Alex’s letters, has to do with things that he has said to Alex about how to write, suggestions he’s made. So, Jonathan Safran Foer remains as a sort of shadowy presence for much of this novel, but we see his wise sayings to Alex about writing.
It’s an interesting inversion of the situation that the author was in fact in. He was in the class, taking the class, not teaching the class, when he was an undergraduate, and this was written when he was…I think it was published when he was twenty one. The bar is not high. Don’t worry. No. I’m just kidding. The bar is very high. Let me say that. The bar is very high, but don’t worry. Life is long. You have plenty of time. This is not just about Jonathan Safran Foer, the man, and his particular biography of being a student in the writing program at Princeton. It is also about an institutional history of writing in the second half of the twentieth century. If you remember, way back when, when I lectured on Flannery O’Connor, I mentioned to you a critic named Mark McGurl at UCLA who is writing a book called The Program Era (or has written it, and I think it should be out very soon, called The Program Era). And it’s an analysis of how writing programs leave their mark on the fiction of the last fifty years, because what’s particularly striking and new about writing in this period is that a lot of it happens on campuses, and a lot of authors are writing for campus audiences.
So, Foer’s novel is a version of that kind of fiction, and we can read it that way, I think, quite easily. It fits in that story that Mark McGurl tells about the development of this period. So, just as when I read it, I see that notation about belief in belief and the love of love, and it fits in to a story that I’m telling about the evolution of religion in literature in this period, so you can ally it to other arguments that are made about the period, too, and that help you to see why certain things might be in the novel and what kind of work they do there.
And finally, there is a last context that I saw pointed out. I think it was in the review in The Nation, and that’s of trips of Americans to post-communist Europe and post-communist Russia. Apparently, there is a whole spate of novels that came out right about the same time, where Americans, almost invariably young men, went to the former Soviet republics and had coming-of-age experiences. So, this certainly fits that genre. I don’t personally have a lot to say about that. I think it’s interesting to see it as being aligned with a group of novels that do that. It doesn’t, for me, provide any particular insight, but that’s not because it’s- because it wouldn’t. It just happens that that didn’t strike a chord with me, or lead me to other points of analysis. This is another point that I want you to take away from my engagement with this novel. That is, that no matter what context can be brought to it, you as a reader bring your own particular one, your own particular set of knowledge, your own particular training, your own life experience.
Chapter 6. Sentiment vs. Sentimentality [00:31:32]
So, we’re getting to the end of the course, and, in a way, you have now the opportunity to approach these novels, any new novel that’s written, with several kinds of stories about the period in your mind, because now you have read–I hope you have read–many novels in this period, and you can see where the connections are. So, you’re starting to draw those. You’ll need to do that on the exam, but far more importantly, I hope that you will continue to do it when you read on your own outside of class. A lot of you are seniors. You may not have a lot of time after you leave school to read novels. When you do, I hope it will be part of your pleasure to approach them with a sense of empowerment, that you can know where they fit in the history of the art form they’re engaging, apart from your own pleasure in reading them, which will I’m sure be the primary reason you’d pick up a novel to read it, but there is that other intellectual pleasure that you now can have. I want to encourage you to feel that you can do that. It doesn’t mean that it will always produce insight for you. So, I have been thinking about this novel for approximately two weeks. Most novels that I lecture to you about, I have been thinking about for at least two years. Your insights over time change, and you notice different things. And it’s nice to allow time for that, and that’s the value of rereading in a few years what you read before as a student. So, I hope you’ll maybe return to some of these novels, as well.
Now, that was my little digression about after-college reading, or outside-of-the-class reading, but let me return to this question of sentiment. Foer wants it both ways, and one of the ways he has it both ways is by internalizing in the novel a reader figure who is our double. There are actually three doubles for us, at least. One is Alex, who is reading Jonathan’s story as he sends it to him. Embedding a critical reader within the novel, as we have seen with Barth and in Pynchon (where Oedipa was that double), allows a certain set of metafictional tricks. One of the most reliable functions for that internalized reader is to cue you, me, the actual human readers, to notice or feel certain things, or (if you are Nabokov) to be misled in certain ways. Think of the prologue from John Ray Jr. which misleads us in reading that novel. He’s our double, but he’s there to trick us. I don’t think that Alex is here to trick us. And, just to note how he cues us, let’s look on 142 and 3. This is one of the letters where Alex is less busy with self-presentation by this point in the novel, and he is really responding to what Jonathan has sent him. This is in the middle of 143.
We’re being cued to be moved, to be moved by the story in these particular ways, to take his reflections on his grandmother, which are indeed very lovely, and to be moved by them. But one reservation I guess I have about the success of this move is just its boldness, I guess. I’m being told that I should be moved by these passages. There are also moments when we get reflections that seem like they would never stand if they were not embedded in Alex’s voice, and this is on 68-69. This is Alex talking about how he came upon Little Igor, his brother, crying.
Those reflections on laughing and crying: I think they might sound quite maudlin if they were not in Alex’s voice, that a writer needs to judge very carefully whether to reflect in those direct ways about big themes like laughter and crying or how you hate. So, these are the topics that will be a pitfall for any new writer sitting down to say, “I am going to write about love.”
I used to teach creative writing, and one of the exercises that I did was, I would sit my students down and I would say, “Okay. We’re going to have a little in-class writing today. Here are some topics that I want you to write about just for ten minutes,” and I would give them “love,” “your childhood”–what else–“death.” I can’t remember what else. And so, then, they would very earnestly do it and then I would say, “Okay. Now I want you to take your paper and I want you to underline every single cliché that you wrote,” and they would come up with papers full of clichés. And it was a little exercise just to get them to understand that choosing a topic can get you into trouble if you choose a very abstract, big, important question. Of course we want books that move us and tell us about death and love and separation and desire, but how do you get there, and how do you talk about those things?
So, I think that Foer has taken a risk of a sort, here. He can do it because it’s in Alex’s voice. Is the distance achieved, the self-distancing achieved, by inhabiting a foreign voice, with its little funny jokes that come up because of its incorrect usages? Is that enough to prevent sentimentality, rather than sentiment? Is it powerful enough language, in the abstract, that it moves us as a discourse on laughter and loving? Is the detail of Little Igor and Alex’s love for him enough? Now, remember we know nothing about Igor as a character, his brother as a character. Do we feel that the relationship between the two is earned for us as readers? Maybe we do. Sometimes I did. Other times I didn’t. So this is something that I’m still thinking about. Does it succeed at what Franzen, too, was trying to do, which is to infuse intellectual word play with human resonance? Does it succeed?
If you look at the dedication to the novel, I think you learn something too. This is under the acknowledgments. Did any of you read this? These are the acknowledgments. “At least once every day since I met her, I have felt blessed to know Nicole Aragi. She inspires me not only to try to write more ambitiously, but to smile more widely and have a fuller, better heart. I am so, so grateful,”–and you hear that “so, so” again from the passage I just read–“and it is my pleasure and honor to think of the wonderful people at Houghton Mifflin as family,” so on and so on, “whose advice in literature and life seems always to boil down to “feel more,” which is always the best advice.” So, feeling is very much on the surface of the effort here. What would it mean to read this as a sentimental novel? Does the playful treatment of shtetl life disable our connection with those characters?
One of the things that I think succeeds wonderfully about this novel is Brod as a character. I think you do want her to have a good life, as Alex does, and you feel the tragedy of the life she gets. And, I think you get that payoff because she is developed; she has time to develop, in the course of the story. So, for all its time travel back and forth, for all its playfulness, for all the jokes and riffs, Brod has time to develop, especially in relation to her father and in relation to the Kolker, her husband, and we learn things that make her more complex over time. And so, when we finally learn what she asked the Kolker to do after she was raped and before she agreed to be his wife, when we learn that–and I won’t reveal it ‘cause I don’t know if you’re all there yet–it gives us a much more complex version of what she is as a person, of who she is as a person. So, I think he earns it, with Brod. That, to me, is a kind of achievement, because of the role that riffing plays in the development of that story. Riffing on Jewish behavior in a novel by a Jewish writer is certainly well-trodden ground. Roth has been treading that ground for many decades. I think what Foer does, that Roth didn’t do, is fully identify with the community in a convincing way, while he’s doing it, and this is related to what I will say about his use of the Holocaust in my next lecture. I am going to stop there, and I hope you will be sure to finish the novel by Wednesday.
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