Most outstanding novels have something to say about how they were written; many forgettable novels do nothing but talk about how they were written and, consequently, how they should be read. Everything Is Illuminated, the widely acclaimed first novel by the 24-year-old American writer Jonathan Safran Foer, often comes close to reducing its subject matter to an endless commentary on how stories are told, but in the end it just about escapes the gravity well of postmodernism to produce a work of wit and invention.
Narrated in two very different registers, the novel alternates between a fictional history of the Jewish village of Trachimbrod and the account of a young American's journey to contemporary Ukraine to find the woman who may have saved his grandfather when the Nazis massacred the inhabitants of the village. This young man happens to be writing the history of Trachimbrod and is also called Jonathan Safran Foer, but in most other ways, he is a self-effacing presence. The journey is instead dominated by Alex, Jonathan's Ukrainian guide, who prefaces his account of the quest with letters to the fictional Foer.
The two narrative arcs, condemned to intersect at the end, allow for never-ending speculations on the nature of the novel being put together. Alex's letters are busy with comments on what he is going to write about the journey, as well as his responses to the latest instalment on Trachimbrod sent to him by Foer: "Are you being a humorous writer here, or an uninformed one?" The history of Trachimbrod, meanwhile, is equally reflexive. The Jewish villagers are keenly aware of the nature of the written word, so much so, that when not kvetching about one another, they are busy entering the often mundane details of their lives into The Book of Antecedents, a mammoth, encyclopaedic work that is heavily cross-referenced and indexed.
All of this is interesting and amusing, but not particularly unusual. Nor is Alex's style, greeted with rapturous delight by reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic, all that remarkable. The Ukrainian's fondness for hyperbole and his rather free use of the thesaurus are often funny, but one gets the feeling that it expresses an authorial irony quite common in contemporary American fiction, which consists of exploiting the gap between a character's limited self-knowledge and the novelist's total awareness of the world of his characters.
Still, if one enjoys comedy, Alex's report on the journey, involving Foer, himself, his partially blind grandfather as driver and a dog named Sammy Davis Junior Junior, should be satisfying. What the reader doesn't get is any indication of the world in which this search is being conducted; the description is blandly generic.
This may be because the outer world is irrelevant to the kind of linguistic game being played by Alex. It is also possible that the moral and imaginative centre of the novel is contained in that imaginary history of Trachimbrod, which keeps interrupting the story of the journey and finally begins to creep up on it. If the landscape of contemporary Ukraine is curiously depopulated, Trachimbrod brims with excess. All the tropes of magical realism are to be found here, with strange births, accidental marriages, bizarre houses and odd physical appendages.
The most memorable of these characters is Foer's imagined ancestor Brod, a foundling who gives the shtetl her name and a point of origin, and around whom the desires, fears and hopes of the villagers fall in to a pattern, like iron shavings around a magnet. "I've imagined her many times," Foer writes of Brod, and the ironic tone that dominates the novel gives way to something like a wonder tinged with melancholy.
The melancholy comes from the knowledge that the excessive animation of the lives in Trachimbrod is created by the imagination, beyond which they have no existence. In the fields where Trachimbrod once stood, Foer and Alex find only a small commemoration stone that manages to say nothing, despite the seven languages etched on it. But the author's interest in creating such a wildly inventive version of an 18th-century shtetl is not because the account can restore the excesses of history or set the record straight. Nor is it simply a question of remembrance. The novel's most self-conscious reference to memory - an entry in The Book of Antecedents that begins "The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins" - is both serious and slightly playful, as if remembrance can be overdone and become a sort of trap.
Invention itself is the point, the author suggests, especially when the invention denies any single narrator or point of origin, and allows itself to be cross-fertilised by a wild profusion of influences, styles, stories and narrators, spilling over boundaries in its excess. There is something touching about such faith in fiction, although this, too, has the potential to become a kind of aesthetic trap, reducing the form of the novel to a bag of readily available tricks, some old, some new. It happened to Salman Rushdie, who found himself depending solely on special effects once his initial understanding and engagement with the world had been dissipated. The author of Everything Is Illuminated, however, gives us reason to hope that that will not be the case with him. What is original and thoughtful in this novel far outweighs the derivative and the superficial, making it an engaging declaration of artistic intent.