New World reorder

David Herman hails the younger generation of Jewish-American writers.

In 2000, Norton brought out an outstanding anthology of Jewish-American literature. Over 1,200 pages, it covered the history of Jewish writing in America from the mid-17th century to Art Spiegelman. There was one strange feature, however. Allegra Goodman was the only contributor born since the mid-1950s.

And yet this was the very moment at which a generation of new Jewish-American writers was exploding on to the literary scene. Nathan Englander's book of short stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (1999), Michael Chabon's Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000), Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel, Everything Is Illuminated (2002), followed by Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), The History of Love by Nicole Krauss (2005) and Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2007) - these are just the best-known fruits of this renaissance. And there are also lesser-known delights by Rudolph Delson (Maynard and Jennica, 2007) and Keith Gessen (All the Sad Young Literary Men, 2008), as well as the more prolific Amy Bloom and Dara Horn.

What is striking is not just the appearance of a generation of talented young writers, but the emergence of distinctive voices tackling big subjects. These books deal with history with a capital "H": the Holocaust, the fire-bombing of Dresden, the 11 September 2001 attacks, Stalinism, South American dictatorships. They are morally and intellectually serious. They are not interested in adultery in Middle America or mid-life angst in the suburbs. They all want to throw themselves at the big world that they know is waiting out there.

Many of the characters in this fiction are haunted by the dark history of 20th-century Europe. Often they are refugees, or else young Americans who are fascinated by their parents' and grandparents' pasts. And yet the books are neither pious nor solemn. The opening chapter of Everything Is Illuminated is laugh-out-loud funny. One of the central characters in The History of Love, Leo Gursky, is a tragic figure who escaped from eastern Europe, but left much behind and never recovered. However, Leo at times is also ridiculously funny, a true suffering joker - like Saul Bellow's Herzog, or Zuckerman and Portnoy in the novels of Philip Roth - head buried in books and bowels in disarray.

The writing here is fresh and funny, but also smart. This is clever literary stuff, full of play and subtle allusion. Foer uses photographs, coloured text and spacing to break up the text. He throws almost everything at the text. Sometimes the technique appears derivative (crazy lettering as in Herzog, clear references to Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, black-and-white photos as in W G Sebald). Often it is plain exasperating.

Krauss is less playful with the look of her novels, but is just as ambitious in other ways. The History of Love, her second novel, is driven by a search for the identity of the character in a fictional novel, also called The History of Love, written by two different characters and translated by a third, at the request of a fourth (who happens to be the son of one of the first two, who also happens to be a writer, who has created a character who has asked the mother of the teenage girl to translate the novel). There is a brief summary of all this on page 196, but you may want to take an aspirin first.

Chabon's plots are equally ingenious. The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a detective story set in an eastern European Jewish community that has survived in Alaska; in his novella The Final Solution, he gets an elderly Sherlock Holmes to solve a mystery involving a German Jewish refugee. Both offer a compelling blend of dark history and literary game-playing.

These novels are not merely ludic, however. The protagonists are always looking for someone or something, for a key that will unlock a defining conundrum in their lives. In Everything Is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer the character is looking for a woman in a photograph. Sixty years ago she saved his grandfather, a Ukrainian Jew, from the Nazis. He wants to find out what happened to her. He travels to Ukraine and recruits a young translator who finds himself on a quest of his own: what did his grandfather do during the war?

Krauss's latest novel, Great House, is a much darker search for the history of a large desk as it is passed from person to person. Such searches, for Foer's grandmother, for the real Alma, for the meaning of an heirloom, give all the novels narrative propulsion.

What is going on here? Why are these young American Jews trying to find out things about their fathers and grandfathers? I think each is attempting to answer the question: how does one write Jewish-American novels after Bellow and Roth? Many of these earlier classics of modern Jewish-American writing had one foot in the old country and another in the immigrant neighbourhoods (and later the suburbs) of east coast America. Foer, Chabon and Krauss being of another, younger generation, have no direct relationship with the history that formed Jewish writers born in America in the first half of the 20th century.

At the same time, they do not want to go down the culs-de-sac where their predecessors in the 1980s and 1990s ended up, trying to find "authentic" modes of Jewish identity in Israel, or else in pious invocations of the Holocaust. Instead, they try to bring together two very different kinds of story and voice: those of mitteleuropaïschen Jewry, on the one hand, and of young Jews in New York today, on the other. The big stories may be found in the history of 20th-century Europe, but these writers believe that they need to be told in a sassy, wisecracking, urban American voice that will speak to younger readers.

In Everything Is Illuminated, the character Jonathan Safran Foer tells Alex, the narrator: "I'm looking for my voice." The same is true of all of these writers. They don't want to do what Bellow and Roth did. They want to try something else, hence all the cute games, the knowing references and the juggling with genres. Underneath it all, however, is a search for a new kind of Jewish voice, with origins in both America and central/eastern Europe, one that is capable of grappling with significant issues of history and identity.

Sometimes the writers get it wrong, straining too hard for effect. But just as often they get it right, producing funny, moving books that are full of ideas and verbal invention. They are just at the beginning of their careers, and rather than chastise them for overambition, we should be reaching for our seat belts. It's going to be a terrific ride. l

Five of the best:

  • Michael Chabon: "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" (Fourth Estate, £8.99)
  • Nathan Englander: "The Ministry of Special Cases" (Faber & Faber, £7.99)
  • Jonathan Safran Foer: "Everything Is Illuminated" (Penguin, £8.99)
  • Keith Gessen: "All the Sad Young Literary Men" (Vintage, £7.99)
  • Nicole Krauss, "The History of Love" (Penguin, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, GOD Special