book: Emotional Communication 

Author Jonathan Safran Foer talks about structure and the art of communicating feelings.

In writing the novel, Foer uses three distinct narratives that range from high comedy to heartbreaking tragedy. The first narrative is told through the comically broken English of Alex, a young Ukrainian who dotes on all things American. Alex becomes the tour guide and somewhat inept translator for another young man from America, who just happens to be named Jonathan Safran Foer. Jonathan has come to the Ukraine to find a woman who may have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Armed with only a faded photograph, Alex and Jonathan, along with Alex's grandfather and his malodorous dog, set out to find this mysterious woman.

Two parts of the novel's narrative are written by Alex. Alex tells his story both through his letters to Jonathan and the story of their search. The final part of the narrative is Jonathan's history of his grandfather's town of Trachimbad, a village wiped out by the Nazis during the Holocaust. The three narratives converge within the course of the novel, showing not only the horror of the Holocaust but the beauty of life. Foer, as well as his character of the same name, is able to create a stunning novel that not only fascinates but also captures the essence of being human.

Foer will be giving a reading and lecture at the Jewish Community Center Nov. 14 at 7 p.m.. Admission is free to the public. Call 285-6500 for more information.

Style had a chance to sit down with the young author to talk about his book.

Style: One of the many things critics raved about in your novel was the way you decided to tell your story. Just how did you decide on the structure of your novel?

Foer: The truth is I didn't really decide on it, and I didn't really develop it. I was very na‹ve before I wrote it. I had no idea what I was doing. …I didn't really intend to write a novel; my only intention was to follow my feelings. My test for each sentence was: Is this something that moves me or makes me laugh or makes me sad? I think it was the greatest act of unself-consciousness I've ever had. And because of that, I can't really say that I meant to do what I did or that I had any grand schemes behind it. I wrote the book really quickly, and then I edited the book for about two years. When I edited it, I looked back at what I did, and I thought: How could I make this more useful, more readable or more interesting? Then I shaped it. But the real structure was a much more organic process.

You said that your first book didn't start off as a novel. What did it start off as?

It didn't really start off as anything. I didn't really know what it was going to be. I know I didn't think of myself then as a writer, and there's a certain sense in which I still don't think of myself as one now. I see myself as somebody who wants to express himself. Imagine you are somebody who really loves seeing foreign cities and eating different kinds of food or encountering different cultures. You would never describe yourself as the Great Passenger of Airplanes. In the same way, writing is like an airplane for me. It gets me where I want to go but it's not the point; the point is where I want to go. So if I could paint, I would love to paint. If I could write music, I would love to write music.

In the book, a silent character, a writer, has the same name as you do. Many would call this a metafictional, or at least a postmodern, approach. Was this intentional or was it just part of the way it developed?

Part of the way it developed. I really couldn't imagine it any other way. And in this book, I'm working on now there's also a Jonathan character, but he's much more vocal. He's nine actually. But anything else feels … inauthentic for some reason. Lord knows, when I finished the first book I tried to do one of those search and replace things where I searched for every Jonathan and replaced it with Sam. Because I thought, It doesn't have to be my name. That will just annoy people. But then I felt like I was telling a lie. I felt like I was crafting a novel about it and really expressing myself. I have just no interest in crafting a novel that's just not something that I want to do. … I think of everything I do in terms of structure or style, as being very incidental to this emotional communication. And I just don't care if things are inventive or ambitious or postmodern or ironic, that's so incredibly unimportant to me. The only thing I care about is this: Can I trust myself properly? Can I make somebody feel something? And ideally something that has to do with what it's like to be me. S


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