A lot has changed since the age when Henry James could so easily enumerate, in his book on Hawthorne, all the things America lacked for the sustenance of a serious novelist—historic castles, to begin with, and an army, and museums. We now have castles of commerce and industry, and a grand army, and a Guggenheim Las Vegas. Yet especially in the last twenty years, even as American power increased beyond imagining, the idea became more firmly entrenched, especially in self-consciously young writers publishing first books—Bright Lights, Big City; Generation X; A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius—that, aside from some recreational drug use and anomie, nothing truly momentous could happen here—not “anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight,” as Hawthorne had put it way back when. Real history was elsewhere; the United States was still, as the impeccably dressed KGB agent says to Nathan Zuckerman at the conclusion of Philip Roth’s The Prague Orgy, just “the little world around the corner.”
Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, was in this tradition: an American travels to the Old World in search of the darkness he cannot see at home, and finds it. The book contained two intertwined narratives—the first about the trip to Ukraine of a young Jewish writer named Jonathan Safran Foer, and the second about the Foer family shtetl of Trachimbrod. The story of Trachimbrod zoomed forward in time from 1791 (the chapter headings included the dates) while the story of the American’s trip to Ukraine took him back in time, until the stories converged in 1941, and the Nazi invasion, and the work of the Einsatzgruppen.
Foer’s approach to the material had some advantages, especially his decision to make not Jonathan Safran Foer but his Russian-Ukrainian translator on the trip, Alex, the narrator of the contemporary chapters. (They are accompanied by Alex’s grandfather, also named Alex.) The young Alex writes in a skewed English, boasting of his sexual exploits, and the book’s good parts are the exchanges between him and the quiet, polite, American Jonathan, both of them barely out of their teens:
“What about the girls in America?” “What about them?” “They are very informal with their boxes, yes?” “You hear about them, but nobody I know has ever met one of them.” “Are you carnal very often?” “Are you?” “I inquired you. Are you?” “Are you?” “I inquired headmost. Are you?”
Through Alex, too, we sense a gently ironic attitude toward Americans who would find meaning in their dull lives by going on “heritage” (really: Holocaust) tours to the backwaters of the former Soviet empire. “Before the voyage,” Alex writes, “I had the opinion that Jewish people were having shit between their brains. This is because all I knew of Jewish people was that they paid Father very much currency in order to make vacations from America to Ukraine.” As Americans believed that nothing could really happen in the placid suburban …