The Aurora's 'Everything is Illuminated' Is A Failure of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Aesthetic and Moral Imagination

There’s something distasteful about rank ambition and its stench is all over the Aurora Theatre’s production of Simon Block’s stage adaption of Jonathan Safran Foer’s kind-of-celebrated, first novel, Everything is Illuminated. The whole enterprise is what we might call anxious for significance.

The story is as American as you can get: Jonathan Safran Foer, the character not the author, takes a trip to the Ukraine to try to find the woman who saved his Grandfather from the Nazis and to thank her for his existence. There, his guide and translator, Alex, whose English isn’t up to UN standards, and Alex’s Grandfather, the only driver among them and perhaps blind, take Jonathan Safran Foer on one of those wacky cross-country journeys that only happen in novels, movies, and plays.

You know it’s supposed to be wacky when you learn that Alex and his Grandfather’s horny dog is called Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. And the dog might be attracted to Jonathan Safran Foer, so that’s wacky, too. And a blind driver is wacky. And Eastern Europeans with their funny accents and violent ways, well, they’re inherently wacky. Not to mention big-breasted waitresses, hostile innkeepers, and, well, anything foreign.

Oh, and one more thing: while Jonathan Safran Foer is searching for the mysterious woman to whom he owes his life, he will turn his Ukraine journey, his goofy-cute Ukrainian guides, the whole of his family’s tortured history, Judaism, sub-literate Eastern Europeans, and the Holocaust into a great piece of literature.

Or at least the novel Everything is Illuminated.

If this were a vicious satire of a narcissistic American crippled by notions of fame and his own importance, then you couldn’t ask for a more telling set up—it’s the type of tale the young Evelyn Waugh got a kick out of before he went soft and wrote Brideshead Revisted, kissing the hand he used to gleefully bite. What we get here though is neither misty-eyed nostalgia nor brutal takedowns, but an innervating mixture of unrealistic, sitcom quirks and a child’s notion of moral reckoning.

You feel it in the forced nature of the writing, the way it wants to bully you into acknowledging the importance of what you’re witnessing. On a simple level, Block and Jonathan Safran Foer never miss the opportunity to let us know that even though the character Jonathan Safran Foer is a writer in the making in Everything is Illuminated, the book Everything is Illuminated and by extension the play Everything is Illuminated is actually the proof of his future greatness. In other words, the greatness of what we’re witnessing as we watch the play.

We could call it a literary case of circular reasoning, but it feels more like circular insistence, or wish fulfillment, or simply quite suspect. We get bits and pieces of Jonathan Safran Foer’s future masterpiece, which I assume our direct quotes from the novel: “Dead as before his parents met. Or deader perhaps, for then he was at least a bullet in his father’s cock.” Hmmmm.

I haven’t read the novel, or seen the movie, so I can’t tell you how “bullet in his father’s cock” and similar lines might come off in other mediums. On stage, though, Jonathan Safran Foer’s literary flourishes strain to the point of embarrassment, no matter how many times we’re assured that he’s quite good at what he does, say, a stew of genius gestating in his mother’s womb ready to burst out of her vagina.

Alex, who rather playfully can’t understanding snatches of Jonathan Saran Foer’s astounding work, somehow has the good sense to understand that he is in the presence of a great talent: “You talk very well.” Though the real props come from Jonathan Saran Foer’s own characters, his imagined ancestors, who can’t help but be overwhelmed by the loveliness of Jonathan Saran Foer’s prose:

Jonathan: It appeared that the river girl had chosen Yankel—who had previously lost two children and a wife.

Brod: Nice touch.

Jonathan: Thank you.

That all of this comes with no irony, no critical perspective, nothing suggesting an adult perspective is crucial to understanding the deep ugliness that pervades every last moment of this moral and aesthetic atrocity.

In a play that strives to uncover the most brutal aspects of both our political lives (the Holocaust) and personal ones (a poorly staged rape scene of questionable purpose), we’re asked to adopt the perspective of Jonathan Safran Foer the character and to see him as a sympathetic, put upon American, a soon-to-be significant artist who’s just trying to get to the truth of his past and the world’s.

But what we really have here is the classic ugly American, a brutal narcissist unable to see or gauge the world before him.

His complaints are self serving and exhaustive. There are “weird-looking people” on the train who take away from the enjoyment of his trip. He’s annoyed that he has to show his documentation to “every eastern European semi-official who ‘commands’” it. He flips out when he can’t get a properly prepared vegetarian meal: “I don’t like to touch meat”. And his stunning inability to understand what most people intuitively get, that when you leave your country things aren’t going to be the same.

Again, if this were satire, if we were meant to savage Jonathan Saran Foer instead of admire his burgeoning genius and his quest for the truth of his existence, this would be fine. But like his good-natured Ukrainian guide Alex learns fast, this is Jonathan Saran Foer’s story and you better not get in Jonathan Saran Foer’s way:

Jonathan: Don’t mean to be picky, but without me you wouldn’t be on this voyage because technically—as you pointed out just before—this is my voyage.

Well, all right, he’s a little overwhelmed with emotion and so is the whole play and production, that’s okay, he’s in the midst of “creating a myth” and a United States citizen at that.

So if we’re forgiving, we can overlook the whiny, brattish behavior that goes unquestioned over two-plus hours of “this-is-my-voyage” grandstanding, though we should ask why and to what end would we ever overlook such foolishness. It appears that the answer is the glorious novel-to-be that Jonathan Saran Foer is producing throughout the play and right before us.

As a free and fair audience, we should be somewhat skeptical of Jonathan Saran Foer’s gift when Jonathan Saran Foer writes like this:

From space, astronauts can see people making love as a tiny speck of light. Not light exactly, but a glow that could be mistaken for light. A coital radiance that takes generations to pour like honey through the darkness to the astronaut’s eyes.

I’ll leave every reader and audience member to judge the desperate preciousness of coupling “honey” and “astronaut’s eyes” as a symbolic expression of “coital radiance”—or “coital radiance” as a mirror image of starlight.

It says something about the corrupt ambition of the whole enterprise that that passage is read by Jonathan Saran Foer at a post-publication reading of Everything is Illuminated at the end of the play, where the character Jonathan Saran Foer preps us to swoon over the author Jonathan Saran Foer’s writing:

So, to, uh, to conclude, I would like to read—I would like to conclude this evening by, um, reading a—what seems to be a much requested passage. After which I will leave. Please. I am not the Rolling Stones. So once I’m gone I’m, uh, really gone.

I’m not sure what’s worse: the false humility, the cute boy intellectual stuttering, or his warning not to be disappointed, ‘cause he’s not coming back for a thousand encores like the Rolling Stones. I’ll let you decide along with Mick, Keith, Charlie, Ronnie, and the ghosts of the other Stones about how crass that is. We can all think about it while Jonathan Safran Foer is accepting the universe’s hearty and adoring applause.

One Last Thought and My Favorite BAD Moment

I glanced over the bulk of the reviews of Everything is Illuminated after writing this. The only thing I can say is what are these people thinking? It’s as if the mere mention of the Holocaust is enough to justify a work of art, or worse, is its justification. I guess the best that can be said is that lazy art engenders lazy criticism and that the Bay Area theater has too much of both. Let us at least not be a lazy audience.

My favorite bad moment is when one of JSF’s characters/ancestors criticizes his writing and we get this startling exchange:

Brod: It’s bad writing.

Jonathan: Or perhaps it’s art.

Right at that moment the actor who plays JSF looks up into the air, as if searching for divine guidance, and then starts furiously scribbling in his notebook. You can’t make this stuff up.

‘Every is Illuminated’ runs through December 16 at the Aurora Theater in Berkeley. For tickets and information click here.