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Jonathan Safran Foer: Extremely Young and Incredibly Talented

Sunday, May 8, 2005

There are winning ironies to Master Foer. He's boyish but wise, an optimist drawn to tragedy, a whiz-kid with scars. A mere 28, he has the world-weary eyes of an old soul. Asked whether writers should be careful about repeating themselves, he says, "No one would ask that of J.K. Rowling!" And indeed he looks like Harry Potter when he says it: round glasses, stick-up hair, a career that seems to have erupted overnight -- like magic.

But careers in books are seldom what they seem. His first novel, the wildly successful Everything Is Illuminated (2002), was rejected by five agents and sat in a drawer while he went to work, first as a receptionist, then as a ghostwriter for a journal on prostate health. The same manuscript, resubmitted to another set of agents two years later, was sold in a heated auction and published to ecstatic reviews. He was labeled a genius and credited with reinvigorating the American Novel. Francine Prose raved: "Not since Anthony Burgess . . . has the English language been simultaneously mauled and energized with such brilliance and brio." My own review in these pages began: "Imagine a novel as verbally cunning as Clockwork Orange , as harrowing as Painted Bird , as exuberant and twee as Candide , and you have . . . this remarkable debut by a native Washingtonian . . . a book that, despite its slenderness, straddles two centuries, rattles from here to the other side of the planet and back again, and manages to tell an old story in an original way, with equal doses of burlesque and heartbreak." Come September, it will be a movie.

Everything Is Illuminated got its start at Princeton, where Foer was an undergraduate in philosophy. In 1996, before his sophomore year, he set out for Ukraine with a faded photograph of the woman who had helped his grandmother escape the Holocaust. He didn't find her, but when he returned and signed on for a class with Joyce Carol Oates, she encouraged him to write about it.

Over the years, Oates took a strong interest in Foer. "I'm a fan of your writing," she said before class one day. And then later, in a letter: "You appear to have that most important of writerly qualities, energy." He wrote the novel little by little; she sent it back little by little, marked in red. By the time he graduated, he had a finished manuscript.

He was well into a second novel, about diarists in the '20s and '30s, when two planes demolished the Twin Towers. His book took a radical turn, and the result is Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close , the story of a boy and his struggle to understand the loss of his father. "I'm always wanting my imagination to fix things in life that otherwise can't be fixed," he says.

Today, Foer lives in Brooklyn but makes frequent trips to visit family in Washington. His father is a lawyer, his mother a public relations professional. His two brothers are also writers (Franklin writes about politics for the New Republic, Joshua writes freelance about science), which proves his point that this city is an ideal place for children who grow up to wield pens. He admits that after his long love affair with his neighborhood bookstore, returning to it as a bestselling author felt more than a little strange: He had applied to the store for a job every summer during high school, and every summer he was turned down.

Only last year, he married Nicole Krauss, whose novel The History of Love critics have noted for being incredibly close to Extremely Loud : Here too, a child sets out on the streets of New York, looking for truth and redemption. As our reviewer of History of Love said last month, "PhD candidates, start your engines!" In truth, PhD candidates can sit back and relax. The two were introduced to one another by their Dutch publisher, well after their books were written. Chalk it all up to magic.

-- Marie Arana

© 2005 The Washington Post Company