In the 1970s and 80s, Philip Roth wrote a handful of novels that tried to make sense of American Jews whose existence in the United States pre-dates the Holocaust. Specifically I mean Jews who were in the US during WWII and the Holocaust, and had to reckon with it from afar. All Jews have a shared history of persecution, including in the US, at some point, but for Europeans Jews living in Europe in the 20s and 30s, the rise of Fascism and Nazism in specific brought a fresh horror to their world. In Russian, Poland, and Ukraine (where this novel takes place) for example, the various pogroms act as punctuation to the history of violence against Jews, but mostly only tell the story of the most specifically violent moments, as opposed to the everyday violence and oppression. Jonathan Safran Foer looks to follow this same looking to Europe for answers like Roth does, but for this novel, it’s not looking from afar necessarily but looking into the pasts of grandparents and great-grandparents. So while Roth spoke toward a Jewish experience in the United States, several generations older, for this novel, we get the more immediate experience Holocaust survivors and their immigration stories after.
This novel is split between two narratives, two narrators, and essentially two novels. Alex is a Ukrainian contemporary of Jonathan Safran Foer (well, here it gets complicated — JSF is a character in this novel, while also being a novelist. JSF the character is also the author of the other novel contained in this novel), who the character Jonathan Safran Foer has hired to show him around Ukraine, in search of the shtetl that his family was taken from when they were placed in concentration camps. Alex is not Jewish, but his family makes a large portion of their money arranging such trips. Alex likes disco, sex (though whether he’s ever had it is a little question), music, his little brother, and writing to Jonathan Safran Foer. His narrative is written in colloquial English, which reads like ELL direct translated English, as opposed to idiomatic US and UK English. Alex knows all the words, but he doesn’t know how to say exactly what he means in a way that he can be understood by English speakers. It leads to some funny moments and some cringey moments. It oddly mostly doesn’t wear thin by the end.
The other book here is a magical realist personal history/historical novel ala Isaac Bashevis Singer as the character Jonathan Safran Foer is writing the lost history of his ancestors in Ukraine before they were lost to the Holocaust or came to the United States. This narrative is infused with magical realism, bodily fluids, and folk humor.
The book overall is wildly inventive, and almost entirely sophomoric. It’s stellar at times, and annoyingly frustrating at others. If this were 2001, I’d say it shows great promise, but Jonathan Safran Foer is in his 40s now, so you’d have to judge his actual output now.