Okay, so I’m here to sell you the notion of ‘fall down funny’. I know you’ve heard it. Referring to what, movies? Jokes? That’s usually about what I hear it. And I think the reason for that is because
INGREDIENTS FOR THE INDUCTION OF HOWLING LAUGHTER:
But, actually...they’re all right. Every one of them. Even the ultra-gushy blurbs are handily lived up to in this case. Maybe that’s just me: my first reaction to ultra-gushy blurbs is to read the book, scouring for counter evidence. And I did the exact same thing with this book.
The narratives, just to give you some sense: the first is a first person narrative of the Ukranian kid named Alex, and his adventures with this guy Jonathan Safran Foer (it is not autobiographical here, he’s denounced it over and over). Foer is coming to the Ukraine to find out about the whole grandfather thing and so has set himself up with Alex’s father’s travel agency. The second narrative is Foer’s (very funny in its own, over the top/ironic/absurd tone and subject matter) family history, starting in the 1600’s. While a whole book of this story would by itself more than likely be praised for good style and general subject hilarity, it actually (and I realize this is hard to swallow, but trust me) is third place in the Funny Finals of this book. The third narrative is a correspondence from Alex to the character Jonathan Safran Foer.
Your doubts (if you have any) pretty much fizzle right out by the time you’ve finished reading the first section, your guts aching from heaving laughter, your face sore from laughter, maybe a few Kleenexes worth of laughter-induced tears at your side. Alex’s failure with English is the big Scream, here, but the secondary and tertiary Screams—in order, his sense of himself and his relationship with his family—are loaded with nearly as much hilarity.
But there’s this darkness, too. On the jacket you can read Joyce Carol Oates say beautiful things and then end her blurb with the statement that Foer will break your heart. Hmm. Hard to see that when you’re reading about this young Ukranian Alex talking about disseminating much currency and enjoying carnal escapades with (seemingly) most of the women in his demographic.
Slowly, though, as you wind your way into the story, you begin to see what’s happening here: for every breath of laughter you let out, you’re going to pay for it with an ounce of sadness on your heart. The big overall story is about redemption and goodness, and how they’re alarm clocks that, once the power goes out, never really get reset. But Foer, despite the pretty scatological nature of the story for the majority of it, is agonizingly sneaky, so that before you know it, these people you’ve fallen in love with by enjoying them so much, are very seriously hurting, are very much in need of love and tenderness and forgiveness.
And it will rack you, the sadness. The genius of the whole novel is that Foer, instead of telling you anything about these people, simply shows you them, shows them as they screw things up and make asses of themselves and everything. At no point are you confused about how human they all are—the answer, right from the start, is totally, and deeply. So when they falter, when their pain surfaces like the roughness of wood in humidity, they’ve no chance to hide behind being ultra or super anything. You have no choice to hide behind being an observer: you were involved as soon as you laughed. All of which is a tremendous, beautiful, good thing. Start laughing, start reading.
- Weston Cutter