Jonathan Safran Foer is a man with a mission: to secure the biggest P.O. box he can find. As he hurries along 37th Avenue in Jackson Heights, he points to his new mail drop. “I love this post office,” he says, vibrating with the kind of geeky excitement most 25-year-olds reserve for Jennifer Connelly Websites. The mailbox in the lobby of his nearby apartment building, he explains, isn’t large enough. “I sent myself a letter,” he says, opening the post-office door, “so I can see if it works.”
Ever since Dave Eggers elbowed Bridget Jones off the bedside table, the publishing industry can’t seem to get enough of twentysomething male authors with a taste for the post-ironic. This is especially true of Foer, the latest literary neophyte to be crowned with a $500,000 advance and a major marketing plan. Forty thousand copies of Everything Is Illuminated, the intensely inventive first novel he wrote when he was just 20, hit stores this week; next week he’s off on a 38-city book tour.
As it turns out, the supersize P.O. box is related to the tour: Foer doesn’t just want to collect fans – he wants pen pals. For the past two weeks, he has been stuffing 5,000 Ziploc bags with gold pencils and four-by-six preprinted cards to hand out at his readings. The idea, which he calls “the self-portrait project,” is that people will draw or write about themselves on the cards, then send them back to his new mailbox to keep the dialogue going. “I stuffed 600 the other night,” he says proudly. “Nicole doesn’t know it yet” – Nicole Aragi is his powerhouse literary agent – “but she’s going to be doing some, too.”
Everything is Illuminated is about the Holocaust’s effect on survivors and their families. It’s told in three interlocking narratives, including one about someone named Jonathan Safran Foer who travels to Ukraine in search of the young woman he believes saved his grandfather from the Nazis (true). There’s also the story of Alex, Foer’s Ukrainian translator (not true), who speaks in a comic broken English, à la Steve Martin’s Wild and Crazy Guys. The third thread is a magical-realist history of Trachimbrod (true in name only), the town where Foer’s grandfather is from. As his Princeton thesis adviser, Joyce Carol Oates, explains, “Jonathan’s a natural surrealist. The solemnity is not the main point. There’s an exuberance that’s almost farcical at times.”
His inner Chagall, however, is well masked. The phrase nice Jewish boy seems to have been invented to describe Foer. He even admits to calling his grandmother every Sunday and keeping in close touch with his two brothers and his Washington-based parents, a public-relations executive and an antitrust researcher. “My parents are creative in the way I most admire,” he says, “which has nothing to do with the outside world. It has everything to do with what they think is fun.”
Foer’s own idea of fun is bombarding people with mail. “It started pre–bar mitzvah, that’s the Mendoza line in my life,” he says. “When I was 11, I’d send things to girls at sleep-away camp. Once, I sent a letter to the lead singer of Pavement,” he says. “I used to sleep with a picture of the 1984 Olympic gymnastics team under my pillow.” His current project is writing to famous authors asking them for the next piece of paper they’d be writing their work on. “You can get anybody’s address if you really want to,” he notes. There is graph paper (Paul Auster), accounting paper (Helen DeWitt), stationery (Susan Sontag), even scrap paper folded in half (Joyce Carol Oates). Each piece is carefully framed and now hangs in his living room. “It’s the kind of idea that gets better the more there are because they start speaking to one another. I started thinking about myself being somebody who has many, many more blank pages ahead of him than written pages behind him.”
Actually, not all of the pages ahead of him are blank. Book No. 2 features a museum devoted to an American writer from the thirties whose celebrated diaries are overshadowed by another famous World War II memoirist. “Basically, Anne Frank runs this guy out of town,” says Foer. “That’s the story.” Instead of spending his advance on a beach vacation, he’s been hauling his laptop to the public library every morning to make sure he completes it before the onset of his mammoth tour: “If I write another book and another book after that and another book, then everything will be okay. That’s what I worry about.”
Foer has a special brand of eccentricity. Eschewing the New York literary circuit, he rejected the offer of a launch party. He prefers instead to spend hours in intense literary discussion, often with his framers. When they first worked on the blank-paper project, they laughed at him; now they read the authors’ books and make their own suggestions. Foer has also added high-school visits to his tour itinerary in each city. “That way the kids see they could write a book, too.”
At Princeton, he came up with the idea for an anthology inspired by the collage artist Joseph Cornell, called A Convergence of Birds. With neither agent nor contract, Foer put together a contributors’ list that read like the guest book at a George Plimpton party, purely on the strength of his own creative solicitations: Charles Simic’s was typed on an old player-piano scroll; Rick Moody’s was printed on a transparency Foer laid over a photograph of a deer in a forest. “It’s amazing the shit you can put in your printer,” he remarks.
But Foer’s aggressive imagination is not confined to the page. The artist Sam Messer hung one of Foer’s portraits in a show he curated. Friends who ask him to sign their copies of Everything often have them returned with the first few pages cut into the shape of his hand or bolted shut with a screw. When he thinks of something else he’d like to add, he asks for them back.
Conscious of sounding pretentious, foer says he’s only just becoming comfortable with the title writer: “It made me giggle. Even the word novel was so funny.” Determined not to go the “pre-professional route” of grad school, he was working as a receptionist at a P.R. firm when at 23 he decided to send Everything Is Illuminated to Aragi at the suggestion of a friend, the writer Dale Peck.
“I started to read it at my desk,” Aragi recalls. “And then I moved to my sofa and then to my bed, knowing within a handful of pages that I was going to be calling him.”
She submitted the book to fifteen houses. “It was very clear how fertile his imagination was,” says Eric Chinski, who eventually bought the book at Houghton Mifflin. “You can tell this is not the one book he’s going to write.” When Foer arrived at the offices, his age was the subject of conversation. “People who read the book remarked on how uncanny the wisdom is,” says Chinski. “I figured it was written by some brilliant, scatological 75-year-old man,” says the actor Liev Schreiber, who optioned the film rights. “We have a very similar sense of humor. We’re both degenerate in the same way.”
As on most Sunday mornings, Foer is heading for the indoor Chelsea flea market. This is where he gets the materials for his letter creations, sometimes accompanied by Aragi. He is scanning a table of antique toys when a young blonde, out with her father, shouts his name and embraces him. It’s one of the editors who bid on his book and lost. “Are we going to hang out?” she wants to know. “Sure,” he says, puzzled. “What’s the book about?” her father asks. “You’ll like it, Dad,” she says. “It has a shtetl in it.”
Foer never intended to write a Jewish novel. “I was talking to a friend on the phone the other day,” he says. “I think of myself as one of the least Jewish people I’ve ever met, unobservant. But very shortly, a lot of people are going to think I’m very Jewish.”
In one case, at least, his Jewish identity is a bonus: Once a year, the Jewish Book Council dispatches authors on a lucrative tour of book fairs during Jewish Book Month in November. “Jonathan is the next Philip Roth,” says Carolyn Starman Hessel, the council’s executive director, who selected him.
After investigating some more flea-market tchotchkes, the next Philip Roth stops in front of a scientific chart of axons and neurons posted high on the wall. At the top, it reads nervous tissue. “Is there any other kind?” he deadpans. For a moment, he considers buying it, then changes his mind. “I don’t think so,” he says, heading for another table. “The problem with that is that all the coolness is revealed immediately.”