We turn to the anti-Bush campaign, which is where Safron Foer is now actively involved. The night before this interview, he took part in a reading to bring attention to the upcoming election. The event, labelled “State of emergency: Unconventional readings” included writers like Paul Auster, Don DeLillo, and Salman Rushdie. It was organised by the American branch of the writer's group PEN. His main involvement has been with a group called Downtown for Democracy; culture professionals who canvass for regime change in the US, and support candidates who will fight for “individual liberty, social justice and participatory democracy”. Their main aim is voter mobilisation, especially in key swing states – to make sure people get out and vote – “for Kerry”.
Safron Foer is “deeply concerned” about what is happening to American culture, and believes the current administration is a threat to the freedom of speech and to civil liberties. “ They know what books people buy, what you take out of the library. Books from certain countries cannot get translated. There is something deeper going on here, a shift in the culture away from the values of decency and of freedom of expression, away from the idea that the more voices that exist the better to the opposite: one unified voice only.”
“People should be worried. The Government wields far too much power with way to few constraints. They have a completely different way of thinking about culture.”
In spite of his apprehensiveness about the direction America is moving in, he believes it is “totally reversible, we just have to work to reverse it” and that if Kerry wins things will change. “I am convinced that if Kerry wins, we will return to something like we had four years ago. I do not think there was anything like the current level of anti-Americanism while Clinton was in power.”
It all seems reasonable; here is a Democrat who believes a change of government will make a big difference. An American Jew that is concerned about what is happening in Israel. Surely there is nothing confusing in that? Yet, I find myself thinking that it seems far too simplistic – coming from a man who in his writing works so hard to reflect the complexities of the world around us. What he says about the threat to civil liberties and democracy is what you would expect from someone who has written a book such as “Everything is illuminated”. The idea that the problem be so easily resolved however is not.
Maybe for a more satisfactory answer I have to look to his next book. Foer has just completed another novel, which will be out in April. He is reluctant to talk about it and will say only a “very, very little bit: It is about a kid who lives in New York, his father was killed in the September 11 attacks, but the book is not really about that, but about this kid and his family and his adventures in New York” And is there a Jonathan Safron Foer in this book? “No, there is not”.
So this time he has not travelled quite so far for inspiration. A book about September 11 (even if “the book is not really about that), about today's America, from a novelist like Jonathan Safron Foer is a fascinating prospect. Perhaps the unguarded novelist can find words that will reveal the true, complex human response to the tragedy better than the flag-waving, blinkered one currently in vogue. Unfortunately we have to wait until April 2005 to see.