AN ANECDOTE FROM READING EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED, BY JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER
"While I was reading the 'A Parade, A Death, A Proposition' chapter of Everything is Illuminated, I noticed something. Two flies were sitting on my left thumb, which was resting on the bottom of page 98, a page which begins to describe the first landing on the moon by astronauts in 1969. One of the flies was mounting the other: its forelegs rested on the other's back, its wings were prone, and it stood motionless, clearly focused on the activity at hand. I did not move my thumb, nor did I look excessively closely at the flies, in part out of respect for their privacy, in part for fear of disturbing them and disrupting the event that was being created before my eyes."
By Arne Christensen
COPYRIGHT © 2002, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
I bought Everything is Illuminated, a novel written by Jonathan Safran Foer, a week ago. That purchase was prompted mainly by Mr. Foer's visit the next day to a Jewish bookstore here in Seattle. I went to that event, which was surprisingly intimate, pleasant, and informative, largely because the crowd consisted of under a dozen people due to a late schedule change for the event. But, Foer's appearance is not part of this story, so I will pass over mentioning further details of that event.
I'd previously read fragments of the excerpts from that novel Foer had published in the summer 2001 New Yorker "Debut Fiction" issue. Those fragments, combined with my positive impression of him and the general buzz that has accompanied this book's release, inspired me to start reading Foer's book. Less than a week after my purchase, my reading had taken me through roughly a third of his book, to about page 90. On the day in which this anecdote took place, I'd spent the last few hours inside, alternating between reading bits of Foer's book, checking email, doing some writing and research, and simply browsing the Internet while listening to music.
One can only do such things for so long, though, without doing something else. So, with it being a mild, slightly warm-with a temperature around 63 degrees-May afternoon, which came as some relief after the coldest winter and early spring I'd experienced in Seattle these past few years, I decided to set foot outside. A small park and playground in the north part of the city, with views of downtown, Mt. Rainier, and the Space Needle, seemed the best place to get some exercise and some sunshine, and make further progress in my reading of the novel. So I proceeded to sit down on a small bench and begin reading it. A most peculiar thing happened to me shortly thereafter. It is a thing which I will now relate, as it seems to be something people might wish to read.
While I was reading the "A Parade, A Death, A Proposition" chapter of Everything is Illuminated, I noticed something. Two flies were sitting on my left thumb, which was resting on the bottom of page 98, a page which begins to describe the first landing on the moon by astronauts in 1969. One of the flies was mounting the other: its forelegs rested on the other's back, its wings were prone, and it stood motionless, clearly focused on the activity at hand. I did not move my thumb, nor did I look excessively closely at the flies, in part out of respect for their privacy, in part for fear of disturbing them and disrupting the event that was being created before my eyes. I could not, though, continue reading the book, so I was somewhat at a loss for precisely what to do, other than look at the flies, and wonder how long they would remain on my thumb.
The two flies remained in their copulating position for what seemed to be roughly one minute, until the wind blew the pages of the book, my thumb moved in reaction to that wind, and the mounting fly flew onto the back of my hand. After perhaps ten seconds, that fly departed, followed by the fly that had been mounted. I did not see them again, and I suppose they will not mate with each other again.
Coincidentally, the "A Parade, A Death, A Proposition" chapter describes, on pages 95 and 96, the copulating en masse that takes place in Trachimbrod the night after a parade on the spring day, known as Trachimday, celebrating the man, Trachim B, for whom the shtetl was named in 1791. Foer describes the physical result of that copulation: "From space, astronauts can see people making love as a tiny speck of light. Not light, exactly, but a glow that could be mistaken for light-a coital radiance that takes generations to pour like honey through the darkness to the astronaut's eyes….The glow is born from the sum of thousands of loves."
Foer says that on certain days, in certain places-"New York City on Valentine's Day, or Dublin on St. Patrick's"-you can (if you are in space) see that glow burning with particular intensity. Trachimday, meanwhile, is the only day when the copulating people of Trachimbrod generate so much light that Trachimbrod can be seen from space. That is the day "when enough copulative voltage is generated to sex the Polish-Ukrainian skies electric." This chapter takes place almost entirely on the Trachimday of 1804: Foer writes, " 'We're here,' the glow of 1804 will say in one and a half centuries. 'We're here, and we're alive.' "
It is in the context of that description that Foer describes, on page 99, in the closing section of the chapter, a family gathering around the television to watch the first landing on the moon. In the closing sentence of the chapter, an astronaut (probably Neil Armstrong) on the moon says, " 'I see something,' while gazing over the lunar horizon at the tiny village of Trachimbrod. 'There's definitely something out there.' "
I do not know if other people have had similar experiences while reading this chapter, or if others will report similar experiences in the future. I do not know if those flies, unaware of the cosmic coincidence they were creating, merely happened to view my thumb as an ideal place for mating on a warm spring day, or if some larger, more artistically creative force was at work. I am not, after all, privy to the rational for their decisions, if they can be said to make decisions, nor am I privy to knowledge of the metaphysical powers that might have arranged for this coincidence to happen. In any case, I did not see a glow emanate from the genitals of the flies-but then, Foer says only humans can produce that glow, and it can only be seen from outer space.