“Everything is illuminated!” I triumphantly exclaim as I embrace my rosy future, filled with laughter and butterflies and Chili’s. Or so I wish. In lieu of this ambitious epiphany, I read Everything Is Illuminated* by Jonathan Safran Foer.
The novel is a little less clear than its title implies. There are two main characters: Alex and “the hero”, who happens to be the author himself. The book flows between three narratives involving said characters:
- Alex talks about his voyage to Trachimbrod—a Jewish village in Poland that was destroyed during the Holocaust. “The hero” commissions Alex’s family to guide him through the area in search of a woman who helped his grandfather during the war.
- “The hero” gives a fictionalized account of Trachimbrod’s history, imagining the detailed lives of his lineage.
- Alex writes letters to “the hero”, giving feedback on his writing.
Part of the reason I review books is so that readers know what to expect in a general sense. I don’t want to give away plot points, but I do think it’s helpful to hear about an author’s voice in order to determine if that voice seems appealing to you. When Alex speaks, I listen. He’s an honest and captivating young man, and we proudly watch him grow into himself. Furthermore, he’s both intentionally and unintentionally hilarious. He’s Ukrainian, and his command of the English language is comically poor. He says, “You clutch how rigid it was” when he means, “You grasp how hard it was” (Foer, 23). He quips, “Enough of my miniature talking” when he means what everyone wants to say at the office—“screw the small talk” (Foer, 53). You get the idea. The clashing of culture leads to miscommunication, which leads to misunderstanding, which leads to quirky mishaps and intriguing vulnerability.
When “the hero” speaks, I’m a little less compelled. His passages are more poetic, and he's capable of painting a beautifully poignant picture. But they’re less consistent, and sometimes they’re downright confusing. Weaving in and out of so many storylines can be effective—it keeps us guessing and maintains our attention. It can also be annoying—I want to see some things to completion, and I don’t appreciate the interruption. Foer creates brooding characters, but sometimes their significance is lost amidst a busy backdrop with so many moving parts.
My impression is that this novel takes the good portions of some of my favorite books and patches them together. But the final quilt doesn’t sit right with me. Foer’s lyrical interludes compare to that of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. The balance of comedy and tragedy strikes a pathos chord similar to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Alex explores how sometimes writing non-truths actually more effectively gets at the truth, much like Tim O’Brien’s reasoning in The Things They Carried. Foer gives elaborate, omniscient recounts on his ancestral history, as the narrator in Middlesex does. Individually, these devices are brilliant at driving a story. All together, they overwhelm me.
I can tell that “the hero” is talented, even if this novel didn’t live up to the hype of Foer fandom. I’m amazed that it is as good as it is considering he was 25 when it was published. I’m 25, and if I wrote a novel, it would be about how much I love my dachshunds, not the physical and emotional voyage of reconciling my current life with historical events. Foer is a force to be reckoned with, and I intend to read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. However, standing alone, Everything is Illuminated gets 3 out of 5 camel humps.
*Foer, Jonathan Safran. Everything Is Illuminated. New York: Harper Perennial, 2002. Print.