Posted by: Sara Jean | July 24, 2010

Book Review: Everything is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer

I initially picked up this book because the graphic image on the cover was intriguing.

Cool, right?

I didn’t actually buy it, however, until a few years later, when Paste Magazine named it the best book of the decade. I hadn’t read a good novel in a while, and I remembered the distinctive cover, so I decided to purchase it.

Everything is Illuminated is not exactly a straightforward narrative. It begins with the voice of Alex, a Ukrainian man with a knack for producing colorful English, introducing the story of “the hero,” who happens to be named Jonathan Safran Foer. We learn from Alex that Jonathan is searching for clues to his past–a grandfather who escaped death at the hands of the nazis, a mysterious photograph, a village not found on any maps–and that Alex has been employed to help him. Also on the journey are Alex’s blind (but not really blind) grandfather and a “mentally deranged” dog called Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior, who is in turn usually gassy or amorous.

What follows is a rotating narrative, told in part by Alex and in part by an unknown storyteller, who we presume is Jonathan, recounting the history of a Ukrainian village from its humble beginnings to the invasion of the nazis during World War II to present day. As the story unfolds, the reader discovers how, exactly, these characters all fit together. The mysteries are solved–sort of–and the curtain lifts to reveal a wonderful, terrible truth about families, history, and the meaning of time.

Foer has a gift with language. Despite its rather somber subject matter, the book manages to be quite funny. It’s grounded in an exaggerated reality. The only thing about the historical passages that seems inspired by truth are those set during World War II (and what a gut-wrenching truth it is). I confess I don’t know much about Jewish Shtetls in the eighteenth century, but this one is described in somewhat supernatural terms. It does make for an entertaining read.

Alex, who reminds me just a little bit of Borat, lacks a basic grasp of the English language, which makes for some delightfully colorful sentences. For example, this is how he introduces himself:

My legal name is Alexander Perchov. But all of my many friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name. Mother dubs me Alexi-stop-spleening-me!, because I am always spleening her. If you want to know why I am always spleening her, it is because I am always elsewhere with friends, and disseminating so much currency, and performing so many things that can spleen a mother….If you want to know why so many girls want to be with me, it is because I am a very premium person to be with.

This character’s chapters are the best thing about the book. He starts by defining himself as a modern-day Lothario. As he progresses through the story, though, he loses both the macho facade and, sadly, most of the idiomatic misfires that make his voice so endearing. But he also understands himself and his family better, and through this cathartic realization of his past, he can move on with his life. In contrast, we don’t ever learn much about what happens to Jonathan. (I guess he got his book published!)

My only complaint is that it occasionally veers into the too-clever-for-its-own-good category. I tend to prefer more straightforward writing. Sometimes writers fall into the trap of trying too hard to write something that sounds meaningful, without actually thinking about whether or not it means anything. Then again, maybe that’s just me.

I would still recommend this book, though. It’s funny, clever, and at times very moving. It’s nice to see a writer really play with the language and do something new with it.

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