Everything Is Illuminated

Jonathan Safran Foer’s debut novel (published when he was only 25) is woven out of three narrative strands. The first is the story of Jonathan’s trip to the Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather’s life during the Holocaust. It is told by Alex, Jonathan’s Ukrainian tour guide, who speaks the kind of English you might speak if you had learned it entirely from a thesaurus. The second strand is made up of Jonathan’s fabricated and fantastical stories about his grandfather’s shtetl, Trachembrod, and the Jews who lived there centuries ago: how the village was named, the quarreling synagogues, the festivals, the stories of Jonathan’s ancestors, and the eternal questions of life and death. The third strand, connecting the two, is letters from Alex to Jonathan, commenting on Jonathan’s writing and asking advice on his own sections.

It took me a long time to warm up to this novel. I’ve read interviews with Foer, and he claims that you’re going to love or hate the book based on Alex’s voice, which I think is supposed to be funny. I didn’t hate it, but it didn’t work for me, either: I mostly found it inauthentic and irritating. Here’s a sample:

Father toils for a travel agency, denominated Heritage Touring. It is for Jewish people, like the hero, who have a craving to leave that ennobled country America and visit humble towns in Poland and Ukraine. Father’s agency scores a driver, guide, and translator for the Jews, who try to unearth places where their families once existed. OK, I had never met a Jewish person until the voyage. But this was their fault, not mine, as I had always been willing, and one might even write lukewarm, to meet one. I will be truthful again and mention that before the voyage I had been of the opinion that Jewish people were having shit between their brains. This is because all I knew of Jewish people was that they paid Father very much currency in order to make vacations from America to Ukraine. But then I met Jonathan Safran Foer, and I will tell you, he is not having shit between his brains. He is an ingenious Jew.

Real second-language speakers don’t make those sorts of mistakes. I don’t speak Russian or Ukrainian, but I would expect mistakes with tenses and syntax (he uses the pluperfect here, good Lord, and relative pronouns!), not the appearance of having been hit with a thesaurus going sixty-five miles an hour. This may seem idiotically nitpicky, but instead of being able to relax into the narrative, or even to read it critically, I kept wondering what on earth was going on with Alex’s speech patterns. It was like having something in my eye.

The sections about Trachimbrod were far better, at least for me. They had a sense of folklore about them, as stories about long-ago-and-far-away sometimes do: this is how this ritual came to be; this is why the synagogue shifted place; this story you will never hear anywhere but from me. Some of them verged on magical realism, like the story about the festival of Trachimday, when everyone in the village is engaged in such vigorous sex that it creates a glow, a spark that can be seen a generation later from space. The stories are sometimes rollicking and sometimes sad and sometimes both. Often they go on a bit too long, as if Foer was enjoying the sound of his own voice and wasn’t sure when to stop, but overall I enjoyed them.

Alex’s letters linking the two narratives might be the best part of the book. They are still in that vexing Johnny-Foreigner sort of English, but it is in these letters that Alex reveals his real personality, and shares more and more of himself with Jonathan. I warmed to him enough here that I could forget my irritation with the style and see what Foer was trying to do: the strands of the narrative came together, and ideas about lost identity, silence, family, and what it means to love came floating to the surface.

This book was published ten years ago, and I think it has probably suffered in that time. It feels postmodern-gimmicky: the author as a character, the style-shifts, the supposedly “irreverent” voice, the almost-but-not-quite magical realism, and what I might term multiculturalism for dummies — it’s been done, and it sags. But buried in the shifting stylistic  devices, there is some real writing and some real thought about the human condition. If you persevere, as I did, you might find it.

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19 Responses to Everything Is Illuminated

  1. jenn aka the picky girl says:

    I really enjoyed this book when I read it (shortly after it was published). And I must say, as someone who teaches ESL, I actually think the language is spot on. Students tend to learn higher-order words in vocab and use them until they are much more fluent and get used to the less formal words and structures.

    Anyway, all that aside, it worked for me. There are phrases from it I still remember all these 9 years later. Glad you stuck with it.

    • Jenny says:

      I know students do that — my own students in French often choose the wrong word from the dictionary when they are trying to expand their vocabulary. But it is far, far more common for them to make mistakes (anglicisms) in grammar and syntax. I know native Chinese speakers who speak otherwise perfect English who still mix up he/she/it, something that derives from Chinese. I only saw vocab mistakes here, something I think is inauthentic. It’s dumb to complain about it, I know. I doubt he was really trying to replicate ESL speech! And I’m so glad you liked the book. I wound up mostly liking it, too.

  2. A Little Blog of Books and Other Stuff says:

    I didn’t finish it… I agree about what you say about it being a bit postmodern-gimmicky like the author was trying to be a bit too clever for his own good!

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, but the farther I got into it, the less that mattered to me. It just took me a very long time to get past that. Toward the end, I enjoyed it more.

  3. christina says:

    I just recently picked up this book after reading (and enjoying) his second book. I **did** see this movie, however, when it first came out and liked it. Still, it’s not a priority for me to read.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, I’m not all that tempted by Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close now. But I did want to try at least one of his books and see what there was to see.

  4. Jeanne says:

    I also read it fairly soon after it came out and enjoyed it for the stories of the village. It was after the second one had come out, and I had already been a little irritated by that narrator. I spent most of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close trying to put the narrator in some kind of box–I wanted to label his autism or whatever it was. By the time I read Everything is Illuminated, I was able to enjoy more of the writing style despite who was telling the story.

    • Jenny says:

      I think the stories of the village were mostly great. I liked Brod as a character a lot, and the overall tone of sad/happy was good.

  5. Teresa says:

    I liked this book about as well as you did, I think, but I liked Extremely Loud etc. more. I think it’s because I read Extremely Loud first and the gimmicky stuff felt fresher.

    • Jenny says:

      That makes sense — and as I said, I think that reading this book ten years after its publication makes me see it as less original than it was to begin with. I see some of his narrative devices as tired when they weren’t then, so maybe that’s not fair. On the other hand, if he’d used them more skilfully, maybe I’d see the story and not the device.

  6. anokatony says:

    I perservered with ‘Everything is Illuminated’, but didn’t like it very much at all and have no interest in reading his follow-up. I believe he is married to novelist Nicole Krauss.

    • Jenny says:

      By “follow-up,” do you mean other novels by Foer, or is there some kind of sequel I don’t know about? And yes, he’s married to Nicole Krauss, whose books I am quite interested in reading.

      • anokatony says:

        I don’t think his follow up was a sequel, I’m just not interested in reading it. It didn’t quite generate the same amount of publicity.

  7. It took me a while to get into this book too. Like you, the ‘historic’ sections are what I enjoyed most. I ended up reading Extremely Loud with my book club after reading EIL, and found his style and voice even harder to get into…it wasn’t original any more, it was just annoying. They both, however, have made for good discussions. :)

    • Jenny says:

      I can see this sparking a good book group discussion! There were some very moving scenes, and a lot of ambiguity, some of which I liked.

  8. Erica says:

    I thought it was pretentious. Oddly, the movie was far better, much funnier, and more moving. I tried Nicole Krauss’ History of Love, and thought it had similar flaws but even more egregiously executed, and abandoned it about a third of the way through.

  9. Hmm…I’ve heard some good things about this one, but after that passage, I’m not so sure I want to read it. Great review, though!

    • Jenny says:

      Thanks — and if you didn’t like that passage, you definitely won’t like the book, as a good two-thirds of it is written in that voice. :)

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