Everything is Illuminated
Jonathan Safran Foer
276 pages (trade paperback)
This was a Christmas gift from Shana, as we each decided to get the other a copy of one of our favorite books. (I got her Slaughterhouse Five, in case anyone's keeping track at home.) I haven't seen the movie, and was only vaguely interested in the novel, but if Shana recommended it I intended to read it, if only to better understand her.
And to tell you the truth, at first it seemed like exactly the kind of overly-clever first novel that I was afraid it'd be. It's the story of Alex, a Ukrainian twentysomething obsessed with out-of-date American pop culture, and, well, a character named Jonathan Safran Foer -- together they go on a trip to find Foer's roots in a Russian Jewish village that was destroyed when the Nazis invaded in 1941. The sound you hear is me groaning at the premise, as the fictional character goes on a very similar journey to that which the actual author had taken.
In other words, this book seemed to be the very precious quote, unquote "fictional retelling" of something personally important to the author. Which, for a firsttime novelist not yet out of his early twenties, just seemed like a pretentious waste of time -- perhaps valuable in the writing, but insular and self-reflexive in a way that would make it too abstruse for anyone else to really care about. Or, at least, for me to care about.
Add in the fact that the book's prose varies between Alex's Borat-like diction (can't really blame Foer, because he wrote the book well before the Borat phenomenon, but it grated for me at first nonetheless), Foer-as-character's magical realism in telling the history of the village, and letters from Alex to Jonathan after the events of the book criticizing the way Jonathan has chosen to write it, and it seems, on the surface at least, to be exactly that kind of masturbatory writing exercise that sets my teeth on edge.
The book grew on me. After the first couple of dozen pages, the stilted dialect Alex uses for his sections become less grating, and the historical sections in which Jonathan (the character) writes his family's history start to reveal traces of what Jonathan (the writer) is trying to tell us about Jonathan (the character). There are moments of real human comedy between Alex, Jonathan, and Alex's grandfather (did I mention that he was along for the ride?) that left me laughing at times and smiling almost always.
While the concept may seem somewhat self-indulgent, Foer uses his alter ego as largely a caricature of the Rich American, more often the butt of the joke than the more-colorful Ukrainians. And, as the book progresses, the comedy begins to fade away and the darker undertones of the story begin to emerge. There is real tragedy in the distant past of Foer's family, and even worse than that among his more recent ancestors. And it is revealed that Alex's family has its own share of demons in the closet....
A measure by which we can measure the value of the kinds of literary techniques Foer uses here is to try to see if they add to, or detract from, the overall story being told. Does the prose get in the way of the narrative and the emotional arc, or does it reveal subtleties that would be lost without it? And in this case, Alex's pidgin English leads to a minor minimalist masterpiece in an old story that the Grandfather tells, so similar in many ways to horrible stories we have heard before, but utterly unique in the way Foer leads up to it, then executes it flawlessly.
What at first seems to be a self-indulgent lark slowly becomes a novel of surprising power, and what starts out as a slapstick comedy becomes engorged in the very heart of darkness. While less ambitious than Pynchon's magnum opus, the ending of the book even recalls in some ways the denoument of Gravity's Rainbow, in its collapsing narrative and central wartime metaphor of explosions and sex.
Foer has learned from the masters, and while I don't think Everything is Illuminated places itself on the first rank, it is against all odds an extremely competent work that I found incredibly moving and meaningful. It could even have that epitaph of Billy Pilgrim as its motto: "Everything was Beautiful, and Nothing Hurt."