Tuesday, June 3, 2008
Everything Is Illuminated
This book is hard to piece together. It's even harder to write about.
If Everything Is Illuminated had to be categorized onto one shelf, I'd assign it a spot alongside other books about the holocaust. Or maybe about love. No, it's about friendship. Scratch that...it's really about loneliness.
Whatever it actually is about, Jonathan Safran Foer seems to be too odd of a man, and definitely too odd of an author, to define the book or narrow its focus. The minute the reader does, Foer changes the tempo and direction of the book. Sometimes, the stories of cruelty are cover-your-eyes horrible. Sometimes, the situations are uncomfortably obscene. Sometimes, the story and characters are folklorist-y bizarre. Sometimes, it's modern-age hilarious. A lot of the time, it's furrow-your-brow confusing. Everything definitely did not get illuminated for me.
With broad, sweeping strokes, I'll attempt to give a basic summary of the book. A young 20 year-old Jewish man, whose name also happens to be Jonathan Safran Foer, travels to the Ukraine in an attempt to track down a woman in a photograph named Augustine, who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. To help him, he hires a tour guide/translator named Alex, whose English appears to have been mostly learned directly from a thesaurus. The nouns and verbs he chooses are almost always slightly off, but kind of, sort of close, and the reader is forced to translate almost all of Alex's narrative into actual English. Part of the book is written as letters from Alex to Jonathan as explanations for his translations and editions. Some of it is what the character Jonathan Safran Foer writes as his novel (after his return from his trip) and some of it is narrative of the actual trip, given by Alex. When the parts are put together as a whole novel, the reader is forced to be quite patient and thorough to finish the book actually understanding all of what happened, and even more willing to be content with its loose ends that will never be tied.
While Alex's broken English can certainly be funny, it slows down the pace of the novel (because it's impossible to read it fast) too much. Thankfully, his conversational skills do improve and his letters to Jonathan towards the end are much more accessible. Additionally, because both Alex and Jonathan are young and male, there is quite a bit of sexual humor that turns out to be quite harmless, and even slightly endearing, but still makes the overall effect a bit R-rated.
There are so many characters to keep track of and I'm not exactly certain if I figured out who was who and if they mattered. Ultimately, I think most didn't matter because, again, I think the take-home message is meant to be about the horrors of the holocaust and how good people can do bad things. If not, then I missed a whole lot.
If you do attempt this book, read it patiently. It might help to read it as part of a group effort. Then, perhaps if you're able to talk it through and everyone brings their own understanding into a collective whole, everything about this novel might actually BECOME illuminated.