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.


Amy Sorensen said...

I LOVE this book. Alexi's vocabulary...it makes me giggle just remembering it. It definitely is a very pomo novel, though. You're right: hard to write about! (I just looked up my book note about it, and I discovered that I really didn't say anything about the book, even though I loved it so much. Maybe because I loved it so much.) One warning: skip the movie. Trust me!

Becky K said...

I loved this book too; maybe I had to, since I read your other commenter's copy. ;)

I think that you got to the heart of it with this review. I kind of remember thinking that the book was about truth, but not in the usual sense. It's more of what we accept as truth, rather than the actual veracity of the truth. It doesn't seem like the stories of the woman who he thinks was Augustina matched up with his grandfather's story, but do any two people's versions of a story ever really match up? That is kind of what I'm driving at. Both have truth, but come to different conclusions. But I might not remember the book correctly, so I should probably stop before I make myself look stupid. :)

I do remember I read this book close to the time when I read History of Love. They remind me of each other in a lot of ways.

Tandy said...

I started this the other night and finished it this morning. I am not so sure that I was able to keep all of the characters straight. In the beginning I was a little lost. I had to re-read the first couple chapters. It was fun to read and I found myself laughing out loud in spite of myself.

I also was very touched by the really emotional telling of the Nazi's coming to Trachimbrod (did I even spell that right?). I wasn't totally expecting it and it really moved me. It is the third book that I've read in the last week that involved some WWII history. First was the Zookeeper's Wife, then Suite Francaise, then Everything is Illuminated. I am ready for a light and fun summer read...any suggestions?

Amy said...

Okay, I just finished & loved his other book - Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. So I was wondering about this one. I'm a huge found of quirky so I'll probably try this one out, too.