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Book review: <i>Everything Is Illuminated</i> by Jonathan Safran Foer

If this was made into a film starring Elijah Wood, it probably wouldn’t work very well, because it’s far too good a book. Oh wait, whoops.


Hand-painted black and white text. Inverts physically and chromatically on the back cover. Eye-catching, as pure black and white usually is, but not especially attractive or relevant. Plus I kept opening the book upside down.

The plot

A young Jewish writer, ostensibly the author, travels to the Ukraine on a mission to track down the woman who saved his Grandfather from the Nazis. He is greeted by one Alex Prochnov, the young man who will be his guide and translator of the area. Inescapably in tow are Alex’s crochety Grandpa and his crazy oversexed “guide” dog Sammy Davis Junior Junior. The story progresses from two points of view: 1) Alex narrates the journey of the young men searching back through time for traces of Safran’s family’s saviour, who may or may not still live; and 2) in third-person omniscient we are told the story of the shtetl (small Jewish town) where the author’s relatives lived, as, in the eighteenth century, their village is named and his orphaned great great great great great grandmother adopted, as this second thread of story progresses forward through time toward collision with our present-day heroes.

The good

Excellently conceived and executed with style to spare. The dual narrative threads allow Foer a myriad of opportunities for comedy and contrast even before they begin to intertwine—Alex critiquing the shtetl chapters in the epistolary prefixes to his own is very clever indeed, and only one of many devices Foer employs throughout the story to humanise history and make the foreign familiar by drawing lines of commonality through us all. He is, for instance, quite laissez faire with period minutiae, certainly when it has no bearing on the story (Alex touches on this in another ‘letter’ to Foer), but the fact is that, to draw a fairly wobbly line myself, an approach to history like Monty Python’s Life of Brian, emphasising colour, humour and atavism over dusty trifles of speech, has a vitality and also a truth which is too often lacking from such material. It also helps explain why somebody thought the history of an eighteenth-century Jewish village would make a fun movie.

Discussing its clever structure and humour do not do the book justice, however. Foer is much more ambitious than that. Both sides of his story carry a separate thematic weight, yet also form parts of a whole. I’m not a deep enough thinker to respond to it all, to be honest, but there is a definite sense of absence at the heart of both stories. In the present half, it is a sense of identity and history that both the “author” and Alex lack, and which draws them both back into the past. In the shtetl sections, however, the absence is much less tangible. These people have identity to spare—Foer speaks of their ancestral memories as a seventh sense, in that each person carries so great a sense of what preceded them that they can look at an apple and ask after “how does it taste?”, “how does it remember?”. The absence in this story lies within every person alive—Foer seems to be saying that we exist in void, and thus the void is part of us, as much as air or water, yet we delude ourselves by attributing solidity to our perceptions, such as time, and emotions, such as love.

For much of the book, Alex seems tangential to the plot, beyond narrating half of it, but is, of course, far more important than he initially seems. He makes a fine brush with which the author can paint himself, for one thing—I must admit to finding skillful self-portraiture just as interesting on the page as on the canvas, and that includes caricature and cartoonery. But really, I loved him because he’s hilarious. Through Alex’s post-adolescent mind, full of Jay-Z confidence and Cocktail-era Western archetypes, Foer dances a waltz with our personal East European (or West Russian) stereotypes, somehow holding onto the pathos and hilarious bluntness of Borat while casting off the borderline racism and gratuity Ukranians or the literary may disagree but I thought Alex was the best part of the story—although it feels realistic, I was disappointed as his tongue grows less loose while the tale progresses.

The bad

I’ve got to admit—I didn’t keep up with all of this, particularly the ending. The chronological juggling can be a tad confusing, but that doesn’t bother me (Foer is conscious of it, for one thing). However, as the main plots threads bind together, I found it getting knotty. I mean, I got the gist of it at the time, and there are linking scenes of undeniable power, but thinking about it now I couldn’t tell you exactly who was engaged to who, betrayed who, etc. This is 90% my own fault, sure, but during the extended post-climax chapters I did feel that Foer was abandoning the beautiful clarity of something like the Life of Pi in favour of narrative machinations.

At first it seems astonishing that this is a debut novel, but inevitably there are a couple of tiny things which hint toward it—the pacing is a little uneven, especially toward the end where the author’s confidence fluctuates slightly while delivering the climax and epilogue. Foer can write his arse off, this is undeniable, but perhaps more experience will confer a greater ability to look at his own writing through the readers’ eyes. It’s a bit unfair, but Foer’s style is so consistently prodigious that it’s partly to blame, by making it difficult for us to know exactly when to pay attention, for instance, or scaling small peaks to lead us up to that perfect vista.

I can completely understand the laudatory response this book received. It’s literate, earthy, poignant, funny and has a highly creditable stab at presenting the strata of human history in a brand new way. It doesn’t get a perfect score from me, but that’s a personal thing, I assure you.

What I learnt

What “Shtetl” means. That people in black and white photos really aren’t that different to me. Not really.

In short

Title: Everything Is Illuminated
Author: Jonathan Safran Foer
Publisher: Penguin Books
ISBN: 0141008253
Year published: 2003
Pages: 288
Genre(s): Fiction, Contemporary literature

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here.

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