Sunday, May 20, 2012

Book review: Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

Plot summaries are the most boring part of writing these reviews, so is it okay if I cheat a little and just ask Wikipedia? Please guys? (Just say yes…)

“Jonathan Safran Foer, a young American Jew, journeys to Ukraine in search of Augustine, the woman who saved his grandfather’s life during the Nazi liquidation of Trachimbrod, his family shtetl… Jonathan begins his adventure with Ukrainian native and soon-to-be good friend, Alexander “Alex” Perchov, who is Foer’s age and very fond of American pop culture, albeit culture that is already out of date in the United States. Alex studied English at his university, and even though his knowledge of the language is not “first-rate”, he becomes the translator. Alex’s “blind” grandfather and his “deranged seeing-eye bitch,” Sammy Davis, Jr., Jr., accompany them on their journey. Throughout the book, the meaning of love is deeply examined.”

Okay, thanks for letting me do that. Anyway, the first thing I want to get out of the way is that yes, JSF’s writing is pretty damn precious. Half of the novel is written from Alex’s point of view, and his broken English is utilized as a main motif to comedic effect: “seeing-eye bitch,” “masticated her tail,” “It was very rigid to understand,” etc. It worked, and it was funny, but these sections at times come across not so much as a means to further the story, as they are a humorous academic exercise in thesaurus abuse. By which I mean: literary dick-measuring. Even considering this bit of pretentiousness, though, these sections are pretty funny — both for the language gymnastics and for some of Alex’s editorialized translations to the American tourist.

The other parts of the story, interwoven in parallel, are meant to be excerpts from the Jonathan Safran Foer character’s novel, an imagined and fictionalized version of the history of Trachimbrod (stand-in for Trochenbrod,) the shtetl where his ancestors originated from in the Ukraine. These sections are written with a heavy hat-tip to Gabriel García Márquez, but they are really lovely. The residents of the shtetl really come to life through Foer’s imagination, and they get their share of humor, too.

The historical setting of WWII naturally means there will be some tragedy, and some really tough, heart-wrenching sections. There is, allegedly, a bit of controversy around Foer’s depiction of the Nazi liquidation of Trachimbrod/Trochenbrod; my feeling (as a non-historian) is that this is pretty clearly fiction, and as Foer took the liberty of re-naming and reconstructing the town, I didn’t have any issues with his presentation.

Reading this, I instantly began comparing it to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which I also reviewed but didn’t like that much. The precious writing is present in both in spades, but the characters in Everything is Illuminated were not quite as too-advanced-for-their-own-good — a characteristic I found very grating in the former. As book-reading types, many Cannonballers will probably have picked this one up already, but if you haven’t, I’d definitely recommend it as worth reading.

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