Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Book #2: "Everything is Illuminated" by Jonathan Safran Foer

First: No comments on my NaNo excerpt? come on! where are all the people who were pressuring me to post? Was it THAT bad? Pssh. See if I ever post anything again!

"Everything is Illuminated" by Jonathan Safran Foer

What a strange book this was.

I finished it two days ago, and I've spent the time since trying to think of a way to review it that will do justice to its bizarre genius while at the same time not getting me too much flak when I admit I didn't fully understand it. It left me with a very confusing mix of feelings, and I'll do my best to explain them here.

In essence, the book is about the main character's (Jonathan Safran Foer, in a strange meta twist) trip to Ukraine, where he attempts to find the woman who helped his grandfather during World War 2. He hires a guide to help him do this--but what he ends up getting is Alex, the translator who speaks in amusingly broken English and his cantankerous grandfather, their driver. Coming along for the trip is the grandfather's dog, Sammy Davis Jr, Jr.

The book switches back and forth between three different threads. First, we have letters that Alex writes to Jonathan in hilariously bad English, where we learn that the two young men have become friends. To these letters, Alex attaches what becomes the second thread in the book; chapters detailing the story of the trip the three main characters make to find the woman who saved Jonathan's grandfather. The third thread consists of chapters written by Jonathan himself, that tell the story of the shtetl (or village) of Trachimbrod, where his grandfather was born. These go all the way back to the 1700s, and they trace the story of Jonathan's ancestors.

Each of these threads is written in a distinct manner, which is an impressive demonstration of Foer's talent, but it was one of the main problems I had with the book. The chapters told from Alex's perspective are funny and moving in their simplicity, and are very entertaining to read. The characters of Alex and his grandfather are carefully and beautifully drawn and written, so that we become attached to them and their story.

On the other hand, the chapters taking place in the shtetl are confusing, somewhat rambling and disjointed. They jump from amusing little stories of the villagers to the longer stories of some of Jonathan's ancestors. There are also excerpts from the 'Book of dreams', which were amusing and interesting, infused with a sort of magical realism that reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's writing. And then there are two or three consecutive pages filled with nothing but the words "We are writing...", and a full page of nothing but periods. There are some chapters written as plays. It's a crazy little trip that can be entertaining in parts, but in some others I found myself growing impatient and frustrated. Was all this really necessary to the story? Or was it just some strange way for Foer to show off? While I admire breaking away from traditional styles (and some of the book's most beautiful writing is in these chapters) I couldn't help but feel confused over why Foer wrote these scenes like he did. I'm sure a true literary critic would be frowning and looking down at me for being so ignorant, but I have to be honest here. Maybe the whole thing was just beyond me, and I am not worthy of Foer's genius, and maybe there is a point to all of this confusion. I don't know. I just know that these chapters felt a bit dry and strange, and they are very, very hard to write about.

While there is a slight feeling of disconnection between the chapters themselves, the entire book flows beautifully when viewed as a whole. The early chapters are almost uniformly funny and light, which led me to believe this was going to be a completely different book from what it ended up being. Then the mood of the book starts to subtly change. As Alex's writing becomes less broken and more elegant and emotional, so the entire tone of the book changes as new revelations come to light. It's like a downwards spiral, and the three threads of the story fall together, each becoming more ponderous and dark, like turning the dial down on a lamp. The final chapters are moving and sad as each of the threads reaches its conclusion. It's haunting, really, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about those final chapters since I read them.

Do you see why it's so hard to write about this book? I can't even properly voice why I didn't exactly "like" it. I enjoyed it, yes, and it was a worthwhile and impressive read, but in the end, my final feelings on a book come down to two questions. One, would I recommend it to other people? Maybe. I don't think everyone would enjoy it, and some may be put off by dryness of the shtetl chapters, and the whole strangeness of it. I would recommend it if you want to read something different and interesting. After all, I've never read anything like it and I was glad I gave it a chance. It's an insightful, captivating look at the past and how it can come back to haunt us, written in an unique and talented manner.

My second question is, would I read this book again? And my answer to that would be "probably not". I would probably benefit from reading the shtetl chapters with a little more patience, but I have the feeling I would be skipping quite a bit of it on a re-read, and that wouldn't do it justice. Maybe I can go back to it in a few years, but for now I'm going to let it lie, even though I feel it pulling at my mind to go back and read some of the passages I marked for this review.

But no. Bad book! Do you know I just spend two hours writing this? You sit there on the shelf and think about what you've done!

On a completely unrelated note: I don't usually notice this, but this book has one of the most beautifully designed covers I have ever seen. It's the Harper Perennial Olive Edition, if you care, and you should check it out. It's really quite pretty.

Another note: Was the movie for this any good?

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

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Figgylicious said...

oh har har har. I know who you are!

Julie said...

That was a great review Figgy! What a sad, strange book.