Jim's Reviews > Everything Is Illuminated

Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
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's review
May 17, 2008

really liked it
Recommended for: Those seeking fresh voices in literature
Read in January, 2003

** spoiler alert ** This brilliant debut novel by Jonathan Safran Foer is a deeply-felt imaginative achievement. It is wholly recommendable, even if it is only half of a good book. The half that is good--no, great--is so worthy as to overshadow the book's other half, which is, sad to say, an embarassing if rightly-intended misfire.

The half that is successful is the tale of the fictional Jonathan Safran Foer's search for the story of his ancestors. It is successful as a story, but especially in the way it is told, in the hilarious, fractured, malapropriate voice of Alex, the Ukrainian translator/guide. Alex's way of speaking jumps instantly into the pantheon of great narratorial voices in literature, right next to Huckleberry Finn, to whom the technique hugely owes allegiance. Foer is doing the Twain bit of putting his story in the mouth of of a speaker of "substandard English," and of letting this voice become, eventually, poetic and utterly profound. It is a great and a wonderful achievement.

Part of what is terrific about this is that Alex's voice changes throughout the course of the narrative, as he learns more correct English from his writer-idol, Foer. So the book shows not only a narrative arc, but a corresponding arc of style as well.

The Alex-spoken chapters alternate with the supposed novel about his ancestors which the fictional Foer is writing, and which Alex progressively comments on when his sections come around again. Unfortunately, the quaint story of the ancestors in their small village doesn't have the brilliance of Alex's parts. This whole section of the novel reads like a Jewish folktale, full of magical-realist touches, but somehow it doesn't have a stamp of truth or real honesty to it. it comes off as cloying and precious, to tell the truth.

It might be argued that this quality was a very deliberate choice by the author. The idea here, completely supported by the novel as a whole, would be that the real story of the ancestors and their destruction in the holocaust is so harrowing that it cannot and should not be remembered by the fictional Foer. So instead, he creates this folktale version of events, with wild and magical characters and so forth.

Sure, I see that. I know that that is part of what is going on. The contrast between the story as told and the harrowing history as we eventually discover it it huge. But for me, it didn't work. The magical-realist nostalgia sections have to have an integrity and an honesty at their heart. And these are lacking in that, lacking in some deeply-felt spirit that would connect them with reality. They seem cartoony. They are trying way too hard. This is not Isaac Bashevis Singer, but is trying hard to be, and the attempt becomes embarassing after awhile.

The film version of the novel very rightly left out this half of the story entirely, and was very true to Alex's narrative. It worked, I thought, quite well.

As I said at the outset, though, the Alex parts are so well done, so strong and funny and well-told, that they carry the novel. Though only half-successful, this is a very good book.
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Mark I am glad that you, like me, thought of Mark Twain as well as Isaac Bashevis Singer. Except that I would compare this book favorably to Singer as well.

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