Everything is Illuminated, Cont.
The experience of reading this novel is a journey in many ways similar to the graceful arc of the narrative. There is confusion, discovery, beauty, comedy, loneliness, memory, betrayal, hope. (There’s also lots of sex, which surprised me. Who knew those little Jewish shtetls were such popular places for getting it on?) The Washington Post says Everything is Illuminated “is madly complex, at times confusing, overlapping, unforgiving. But read it, and you’ll feel altered, chastened — seared in the fire of something new.” Apparently, the book began as a thesis at Princeton under advisers Joyce Carol Oates and Jeffrey Eugenides, and Houghton Mifflin paid somewhere around half a million dollars for the rights. The question is whether it’s worth all the hype. I think so.
Two story lines intersect and collide throughout the novel. In one, a young American (bearing the same name as the author, which is always a fun twist) visits the Ukraine looking for an elusive woman in an old family photograph, who is said to have saved his grandfather during World War II. His translator is our friend Alex Perchov, his driver is Alex’s grandfather (who believes he is blind), and they are accompanied by Sammy Davis Junior Junior, the grandfather’s “seeing-eye bitch.”
The second story line begins in March of 1791, in a Ukrainian shtetl called Trachimbrod. A wagon plunges into the river Brod, pinning its driver to the riverbed and loosing its store of what seems to be all the driver’s worldly possessions (“a yellow pinwheel, a muddy hand mirror, the petals of some sunken forget-me-not, silt and cracked black pepper, a packet of seeds…”). Also rising to the surface of the muddy water is, miraculously, a newborn baby. She is adopted by a local man, and eventually, from her family line comes the protagonist, Jonathan Safran Foer.
Interspersed among the two story lines are letters from Alex to Jonathan. Alex is writing a book about Jonathan’s trip to the Ukraine, while Jonathan is writing his family history, and they critique and comment on each other’s work (although we only see Alex’s letters, so we only hear about Jonathan’s feedback second hand). One of the most dynamic and fascinating aspects of the book is the way these three elements — the modern account, the family history, and the letters — interact with each other. The reader is constantly forced to rethink and question what she has just read. Alex is a particularly discerning reader, and he comes down hard on Jonathan in his letters when he disagrees with what Jonathan has written.
The language of the novel is really breathtaking, both because of Alex’s hilarious broken English and because of Foer’s own skill. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. Don’t worry, you’ll laugh more than you’ll cry, because it’s insistently funny, but when you cry, you’ll really mean it.
If you don’t feel up for the book, which for me was a pretty intense and consuming experience, at least check out the excellent film. It’s much more streamlined than the book and sticks mostly to Jonathan and Alex’s present-day journey. Read it, watch it, do both simultaneously, just don’t miss it.