Monday, 1 March 2010

Book Review: Everything is Illuminated - Jonathan Safran Foer

To celebrate the 200th review on Books, Time, and Silence, I will be re-posting 10 of my favourite reviews. 

On day 7 it is a chance to relive Everything is Illuminated.

Read: January 2008

Everything is Illuminated in one tweet-sized chunk:
Vast in scope and iridescent in execution, not to mention fearlessly inventive, Everything is Illuminated left me wondering when I would read a novel quite this good again.

In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.”
Milan Kundera –
The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Any novel which takes its title from a Milan Kundera novel has a lot to live up to. And sometimes, in this startlingly original and diverse debut, Jonathan Safran Foer exceeds even an optimistic readers wildest dreams. Such is the dexterity and invention of his writing that one gets the impression there are no challenges to which he couldn’t rise.

I barely remember the last time I savoured every word of an entire novel. From the hilarious opening pages in which Alex introduces himself in his uniquely translated English – “My legal name is Alexander Perchov. But all my friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name.” – to the inevitable conclusion to their “very rigid search,” this is a novel that engages the reader throughout, eliciting an emotional response of one sort or another on almost every page.

The plot is multifarious, but essentially follows a character named Jonathan as he arrives in Ukraine to investigate his family history. He hires a local tour agency and sets off in search of the village of Trachimbrod and the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazi’s fifty years before. Accompanied by his translator, Alex – America obsessed and speaking English as though he has swallowed a thesaurus, - his ‘blind’ grandfather, and their ‘seeing-eye bitch’ Sammy Davis Jnr, Jnr, their journey into the heart of rural Ukraine takes them into a past hidden from view by fifty years of concerted and deliberate forgetting. You could say this is a novel about the holocaust, but it is not. Like Art Spiegleman’s exquisite graphic novel, Maus, it is about how the past effects the present, and how we are defined by the ways in which we remember and deal with the horrors of the past.

There are three concurrent plot lines woven together, each illuminating and offering commentary on the others. First we have the actual journey, recounted in his beautifully mangled English by Alex, hilarious, shot through with peculiarly profound descriptions and eye for the heart of the matter. Then there is Jonathan’s family history novel of Trachimbrod, brilliantly imagined, full of bizarre magical realist twists, religious writings and intense, slightly otherworldly characters. Finally there are Alex’s letters to Jonathan, now back in America, commenting upon each of their novels, offering oversight to the work as a whole and a pleasing post-script to the main action of the plot.

Brought together by Foer's amazing ability to hold multiple themes in the air and bring them together seamlessly, Everything is Illuminated is a beautifully written, hilarious and moving novel which will illuminate the reading of anyone who chooses to pick it up.

The oft used criticism for Everything is Illuminated is that the author is being too clever: that his invention and wit and conceptual scope are the results of a smart-alec show-off, the kind of intellectual posturing which fiction can do without. But when on earth did being clever become such a faux pas? There is nothing more commendable than an author willing to experiment with their writing, to reach for the stars and try and say as much in as meaningful a way as possible. Perhaps it is because the prose is so eminently readable that his intellect conflicts with some. Because it is when the simple meets the profound that this novel really illuminates the room. I read much of this in the bath and frequently wanted to jump up, suddenly enlivened with a phrase or idea, and shout ‘eureka!’ For suddenly the world was that little bit clearer. There are some beautiful phrases, beautiful in how they relate to the themes of the novel, the characters and the plot. They are not easily recreated because they do not exist in and of themselves, but are made great by the novel in its entirety, every single word and phrase eventually draws together, circular and profound. From the slow evolution of Alex’s language to the subtle fissions forming along the fault lines of history, Everything is Illuminated replicates itself throughout. The tone fits the events, the characters evolutionary arc delineates the emotional heart of the novel, the humour makes possible the tragedy.

Indeed it is the relationship between humour and tragedy that sums up all that takes place. Not only does humour make it possible to glance at the tragedies of the holocaust but those self same tragedies demonstrate just how hollow and fragile the humour can be. Nothing is set in stone, ideas evolve and develop with the intense experience of the characters, and the reader is invited along for the duration. For example, early on, in his letters Alex writes:

I know that you asked me not to alter the mistakes because they sound humorous, and humorous is the only truthful way to tell a sad story, but I think I will alter them.”

Then, later in the novel, Jonathan offers the other interpretation:

I used to think that humour was the only way to appreciate how wonderful and terrible the world is, to celebrate how big life is…but now I think it’s the opposite. Humour is a way of shrinking from that wonderful world”

What begins as a very funny, witty and irreverent novel is slowly overtaken by a gloomy appreciation of history and the characters are transformed in ways that can never be reversed.

“‘There is time for all of them,’ I told him, because remember where we are in our story, Jonathan. We still thought we possessed time.”

A celebration of the writing process throughout, each of the characters takes up their pen to try and shed light upon the experiences of the past, and it is the process of writing which makes them stare right at it, to understand their lives through the process of writing them. As Alex says: “With writing, we have second chances.” And echoed in history comes the repeated phrase from Trachimbrod, “We are writing, we are writing, we are writing.” Conserving the past so as to live in the present.

One thing Everything is Illuminated cannot be accused of is understatement. Very little is left to the imagination of the reader, or to speak for itself without having its purpose comprehensively enunciated. But, though this usually annoys me, here the vast, brash, luridly grandiose intentions of the author come shining through. It is a novel that could only be written by a young writer, vast and iridescent, fearlessly inventive, it left me wondering when I would read a novel as good again. I have spent the last week flicking through the pages, desperately trying to assimilate it all, reminding myself of an event here, a phrase there. Perhaps I will even read the book again, immediately, afraid to forget a single detail.

For in a novel which is all about memory, the one thing I can say for certain is that I shall not forget it in a hurry. It is a book which gets under your skin and they are characters you take to heart. As Alex sums up at the culmination of the excellent movie adaptation:

I have reflected many times upon our rigid search. It has shown me that everything is illuminated in the light of the past. It is always along the side of us, on the inside, looking out. Like you say, inside out.”

10 out of 10


Bibliolatrist said...

Great review of one of my favorite novels. I'm still looking out for Eating Animals; I read some excerpts (I think) featured in the Guardian and they were quite fascinating, albeit in a very sad way.

Sam Ruddock said...

Thanks Bibliolatrist. I'm writing a review of Eating Animals right now and you can see it here on Friday. Have to be very careful not to let it turn into a campaign for vegetarianism.

Jenners said...

I just wrote my own review of this book and was curious to see what others had written about it. Loved your review ... though I took a bit more of a dim view of it than you did. It is one of those books that can make the reader feel dumb or lazy or unsure ... but I do agree that there are moments of genius in it! Well done!

Sam Ruddock said...

Thanks for the lovely comment, Jenners. Glad you enjoyed this review. I'm a big fan of books which don't provide everything on the plate for a reader, I love books which make you question and consider what is happening at all times. But I know that sort of thing isn't everyone's taste. It's not always even mine!

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No other book has ever made me laugh out loud as much as this one did, and no other book has ever made me cry. What's amazing about Everything Is Illuminated is how new it is, and how it bursts at its seams with life, while still maintaining a great humility, and respecting both its subject matter and the reader. To say that the author is some sort of genius or prodigy is beside the point, I think. Rather, he's a human, with a unique talent for expressing his, and our, humanity.

Great data for Who is Allah said...

The book can be a bit difficult to follow at times as it changes narrator and time (it also tells the story of Jonathan's Grandfather chronologically every other chapter or so) but is well worth it. As my title says, the more I think about the book the better it gets.
Highly Recommended