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Everything is Illuminated

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On the back cover of my copy of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, Everything Is Illuminated, it says that it is “a work of genius,” and for lengthy sections of this debut novel, it really is, but ultimately his lofty ambitions are not fully met by his pen.

Ambition is something this book has in spades. It is a complicated, heady novel whose narrative stretches, bends, and breaks. It is really three stories tied together by a small Ukranian village whose past is linked to several characters’ destiny. The first story involves the history of that village as far back as 1791 and moving forward until it was horrendously destroyed by the Nazi party. The second story consists of a character named Jonathan Safran Foer, an American searching for a woman who lived in the village, Trachimbrod, and who may have information concerning his grandfather. This story is told by his Ukranian guide, Sasha, in a hilarious broken English. What makes up the third story are letters from Sasha to Jonathan detailing bits of his own life and commenting on the other two stories. All three stories are intermingled with one another giving an odd sense of both being off kilter and well balanced.

Adding to the ambitiousness of the three intermingled stories is a peculiar use of the typed page. The titles of chapters often swirl, curve, and dance off the page. There is gratuitous use of ALL CAPS, pages that are indented well beyond the others, and even several pages consisting almost completely of elipses (…). All of which is designed to give meaning and an emotional response. It is mostly effective in doing so, though at times, it seems a little too showy, as if the author is jumping up and down waving his hands shouting Hey look….THIS IS ART.

The central story of the city is silly, hilarious, sometimes moving and mostly an outlandish caricature of ancient Jewish life. It is also more standard in its narrative. For it is a straight told story, using the typical use of type setting. It creates several moving pictures of Nazi atrocities on the town, though anyone not being able to create emotion out of the holocaust is a poor writer indeed.

The remaining stories are also quite interesting, humorous and moving. There is a lot being said about our concept of perceptions and truth. Several things that Sasha tells us in the beginning about himself, he later admits to be false. Just as he details that he will make changes to his story that Jonathan requests due to putting him in a negative light.

It is not a novel that I would consider to be an easy read. The narrative structure as well as the type structure is often difficult and confusing. While it is a novel showing a great deal of talent in its author, it never quite lives up to its hype or ambition. Though there is much to admire and it is well worth the time to read.

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About Mat Brewster

  • sonja valentine

    definitely not an easy read – and i agree that parts of the book were excellent,
    but ultimately not enough to sustain my interest throughout.
    his new book, Extremely Loud, and Incredibly Close, seems to be more of the same.
    it reminded me of dave eggers book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,
    in that parts were so brillliant and the rest seemed to be written by someone else altogether. oh well.
    good review.

  • Hugh Abramson

    The novel is not just illuminating; it is dazzling.
    Exactly what lofty ambitions were not fullfilled?
    Ease of readability is in the eye of the reader, of course. OK, he’s not James Patterson (thank god), but I found the book easy going. Foerr alternates between being wildly funny and tragically heartbreaking, which sounds corny but is true. The author states somewhere in the novel something to the effect that a sad story needs to be humorous. I thought he succeeded admirably.

  • I agree, what “lofty ambitions” does Foer purport to have in this AMAZING (YES, THIS POST IS ART) first novel?? I absolutely adore this book and am in awe of Foer’s young talent. He is lot less affected than Eggers and way more gifted. As an American who spent a number of years as an expat in Ukraine, I found his depiction of the Ukrainian mentality accurate, hilarious, sympathetic, and not condescending. If you have trouble understanding the narrative in this novel, maybe you shouldn’t be a literary critic.

  • sonja valentine

    what’s with the agressive attack mode?
    isn’t it still everybody’s entitled to an opinion?

  • Mat

    It is a difficult book to read in the same manner that Dean Koontz or John Grisham are very easy reads. It changes style and stories so often the reader has to pay a great deal of attention to the page or they could get lost. It is not so difficult that I didn’t understand what I was reading.

    It is an ambitious book. By using the different styles (indents, all caps, etc) and by using the interchanging naratives, I felt Foer was announcing that this is an important novel. Like this was The Great American Novel. I also felt that it did not quite reach those heights. It is good, in fact rather good, but I wouldn’t put it on my all time top ten list.

    It gains a lot of its emotional ground by detailing the horrors of the Nazi party. As I said in the review, anybody can move its audience using the holocaust. Not that he is cheating by talking about those attrocities, but I have a hard time declaring it a great work, simply because I shed a tear while reading about Nazi genocide.

    My other main complaint is of his depiction of the people in Trachinbrod. Though I enjoyed the story, and found many parts humorous and even moving, it was a little too caricatured for my tastes. With the exception of a few, almost all the characters seemed like “types” designed to produce a chuckle at those wacky Jewish folk.

    Read the review again. I liked the novel. I think it was quite good actually. But, I didn’t think it lived up to his hype, or that it was as good as it’s author was trying to make it.

  • Does anybody know how to get in touch with the author (even indirectly, through his publisher?). His novel has been nominated as a ‘Must Read’ by the Cosmopolitan magazine’s Chick Lit club, and I want to know what he thinks about this.