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.