Thursday, June 09, 2005

Book 10: Everything Is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer (Multitude of Drops 1)

Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Perennial (March 1, 2003)

In an age when Fukuyama declared the end of history and when the death of the novel is seemingly proclaimed with the same regularity as the sun’s daily ascent, writing continues, great writing in fact, apparently plunging forward, heedless of its own impending doom. Perhaps, Jonathan Safran Foer lost the memo or forgot to watch Fox News the day creative (literary) fiction reached its demise. Perhaps, he is set on proving such pessimistic statements wrong. Or perhaps, he’s just a gifted writer with a story to tell. All possibilities aside, his first novel, Everything Is Illuminated is a masterful piece of literature and a passionate denial that nothing new can (or is) being written.

The novel is an intertwining of voices and narratives, settings and times. It opens with Alex, a Ukrainian teenager, whose travel guide father has been contacted by Jonathan Safran Foer, the fictionalized alter-ego of the author. Foer carries only a photograph of a woman named Augustine, whom he believes survived the Nazis and might possibly be able to provide him with information about the final days of the Trachimbrod Shetl, his grandfather’s Jewish hometown. But all this can be gathered from the plot summary on the back of the novel. What makes Everything Is Illuminated so stunning is the juxtaposition of humor and tragedy, Foer’s innovative use of form, and the One Hundred Years of Solitude like depiction of the Jewish past.

The story is revealed through Alex’s letters to Jonathan about the novel Jonathan is writing on his trip to the Ukraine. We see Alex’s initial attempts to show himself as a ladies man and a player at the novel’s opening, turn into earnest confessions of love for his brother and grandfather by the book’s end. We see Jonathan’s configuration of the Shetl 200 years before its destruction, the life and loves of past generations (his ancestors) and the way the mournful Brod is both used and user. At the beginning of the novel, Alex calls Jonathan a hero, but in truth, no correct in Everything Is Illuminated is perfect enough to conform to this model. All have their flaws, all desire to change some aspect of his or her life. No one is left blameless but no one is completely to blame.

With such complexity, like in Lermontov’s A Hero Of Our Time, Foer brings authorial veracity into question time and time again. At one point, Alex mentions that he changed his description of Foer as short at the latter’s behest. At various other times, Alex begs of Foer to remove the parts of his narrative mentioning how Alex’s grandfather allowed his best friend, a Jew, to be murdered. In a wonderful parallel to the Trachimbrod Shetl’s Jews obsession with detailed and accurate accounting of their history (which is the novel Foer is writing), Alex’s grandfather tries to change the past by denying Augustine’s memory of the events. Foer exposes the way we all manipulate memory to make ourselves appear better than our actions would suggest. In writing we try to correct all the mistakes and tragedy the life brings with it.

In line with this, Foer is questioning the power of words. The Jews in the Shetl believe they only exist so far as their lives are captured in writing. Thus, each member of the town records the minutiae of their lives – from what they ate to breakfast to what they did during a specific afternoon thirty years prior. Foer’s fictionalized glimpse of this accumulated history even breaks into two pages with the words “We are writing, we are writing…” repeated over and over. In a world where everyone is your enemy, as it was for the Jews, Foer is illustrating that the only way to preserve one’s heritage is through pen and paper.

True tragedy, in the Greek tradition, always includes significant elements of comedy. The sadness of the Nazi’s slaughter, the tremendous and inescapable guilt many of the novel’s characters feel are all made even more poignant by the intermixing of humor – Alex’s dog, Sammy Davis Jr. Jr’s proficient flatulence; the Ukrainians inability to understand that Foer is a vegetarian and that pork is thus off limits. Without these and countless other moments, the novel might be trite and certainly less original. The Holocaust is a topic so frequently dealt with in art that its horror must be made new to be made real. Foer manages to avoid sentimentality and the rehashing of other’s works. Everything Is Illuminated is pioneering in its form, but so too in its treatment of one of the worst genocides in world history. As Alex writes Jonathan on page 53, "Humor is the only truthful way to tell a sad story."

The novel’s title is a multi-allusion in the Nabakov tradition. It’s an eloquent reference to the light visible from space when two people make love, but it also connects to the way truth is revealed and memory evades. Foer draws on a myriad of other writers – one notable example, is G√ľnter Grass’ Tin Drum, in the way the figure of the grandmother is used as an indication of security. But Foer doesn’t throw his erudition in the face of readers, rather incorporating it seamlessly into the novel. What we are left with at the end of the book, is the hard-fought possibility that love enables us to live – and survive. His characters may be overwhelmed by guilt, their love might not always be returned or even recognized, but it is humanity’s ability to give such sincerity that keeps us from oblivion – even in the face of an event as monstrous as the holocaust.

A first novel of such ambition and accomplishment sparked a fair amount of backlash against Foer’s quickly achieved success (and the unusually large advance he received from his publishing house). However, focusing strictly on the work, it becomes apparent why others might be jealous. At the age of just 25, Foer achieved what it takes other writers a lifetime (if ever) to complete. Thus, Everything Is Illuminated might be the work of someone young, but its words are those of someone incredibly mature.

A Reader’s Guide and Interview with Jonathan Safran Foer


Anonymous said...

beautiful review.

Sprinkler Systems information 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.