Jonathan Safran Foer

Everything Is Illuminated

I’ve got pretty mixed feelings about this book. For all the funny, interesting, charming, poignant and insightful bits there are repetitive, contrived, sloppy, gratuitous and narcissistic ones.

For example, the comic value of ‘Alex’ thesaurus laden narrative was a great idea for an hilarious opening passage, but risky to continue with for so many more passages in the book. If humour was all Foer was trying to do with this style, he would have failed: it’s an idea for a sketch, not a series. And these days it’s not even clever: anyone could come up with this sort of thing by using the same technique virtually admitted to – just write your text normally, then right click on several words and grab the silliest synonym that comes up in terms of inappropriate tone and connotation. Yet it is also effective in establishing a distinct voice for one of the (at least) two (massively unreliable) narrators. Moreover occasionally it makes the writing more effective by escaping the unavoidable clichés that permeate our language – it can make us actually think about the meaning of what’s being said rather than just skimming past familiar worn phrases. I have an idea that some of this alternative expression starts being consciously used in some of the latter narration by the native English persona. So, yeah, mixed feelings – in some ways the thesaurus technique was a flaw, in others a feature. But it wasn’t a triumph in the way that, say, the phonetic alternative language is a triumph in Banks’ Feersum Endjinn.

Similarly there are both joys and irritations in the changing narrators/styles. There are some really nice touches in having a character in the book discussing other passages in the book, and hearing echoes of the author himself in letters ostensibly to him. And it’s also powerful to weave the two stories of Trachimbrod and the contemporary narrator/s. But it also at times felt very contrived – here is a book to be discussed by undergrads and book clubs – is there really ‘nothing outside the text’, lots of space for discussion of the unreliable narrators, and foregrounding the tension of what is real, what is fictional. Sometimes this is poignant, sometimes clever, sometimes – for me – stepping outside the conventions of storytelling to less effect. I can enjoy a book, and I can enjoy hearing an author discuss their book, but (while it’s possible) it’s difficult to satisfactorily combine these two. And I’m not sure Foer gets away with such a mix of invention with biography and history: how are we meant to feel for these fictional characters when they blur with real events?

At times Foer does a great job of conveying something of the tragedy of Jewish persecution by giving the persecuted individuality and identity. They are not merely a faceless crowd, but they are a community, and they are Jewish. Yet the individuals sometimes become utterly fantastic, such as the inhuman Brod who is more goddess than woman. Nowhere is this worse than in the extended preposterous sexual story of the Grandfather with a dead arm. This seedy daydream of Foer’s just goes on and on, nearly as a novelette within the novel, played as high romance? Comic bawdiness? Poignant parable? What is it? Joycean stream of consciousness lewdity? What’s this ludicrous bacchanalian god doing in a setting of real Jewish tragedy? I've got nothing against magic realism per se, but the way he uses it here actually undermines the book.

And the tragedy, while at times feeling like cynical tool to give gravitas to an at times otherwise merely tawdry story, is evoked. The displaced chronology here is very clever: the build to the climax of the massacre is all the more powerful because we already know what happened – not merely to the group, but to the individuals, that we know as individuals, past, present and future. And with the narrator even stepping wanting to warn them, unable to even write, or speaking ‘quickly’ (no punctuation) because the subject matter is so awful.  

Foer has tried to put a lot of elements in this book, and to the degree that he linked past with present he did well. But I don’t think he pulled it off – I think there needed to be some more craft in this experiment, more editing. I don’t quite know why he made some characters so mythical – perhaps those elements would have been better elsewhere. Definitely there was way too much absurd sex. I mean, there was way too much sex, period – the preoccupation was often just offensive. But even with all those pages there was so little insight into how sex relates to relationships, to humanity – it was mythical or alien – the reactions and behaviours were ridiculous and implausible: in a village atmosphere one pre-pubescent boy is irresistible to all women, and satisfies every one of them without raising and eyebrow or even being noticed by husbands, brothers – anyone really, even, in a sense, the women (he's more like something they get out of the bottom drawer occasionally). What’s this seedy tosh doing in a holocaust scene? Is it meant to be some sort of fable – but it’s way too long and detailed. Do we have to give it credence because Foer otherwise shows intellect and is at times successfully experimenting with style in an academically pleasing way?

So, yeah, mixed feelings. He’s got abilty, there are some hilarious moments, some gravity, some insight. But there are some big flaws too – ones that can’t be dismissed because they preoccupy so much of the text.

April 2010