Thursday 4 August 2011

Devouring Books: Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

I'm finding it difficult to define how I felt about this book because I guess I'm still a little bit stunned by it. I started off being relatively unimpressed, not because it was bad necessarily, but because it just didn't really seem to say much- event followed event, and not much meaning could be gleaned from them at all (at least by me). I'm not sure if this was an actual flaw with the book, or simply happened because I had really high expectations of it, and they sort of fell flat.

Or at least at the beginning they did. I can't really sum up Everything is Illuminated for you in a few sentences because it's far too complex for that, but it essentially stars the author and his Ukranian tour guide Alex, as they search for Trachimbrod; birthplace of (story)Foer's grandfather, and last known residence of Augustine, the woman (story)Foer attributes with the saving of his grandfather's life, and hence his own birth. This is one part of the story. The other arc attempts to chart the history of Trachimbrod, starting with the naming of the town and the discovery of Foer's great great great (and possibly a few more greats?) grandmother in the river, up until the story of his grandfather and his marriage and other stuff that I can't tell you about without ruining at least part of the story.

So. At first I was kind of like "ok, this Alex kid is really annoying' because, at least to start with he is, considering that he writes like he is constantly using the thesaurus on word, like that time in Friends where Joey wrote the letter for the adoption people that he signed 'baby kangaroo Tribbiani'. But anyway. As the story moves on, and Alex begins to show more of his character, you begin to forget the irritating way he writes (well, at least a little bit) and just begin to like him and want to nuture him, and generally just make his life better. Likewise with the first half of the story that Jonathan weaves (although of course he is weaving the whole story), I felt that the parts of the past that he reveals are not really as engaging or interesting as the parts depicting his grandfather's marriage and pre-marriage life.

You could say, then, that I was pretty underwhelmed with the first say, half, of the novel. But then, things seemed to shift, situations changed, and all of a sudden I was completely captivated. Maybe the novel was just like this all the time and I sort of missed it, but whatever the reason, I suddenly found myself on the bus one day practically forgetting my name because the story had become entirely gripping (there's a section that's like a paragraph that's about 3 or 4 pages long, you'll probably recognise it when you get to it) and I definitely nearly missed my stop. At this point, I was incredibly grateful that I'd gone through the rest of the novel (not that it was really a horrible task or anything, I just wasn't that motivated to read it) and I really felt that the second half or so made the book, or, at least, made it a great, rather than mediocre, read.

There is one particular thing from the book that, while it is not a major plot point, is something that I feel really gets to the heart of fiction, and the different approaches of writers. Alex, who it slowly emerges has been editing his side of the story to make himself, his life, and his family seem better, takes issue with the negative tone of a lot of Jonathan's part of the story. In chastising him, he says this:
"I do not think that there are any limits to how excellent we could make life seem."
I think this just sums up what literature does, even when it's not necessarily continually positive- writing about the world, and about life, adds a poignancy to things that does not exist in everyday life. This is essentially because seeing things as a self-contained story means that things are finished off and put into lovely boxes flourished with big bows, in a way that things in life almost never are, and even if they are, you can't remember how it started anyway. So Alex, in a sense, is both wrong and right- just because something is not wholly positive, doesn't mean that life does not seem excellent even in the parts of the story that he dislikes. Indeed, it is only once he becomes honest that the book itself becomes excellent to me (even though it makes certain aspects of life seem incredibly sad).

I'm not sure if that last paragraph made any sense, so if not please disregard it! The point, anyway, is that I really liked the book, ok? I have been reliably informed (by Wikipedia) that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is actually even better than Everything is Illuminated, so I am already waiting for that to arrive from (thanks to the $10 voucher I won from Sarah Says Read!) and I'm incredibly excited to read that too! But regardless of how good it is, Everything is Illuminated is still very much worth a read and a careful consideration. And probably a better analysis than I've offered above. But I do try my best...


  1. I really liked this book too. Also, the movie is pretty amazing.

  2. I put "anything by Jonathan Safran Foer" as an item on my must-read list for this year, because everyone raves about his books. I think I peeked at this one and set it back on the shelf... maybe I'll give it another whirl soon. I'm glad you liked it!

    (& totally excited to see your Amazon gift card going to good use! LOL)

  3. @Denise- two people at work told me the film was amazing too! I think I'm going to have to try and see it- apparently there's a shot with a house surrounded by sunflowers or something that makes the entire film worth it?

    @Sarah- He is pretty amazing- it did take a while to get good, but once it did it was sort of wonderful. Double thanks to you too- for the giftcard and for the readathon that actually made me read this book! :)

  4. Hey stranger! I haven't read this book but I did see the film when it first came out and was A-Mazed! I think I have this one on my shelf. Possibly? *sigh* Who knows there are so many unread books glaring at me.

  5. @Christina- Hello stranger indeed! :) I definitely have to see this film now, seriously- so many good things have been said about it! And, don't even tell me about unread books- I worked it out and I have close to 200... I am rubbish (and still buying more! I should probably be shot)