Everything is Illuminated, ***

By JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER

<i>Everything</i> is in the nuances.

<i>Everything</i> ... in the frying pan!

Jonathan Safran Foer enters the frying pan.

From reviews I’ve read, everything about Everything seems to come down to whether you interpret Foer’s style as contrived or masterfully woven. As far as I can tell, these two things come down to about the same thing. They just have different connotations. The first means that the author is trying too hard. He or she has come up with a complicated over-baked story that all comes together — perhaps too perfectly, the book critic sneers. It’s almost too well thought-out to be anything close to real life. It is therefore unbelievable as a book.

And this can be the case. It’s easy to write in complication for complication’s sake and hope that what comes out sounds deep enough to be mistaken for meaningful.

But then again, “contrived” can also be an easy way to write off something that’s unique. This is where “masterfully woven” comes in. I would place authors like J.R.R. Tolkien, Margaret Atwood, and John Irving in this category of writing. They have the ability to take a lot of elements and put them together in a way that’s not only coherent, but just real.

I usually identify a really good book by the feeling I get when I’ve had to stop in the middle of a chapter. If begin to think of the main character as if he/she/it was a real person, I know that this book is the real thing and will be well worth the effort to read it.

So which is Everything? Personally, I would pick neither. I like Foer’s writing style; it feels light and easy to read while at the same time having a gnarly, complicated quality to it. He juxtaposes two stories tied together by Foer himself, and they mesh in tone the further you continue in the book. The first, the author’s (or his fictional self’s) own journey into the Ukraine in search of family history, is narrated by Alex, a twenty-something kid with a dubious handle on English and an overblown perception of the US. The beauty of the character of Alex is in what he is afraid to tell us. In the beginning of the novel, he makes such a point of showing of his masculinity and pride that the reader is aware only of his insecurity and immaturity. His language is the stilted speech of a nine year-old with a thesaurus at his side, but this makes him only more endearing, rather than tedious, to read.

The part that I had a hard time squaring with was Foer himself. As I watched the character Jonathan Foer walk through the story, playing the dupable-if-intelligent straight man and the legacy of so much family tragedy, I could only wonder what Foer himself must have been thinking as he wrote himself into his own novel. It’s an odd, slightly narcissistic thing to do, really, but who’s to say that there’s anything wrong with making a book all about yourself? Autobiographers do it all the time, and frankly novelists do as well. They just usually don’t do it so blatantly.

So I shrugged and continued into the tragically bizarre, borderline-fantastic story of Mr. Foer and his family. And it wasn’t bad. Emotionally evocative and off-the-wall to say the least. Sometimes a bit much to take, especially what with Alex’s “brick-shitting.” But a good, worthwhile read with dabs of poignancy in most of the right places.

Notes on this book: There is, in fact, a movie about this book. I have yet to see it, though I’ll let you know whether it lives up to the book’s fairly good review.

In other news: Yes, I am back from New York. No, I didn’t have time to post, sadly (though not so sadly because I was much too busy with other excellent things). I’ll try to get you a little about my trip soon.

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One Response to Everything is Illuminated, ***

  1. Pingback: Everything is Illuminated, the movie *** «

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