Everything is Illuminated

by Jonathan Safran Foer

Everything is Illuminated is autobiographical, but only a touch, only superficially. It’s about a character named Jonathan Safran Foer travelling to Ukraine with only an old picture to help him find a woman who may have helped save his grandfather from the Nazis. This much actually happened, but I understand that the rest was invented. He’s guided by a translator, Alex, a driver, Alex’s “blind” grandfather, and the grandfather’s “seeing-eye” dog, Sammy Davis, Jr., Jr. Everything is Illuminated is broken into interweaving pieces, alternating between Alex’s correspondence with Jonathan, the story of the modern-day search (written by Alex), and a telling of the history of a forgotten shtetl where his family came from (written by Jonathan). The meat of the story explores the terrors people were forced to endure, along with their lasting implications.

The parts written by Alex contain most of Everything is Illuminated’s early comedy, largely because of his exquisite butchering of English. This usually involves misusing words or taking a stab at idioms that come out way wrong, but also because of unintentional crassness that comes with his rough use of the language. The author occasionally reaches into comedic tropes that may be viewed as a bit lazy, feeling at times almost like a Borat sketch or My Big Fat Greek Wedding. However, the jokes often have exceptional build up and timing; they come out of the mouths of well-rounded, realistic people; and they juxtapose heart-felt tragedy, acting both as a device to make things more significant in contrast and to offer readers respite from the despair––so it all comes together well. The flipside is Jonathan’s parts, where things take on a literary, almost mythical, quality. Here, he writes with a lofty and romantic vision of humanity I tend to associate with Heather O’Neill, even when it’s tragic, even when it’s ugly.

And once we move into heavy territory, Foer shows that he knows how to handle himself. He effectively builds up tension and pulls back just as effectively. Things swell, and then he provides relief; we get a muted, barren moment to feel these characters without having the terrible implications of the space previous clouding our ability to see it, to appreciate it. And he drew me in so well that he was able to stop things dead with a short line; I read these few words, and had to put the book down to reflect on things before continuing. This is what I harp on and on and on about: Confidence. The author stopped me with the weight of his words and didn’t stop to check, to ensure it worked.

So, even though I found myself at least a bit skeptical early on, Everything is Illuminated wound up being equal parts funny, devastating, and touching. I highly recommend it.