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Sunday, December 4, 2011

Everything is Illuminated

Some words are moreimportantthanothers. Some thoughts arejusttoodeep fornormaltypography. Sometimes when you are ayoungwriterofpromise who has been excerptedintheNewYorker you feel the pressure to stand out, to be different, and most important, tobebetterthantheotherwritersinyourMFAprogram.

Jonathan Safran Foer is someone who comes across, in interviews, articles, and somehow even in photographs, as an insufferably precocious and smug person. Never the less, I still managed to enjoy Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I even managed to enjoy the first three-fourths of this novel. But eventually the needless tricks, the galling appropriation of real tragedy to obnoxious ends, and the moral equivocation of his story actually made me angry at a book I had looked forward to finishing. Now I’m left wondering if I was tricked into liking his other book.

Everything is Illuminated follows the voyage of a fictional character named Jonathan Safran Foer (it says something that this is the LEAST annoying metafictional touch the author uses) as he travels to his grandfather’s Ukrainian shtetl in search of a woman in a photograph whom he believes saved his grandfather’s life during the war. If that sounds far-fetched to you, don’t worry, it never really matters within the actual narrative of the book.

Helping Foer on his journey, and with the composition of the novel, is his translator Alex Perchov, a native Ukrainian university student with a shaky command of the English language. By far the best parts of the novel are those in which Foer (the real one) writes through Alex. Reading his fractured, close but no cigar English is pretty funny for a while. Alex uses a thesaurus to disastrous ends, using “rigid” to mean difficult,“guilelessly” to mean sincerely, and speaks of “disseminating much currency”. As the novel progresses, Perchov learns more English, and his sections become less comedic. The intent is to highlight the sadness of Alex’s family life, but this is largely a failed effort.

There’s also a lot of juvenile humor about Alex’s grandfather, who thinks he’s blind but is still hired to drive Alex and Foer across Ukraine, in the company of his “seeing-eye bitch” Sammy Davis Junior, Junior.

Of course, this being a first novel, and Foer having an apparently bottomless bag of meaningless tricks designed to annoy, we can’t just have a road trip novel. So inter-spliced with Foer’s trip are sections of the novel he’s writing about his ancestors. Starting with the naming of the village in the late eighteenth century, Foer’s novel within the novel is a bunch of magical-realist ethnic Jewish absurdity. Foer shows some inventive power and a vivid imagination, but he has no control over these talents. His overdone family history just piles one inanity on top of another. And while Foer’s command of the language is impressive and propels the story for a while, the lack of clear purpose to these creations renders them inconsequential, frustrating the reader (me) to no end.

Basically, the whole enterprise just seems like the product of a young man (Foer was my age, 25, when this novel was published) with nothing to say and a desperate need to say something anyway. So he grabbed the biggest, most important event he could find (the Holocaust) and decided to use it for his own purposes, whether or not it made narrative or emotional sense. When you can see the author’s calculated orchestrations, it absolutely undercuts any emotional resonance from the characters’ revelations and resolutions.

At the end of Foer’s and Alex’s journey, when they’ve learned about the village’s fate and Alex’s grandfather’s secret, there are some potentially powerful scenes. It is, after all, hard to invoke a Holocaust narrative without tapping into real feelings. But lack of control sinks Foer irreparably here. This is where he ramps up the precociousness just when it is least called for. This is where thewordsgetreallyclosetogether or very far apart.
Because when you lack the skill to give your words power, you’ve got to make it clear to the reader somehow.

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