Sunday, April 10, 2005

Jonathan Safran Foer: When not quite everything is "Illuminated"

I got to the end of Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel, €œEverything is Illuminated, feeling cheated in a way. Perhaps it was the title and my taking it at its most literal meaning. The idea that I'd get to the end and everything would be, well, illuminated. The way I felt getting to the end of The God of Small Things,€ and having that stroke of epiphany, wanting immediately to reread the book in 15 minutes and build on that visceral tingling. Yes, with JSF's ending, there was some symmetry. The last line circles back to one of the first. But I felt that along the way I'€™d missed too much, that other readers might have gotten it, whereas I didn't. Where was the final twist? The final connection between the story that takes place in the present and the one that spans the lifetime of a shtetl. The link that makes luminescent the grandparents and the grandchildren depicted in the novel.

So I ended an otherwise captivating read of two minds: loving many of its parts, but feeling less than thrilled with the whole. Whereas Francine Prose in her NYT review loved and continually laughed out loud at the Alex character in the book -- the Ukrainian tour-guide and translator who writes a slightly goofy, stilted English as if the thesaurus is his prime source --€“ I, on the other hand, appreciated his pidgin voice for a while and then grew weary of it, almost dreading each subsequent chapter narrated by this character. Instead, it was the mythological imaginings of the American narrator, the fictional alter ego of JSF himself, which mesmerized me. I felt like it was this line that was the story's true strength. But, of course, you cannot separate the two and like one and ignore the other and expect to come away with coherence. So maybe I did myself a disservice by not paying as close attention to the present-day tale of the college student returning to Ukraine to discover his past, as told through his eager translator.

Or perhaps, now that I've read reviews and other commentary on the book, that feeling of symmetry without final transcendence was what JSF might have been going for. His alter ego spends a matter of days with the shoestring-operation, heritage-search tour operator (basically the Ukrainian boy, his grandfather and a dog in a beat-up car) and ends up discovering fewer actual facts about his own distant family than the locals do about their own immediate one. It's a story about looking for things clumsily, learning to appreciate what you end up discovering instead, and imagining the rest.

The novel also succeeds in tackling the Holocaust as a fictional narrative without making it feel like it's really a "€œHolocaust book" at heart. When the Nazis arrive, they do spell the end of the village of JSF's ancestors, but their coldly cruel acts do not seem to have the power to overshadow the preceding daily lives of the shtetl, which are peculiar and picaresque but deeply touching and very human. Perhaps it's easier for me to say this having never been so directly affected by the Holocaust, but I think one of the author's points --€“ as the story moves back and forth through time in a postmodern way -- is that the tales of each life are ultimately more remarkable than the means of the villagers' death. And this, despite that many of the characters are continually grappling with mortality (especially deaths that seem unreasonable or coincidental or just downright strange).

Even though the experience was not what I had expected, I look forward to reading JSF's new novel, €œExtremely Loud and Incredibly Close,€ which employs at least two similar motifs: the personal experience of a notorious massacre (9/11) and the juxtaposition of two competing, but related, narrators. I'm also slightly disappointed that I missed the author'™s several appearances in New York in recent days. According to his website, he will, however, be showing up in D.C. tomorrow (Monday, April 11) at Politics and Prose; in the Chapel Hill/Durham area on Wednesday; and in Ann Arbor on Thursday. Still, he's a Park Slope guy, so he's bound to be back in NYC soon.

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