Chaos and joy

It is a rare joy. It is what keeps this reader picking up book after book, hoping always that this one will be the one, the one that somehow transcends mediocrity, predictability, the pandering to our lowest pleasures. And when it happens, well, it’s like striking gold. The novel is not, as is asserted periodically, dead. It is alive and well, and one need look no further than Jonathan Safran Foer’s amazing Everything Is Illuminated for confirmation.

Before attempting to explain what exactly this book is about, let me comment briefly on first novels: they are, often, autobiographical and prone to a common brand of self-indulgence. In short, first novels tend away from art and toward self-expression and confession. There are, of course, exceptions, which is where Everything Is Illuminated comes in. This is a first novel that succeeds in such a variety of ways, on so many levels, that I must, for my own peace of mind, assume that the author simply didn’t know any better.

Foer, who wrote the book when he was 20 years old, has taken an old endeavor—the search for self through an understanding of heritage—and turned it inside out, examined it from every angle, rational or otherwise, and given us back a testament to human perseverance, love and imagination. Like life itself, the success of Everything Is Illuminated depends upon the characters’ ability to take equal measures of comedy and tragedy and somehow mold the chaos into a bearable, if not peaceful, existence.

The story is this: Our protagonist, who happens to be named Jonathan Safran Foer, has hired a young Ukrainian man as guide and translator for a trip in search of his (Jonathan’s) grandfather’s village. Jonathan wants to learn the circumstances of his grandfather’s escape from the Nazis, a piece of luck that granted the author his very existence.

Alex, his tour guide, translator and hero in his own right, needs a paragraph to himself. As a second narrator, and budding author, Alex tells a story parallel to Jonathan’s, in English prose that defies description. Let us say simply that Alex’s command of English is as original as it is suspect. I am no fan of dialect, or funny accents, but Alex’s narration actually benefits from his deficiencies. That is, this garbled language, as the story progresses, becomes more meaningful, the words and expressions holding more weight than ordinary English. And Alex needs every resource available, as it turns out, because it is his story that elevates Everything Is Illuminated into the realm of art.

The book, of course, is not perfect. As Alex’s character becomes more vivid, Jonathan’s seems to fade. And squeamish readers may find some particulars rough. Foer writes about sex with the dash of immaturity one might expect of so young an author. And descriptions of brutality, while difficult to avoid when talking of genocide, still can make one squirm.

The strengths of Everything Is Illuminated, however, make up in spades for any problems. Foer has packaged an homage to Kafka, Garcia-Marquez, Dostoevsky, the comic Jewish fable and picaresque road novel, all between two covers. In response to a letter of Jonathan’s, Alex replies: “I just received your letter and read it many times … I will utter no more than that we are both anticipating the remnants. It is a thing that we can think about and converse about. It is also a thing that we can laugh about, which is something we require.” Like Alex, I too require something to laugh about, to think about, to converse about. Everything Is Illuminated is just the thing.