Everything Is Illuminated

About 30 pages into this book, I realized I couldn’t do my usual compulsive thing, which is to write down quotes that I like, because I was going to have to stop every other page or so to write things down, and then I’d both annoy myself with my stop-start reading, and I’d also do something redundant, which is essentially rewrite the book that I was currently reading. What I’m trying to say is, Everything Is Illuminated is a masterpiece.

The bevy of superlative quotes on the first few pages, as well as the myriad reviews that came out when the book actually came out, will all tell you this as well. I’m not sure I can say anything more interesting than what’s already been said, nor can I offer more detailed critiques or praises than the professionals. In fact, some of the plot points went over my head, but in a way that just makes me want to visit the book in a little while to get more out of it. Jonathan Safran Foer might be the Mitch Hurwitz of novels — he leaves gems that just get more sparkly with every new media excavation.

Sorry, I’ll stop with the bad metaphors. But that’s basically all I have at this point, because I don’t want to give away too much about this book, and I’m having a hard time putting my feelings about it into words. It’s manic and creative and sad and inspirational, all at the same time. It’s written in a way that makes me question Foer’s sanity — there are three simultaneous, intertwined narratives, all with their own linguistic structure and sense of cohesiveness, which leads me to the “creativity” aspect. The way the narratives lay and fold over each other is so beyond meta that it’s hard to understand, but like I said, it invites a re-read in a completely non-frustrating way. It’s sad because Foer himself is a character, and so despite it being labeled “fiction” prominently on the back corner, it’s impossible not to draw immense truths from it. The family tree traced in this book leads to some amusing, delightful branches, and some horrid, painful ones, too. Either he did a lot of painstaking, impressive research on shtetls in Ukraine in World War II, or he talked to his own grandparents about their experiences — and either way, he had to go through much emotional turmoil, I’m sure, in order to pen this detailed narrative. Which leads me to the “inspiration” portion. All that research, all that creativity, all that emotion bundled up into a debut novel; he was 25 when he wrote it! If that doesn’t kick my Great-American-Novel-writing-ass into gear, I don’t know what will.

Despite this book being written about a world I know nothing about — the aforementioned shtetl, the insanely loopy family tree, the exploration of one’s past into the depths of Ukraine — I felt incredibly close (and extremely loud, ha, great joke!) to all the characters in this novel. I’ve heard the movie is not up to par with it, because how could it be, but I intend to watch soon, to see what these people look like to Liev Schrieber’s inspired mind.

I’ll leave you with an out-of-context quote I did write down, courtesy of the amazing, hysterical translator character, whose thesaursized English is something to be treasured. See page 69. The translator, Alex, speaks first, then Jonathan.

“Why do you want to write?” “I don’t know. I used to think it was what I was born to do. No, I never really thought that. It’s just something people say.” “No, it is not. I truly feel that I was born to be an accountant.” “You’re lucky.” “Perhaps you were born to write?” “I don’t know. Maybe it sounds terrible to say. Cheap.” “It sounds terrible nor cheap.” “It’s so hard to express yourself.” “I understand this.” “I want to express myself.” “The same is true for me.” “I’m looking for my voice.” “It is in your mouth.”