REVIEW: Everything is Illuminated

Genre: Literary Fiction
Publishers: Harper Perennial (April 1, 2003)
Author: Jonathan Safran Foer
Summary: With only a yellowing photograph in hand, a young man - also named Jonathan Safran Foer - sets out to find the woman who might or might not have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Accompanied by an old man haunted by memories of the war, an amorous dog named Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior, and the unforgettable Alex, a young Ukrainian translator who speaks in a sublimely butchered English, Jonathan is led on a quixotic journey over a devastated landscape and into an unexpected past
First line: “My legal name is Alexander Perchov. But all of my many friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name”

Jonathan Safran Foer 'writes' himself into the book as an actual character. I'm still not sure how I feel about this. Was it brilliant? Or just gimmicky? At first it was disorientating. As odd as it sounds, I as a reader don't want to be reminded I am reading fiction (something made up) because it destroys the 'illusion' and rips me away from the book. But, by the end of the novel, I didn't really care anymore because everything else was just brilliant. Everything Is Illuminated isn't just a book; it's an experience.
Not only are there three distinct narratives, but each of these narratives comes from a different source. There's the story of Jonathan's trip to the Ukraine ("written" by Alex), there's Alex's letters to Jonathan, and then there's the history of Trachimbrod as written by Jonathan for his novel. At first these three different narratives were somewhat confusing and incredibly complicated. You appear to not only read the story, but get a 'backstage' view of the making of the novel. But, all the narratives intertwine together creating this breath taking debut that is wonderful, heartfelt, beautiful, and exceptionally well-written.

This is one of the funniest books I've read in a long time, and yet it's also one of the most heartbreaking. The sections in Alex's voice contain some real laugh-out-loud moments, but what was marvellous is how touching it was. I laughed as Alex described himself as a ladies man that is 'carnal' with women, but slowly Foer reveals that Alex is not a man about town, he's a lonely young man, full of hope and wishful thinking. Jonathan (the character) is a writer who is incredibly self-insecure about his writing and himself. That really resonated with me.

A lot of critics scorn Foer for making fun of Ukraine, but I think they simply miss the true beauty of Alex's narration and the novel. It's not about Ukraine and Ukrainians. It's not about cheap tricks and jokes at others' expense. There is a genuine humility displayed in this novel. It is, after all, the character Jonathan, not the Ukrainian Alex, who is made fun of and who is educated by Alex.

Oates's quote tends to be the most true: Foer will break your heart, but he will heal it as well. It's the profound engagement with loss, love, friendship, the power of humor in the face of horror, that leaves its mark. I laughed, I cried, and I came away having gained some significant insight. Everything was--as the title promised--illuminated for me.