One of the books I’m using in my AP class next year is Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. It was published in 2002 (when he was 25– not that I’m jealous or anything…) and was a NYT bestseller. When it came out, critics went all fanboy and were stumbling over each other in an attempt to scream the loudest about just how brilliant it was (the literary equivalent of girls swooning and throwing their panties on stage at an 80s rock concert); then, a year or two later, there was a backlash where it suddenly went from “brilliant” to “insufferably pretentious.” So it goes in book critic circles.
I decided to include it on the AP list not because it’s the best, most engrossing book I’ve ever read, but because there’s just so much going on stylistically that I think it will be really useful in getting my students to apply close readings and really parse apart how things like voice, tone, and structure affect a story. That, and I do think the story itself is pretty good, at least half of it.
I’d read this book twice before: Once when I was 19 (which I remember specifically because I got to a certain intense scene towards the end of the book while riding a bus in Rome and started crying; the same thing happened when I read Amy Hempel’s “The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” on the subway one morning in Boston– I really have to stop reading heartrending works of literature on public transportation, crying women tend to really freak other passengers out) and again when I was 21. I was a lit major in college, and I still had a hard time figuring out some things that were going on as I read.
There are three different threads in the book. Part of it is a first-person narrative told in the voice of a young Ukrainian translator who is helping a young Jewish man (who JSF named after himself; part of the later accusations of pretentiousness, I’m sure) from America find the woman who helped save his grandfather from the Nazis when they came to their shtetl. This makes up the current present action, linear plot and is written as this Ukrainian translator writing a book of the events soon after the fact. Another thread is a slip-stream-y, magical realist history of the shtetl, going from 1791-1940s, when the character Jonathan Safran Foer’s ancestors entered the picture, and is written as the character JSF writing a novel. The third thread is letters from the translator to the character JSF discussing these two pieces of writing, which adds a meta element. (The metafictional element did not bother me at all– in fact, I found it helped me understand some of what was going on– but again, “meta” has become synonymous with “pretentious” nowadays; strike number two, Mr. Foer.)
The first-person narrative is extremely well done. It’s humorous, touching, and overall a good story. The characterization is great. There are three main characters– the translator, his grandfather, and the character JSF– and each starts off strong and unfolds in a very human way. If the other two elements of the book had been taken out, this narrative would have stood well on its own.
The magical realist history of the shtetl tripped me up the first two times I read it. I thought I knew what was going on, but there were things I was confused by, or couldn’t figure out why they were in there, although much of it is entertaining even when it’s confusing. I knew I liked the book– again, good story, and I found the non-linear-storytelling refreshing; I had never read anything like it– but I still felt like I was missing something.
I just finished reading it for the third time and picked up on something that completely evaded me the first two times around, and which threw everything into a more, well, illuminated light. This is where knowing the elements of style come in handy (which apparently I never bothered paying attention to in my college lit classes; sorry, professors!): The shtetl history is written as a religious document. It’s never stated as such– which was why I didn’t pick up on it in my less-trained years– but when I started reading it this time around, the tone and language hit me over the head as, “Oh, holy crap, this is kind of the shtetl’s Bible.” Old Testament all the way, baby. There is a mystical (although not virgin… at least they don’t think, but none of the characters know for sure) birth at the beginning, there are not-quite-grounded-in-reality stories about larger-than-life characters, cabalistic minor characters (such as the Wisps of Ardisht, a fictional clan of smokers who have been banned to the rooftops and must take shifts of smoking so there is always at least one cigarette lit, since they ran out of matches), there are “commandments” and general guidelines, etc etc, and it’s all done in very biblical language and almost fairy-tale-ish tone (with the character JSF occasionally making his author-presence known by dropping in scattered sentences in the first person).
After realizing this, it made understanding the book much, much easier, because I stopped trying to force things into configurations that made logical sense and just accepted it for what it is. Really, when have religious writings ever made much sense? So much of this book has to do with history and remembering. This history of the shtetl– it’s not there to tell us what actually happened in the village as an accurate historical account, but it’s there to tell us how the character JSF is trying to re-create and understand where he came from. The shtetl where his family from– where his grandfather escaped from to come to America– was completely obliterated by the Nazis, by shootings and fire and bombs and tanks, to the point where nothing is left by the time he finds it fifty years later except a field and a small stone marking the massacre. Religious writings– the stories and creeds that are passed along by a certain group of people throughout the centuries and millennia– tell us a lot about a culture. There are entire academic fields that study the importance of the Bible not as a doctrine but as cultural artifact. Almost every culture has religious writings of some sort; why do we create them, pass them down, and what do they mean?
I can see where the cries of pretentiousness came from; JSF (the author) completely ignored conventional structure and did his own crazy thing, and people tend to like to point fingers at experimentation, especially if the non-conventional thing is difficult to understand. (“God, all they’re doing is trying to show how smart they are, ugh.”) But I’m not sure if it’s any different than what Faulkner did, or Morrison, or dozens of other authors. Experimentation can fall flat but in this case, I think it pays off– maybe not for every reader, but certain types of readers can get a lot out of this book, and I think it’s worth reading. I guess only time will tell which side of the literary fence Everything is Illuminated will end up on down the road. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to watching my students’ heads explode as they read it, and then hopefully collect their brains off the floor and be able to waltz into their college lit classes and analyze like rockstars because I forced them to do this. Isn’t that what education is all about anyway, suffering and torture? Sure it is.