Everything is Illuminated: Brilliant.

    

So Jonathan Safran Foer sounds like a prat on the radio. He sounds like a self-assured genius, who is maybe also judging you for eating meat. And so I put off reading Everything is Illuminated because I thought it might be infused with self-righteousness or self-congratulatory brilliance. But after finishing the novel I no longer care what Safran Foer sounds like on the radio, or whether he is arrogant and self-congratulatory. I don’t care because the book is brilliant. And so I’ve been (again) reminded that books are not their authors, and while Safran Foer probably is a prat, that’s no reason not to read (and love) his book.

What do I love about it? Let me describe the ways:

Character voice: While the characters themselves appeal to me in the way all brilliant characters do – in their unpredictable, yet believable, reactions; in their failings; in their changes over the course of the novel; in their revelation of something about me – the voices of the characters in this novel are staggering. I don’t simply mean Sasha’s (genius) voice as a translator come to English that reverberates (I’m not sure if that’s the technical word for it, but whatever it is when you’re still hearing the voice hours later), I mean the kind of distinct clarity of a singular character: when grandfather is speaking the diction, the meter, the pacing could only belong to him. The characters are each unique and complex, but they are made exponentially more so by the lilt and precision of their voices.

Form: Postmodern play with form can be annoying. There are occasions, I think, when adding blank pages, or runonsentences, or cacophonous ellipses (if ever there was an oxymoron….) are nothing but authors trying to show that they too have read Paul Auster, William Faulkner, and Kafka, and that they too recognize the dismemberment of form can parallel the collapse in certain truths. But here! But here! Oh but here formal play does not distract, does not serve as formal play for the sake of formal play. Here the introduction of unusual and unexpected formal elements provoke, they punch, they do something to meaning that makes the words mean MORE. And that’s it, I think. That instead of the postmodern ennui, here the formal disintegration is meant to emphasize just how acutely we feel, just how poignant love and loss can be and are, just how sincerely feelings are emphatically FELT. The form makes you feel  – perhaps, and individually, disoriented or annoyed or awed – in order to remind you that living is an exercise in feeling.

Plot: Neither too saccharine or too cold, the simplicity and elegance of this story is brilliant. Unfolding over protracted time, but an isolated location, the plot weaves in ways that both surprise and satisfy. A cliched expression on my part, but nevertheless true.

And then, and then! The questions this novel raises around responsibility to others are devastating. It points a finger at all of us for being selfish, for not being capable of truly understanding the other (in such exact Butlerian terms that I’m tempted to see who wrote their work first), for acting out of cowardice, for acting out of grand delusions of self-importance. It accuses each of us of a piracy of spirit and then says, but you are human, this is the only way you could be, and so perhaps, in this predetermination, you are forgiven.

So yeah, I liked this one.

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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, American literature, Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction, Prize Winner

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