Everything is Illuminated

A book by Jonathan Safran Foer

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Reprinted with permission from JBooks.com.

Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel showcases two distinct narratives that illuminate the truths embedded in historical events and acts of memory. It's an ambitious agenda that Safran Foer advances with sharp observation. But Everything is Illuminated is also a very funny book, a laugh-out-loud funny book that earns the reader's admiration through linguistic acrobatics and feats of good, old-fashioned storytelling.

At the heart of Safran Foer's narrative beats the classic road-trip novel, replete with unlikely buddies. Think of a Jewish-American version of Don Quixote. The hero of the book--the author's fictional alter ego is also named Jonathan Safran Foer--is on a quest to the Ukraine to find a woman named Augustine, who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Unfortunately, the only thing that Jonathan has to identify this woman with is an old photograph that he found in his late grandfather's personal effects. The Sancho Panza of this story is Alexander Perchov. Safran Foer constructs a brilliant parallel narrative using Alex's mangled English. I'm not a fan of written dialect, but Safran Foer has gone beyond presenting odd spellings and strange random words: he has constructed a new language (let's call it Russienglish). Alex is a young, self-consciously hip Ukrainian who embodies post-Soviet culture. He is an amusing rogue who provides the book with a unique vibe.

My legal name is Alexander Perchov. But all of my friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name. Mother dubs me Alexi-stop-spleening-me, because I am always spleening her. If you want to know why I am always spleening her, it is because I am always elsewhere with friends and disseminating so much currency, and performing so many things that can spleen a mother.

A mother would have to be "manufacturing Zs" not to know that Alexander is desperate to "get carnal" with a girl, or that he loves anything to do with Manhattan's Greenwich "shtetl." Alex is a bundle of contradictions and inadvertent insights. He thinks of himself as a babe magnet, and that he's "fluid" enough in English to work as a translator in his father's crooked guided-tour business.

Heritage Tours arranges customized trips for American Jews looking for their pre-Holocaust Eastern European roots. Alex sees it as an important service that satisfies the "cravings" of the Jews who want to see where their families once "existed." American Jews like Jonathan Safran Foer.

It speaks volumes that the driver for this slapdash tour is Alex's blind grandfather, a sour anti-Semite whose sightlessness is psychosomatic. His seeing-eye dog is a salacious, smelly mutt whom he calls Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior, after his favorite singer. He promptly changes the dog's name to Dean Martin, Junior, when Jonathan informs him that his idol was a black man who converted to Judaism.

While Alex's voice is lively, his narrative vivid to the point of absurdity, Jonathan is more contemplative, his thoughts dream-like. Jonathan's state of mind is explicitly illustrated in the novel he is writing. The book is an ambitious, fabulist rendition of his family's history, set in their ancestral hometown of Trachimbord. Jonathan's fictional biography covers three centuries, in which he consistently and deftly distinguishes between loving and lusting, living and existing, and death and oblivion.

Throughout, the fictional Jonathan conjures Chagall-like images, forging a Jewish magical realism that is a paean to its South American counterparts. Jonathan sends Alex chapters of the novel for his feedback. Borrowing from Alex's lexicon, the fictional Jonathan's work is "most premium" when paired with Alex's frank and deceptively simple critiques of the novel. "There were parts of it I did not understand," he tells Jonathan. "But I conjecture that this is because they were very Jewish, and only a Jewish person could understand something so Jewish. Is that why you think you are chosen by God, because you can only understand the funnies that you make about yourself?"

Jonathan's self-absorption is the result of trying to illuminate everything about his past and future through memory, history, and fantasy. The present is a viewing platform of the past and the future. Jonathan Safran Foer, the writer, demonstrates his genius by transforming the fictional Jonathan's exploration of Jewish identity as a wholly American enterprise.

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Judy Bolton-Fasman

Judy Bolton-Fasman is writing a memoir about saying Kaddish for her father.