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Struggles in broken English

Matt Zalaznick

Even the great American novels, in their final passages, shy away from claiming to have cleared up everything.

And it’s irony that saves the title of Jonathan Safran Foer’s ambitious but often frustrating first novel, “Everything Is Illuminated” – which received rave reviews upon publication last year – from being outrageously audacious.

The best novels also manage to “illuminate,” but often what they reveal with their equivocating spotlights is how cloudy, confusing and unpredictable is modern life and how foolish, misguided and arrogant are those who stumble through it. There’s much of that in “Everything Is Illuminated,” but its most tragic and potentially poignant moments also are undermined by a tendency toward clunky melodrama and fairytale-style hyperbole.

There are several tales told in “Everything Is Illuminated.” The story which leaps back and forth – sometimes quite jarringly – from Jewish Ukrainian village life in the late 1700s to the ennui and angst of the more Catholic and Westernized modern day Odessa. And there are stops at several dizzying points in between.

The two main characters are a young man – a writer also named Jonathan Safran Foer – who travels to Ukraine to track down the woman he believes saved his grandfather from the Nazis; and Alex, the precocious, mercurial Ukrainian club-goer who serves as his translator and guide. While narrating parts of the book in a stylized and, at times, annoying broken English, Alex is trying to save himself and the younger brother he adores from the final disintegration of his dysfunctional family.

His pidgin prattling aside, Alex is clearly the more captivating character. He is more deeply drawn by Foer than his other characters, many of whom come off pretty flat and fabricated in Alex’s shadow.

Foer’s namesake, for instance, is a pretty drab and humorless personality that winds up serving as nothing more than a scratching post for the other characters to react to and stalk around, rubbing up against him for a little comic relief or to wilt in the silly glimmer of his Western, liberal, New York sophistication.

Other major characters include Foer’s great-great-great-great-great grandmother, Brod, who is the offspring of an immaculate conception involving a horse cart careening into a rural Ukrainian River in 1791. Brod is the novel’s homecoming queen, an initially intriguing, iconoclastic and rebellious materfamilias who, unfortunately, grows up to be Mary Poppins. The thunderstruck villagers for her ravishing beauty and mystic superiority revere Brod almost mindlessly.

But such slavish, voracious adulation – and the worshipping of Brod is not the only occurrence of it – is odd in a book that depends partially on its readers despising the Third Reich and the German people’s catastrophic obedience to Adolf Hitler and his Final Solution.

Then there is Jonathan’s grandfather, the search for whose savior is the core of the story. But it’s hard to see what Jonathan’s grandfather is meant to signify. He is peculiar as a teenage gigolo who has turbulent, gut-wrenching sex with almost every one of the middle-aged women in his village. He also fools around with his bride’s sister on his wedding day.

The grandfather seems kin to one of those soulless characters of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth who are pathologically unable to either respect women or have meaningful sex, though it’s always on their minds. So why should the reader care who saved him?

There also is Alex’s grandfather, the “blind” man who drives Jonathan on his journey through the Ukraine. Alex’s grandfather is a tormented soul, who still feels guilty about exposing a Jewish friend to the Nazis in World War II and raising a troubled family afterwards.

But despite their trials and traumas, Foer’s characters rarely seem organic. They are too obviously the puppets of his cluttered schemes. Certainly, Franz Kafka’s characters also were pawns in their author’s abstract allegories – in real life, no one wakes up as a cockroach.

Kafka’s characters are visceral souls thrown into maddening and relevant dilemmas. Foer’s folks, on the other hand, are no livelier than the abstract letters and squiggles on the opposing sides of an arduous mathematical formula that, once worked out over the novel’s 276 pages, produces just another batch of muddied abstractions.

“Everything Is Illuminated” hovers around potentially heavy questions of manhood, legacy, identity, guilt and the malleability of language, but what ultimately drags on the story is Alex and Jonathan’s relationship, which is, at best, an adventure in mutual condescension, with moments of adolescent dopiness and, unfortunately, little illumination on the coming together of the struggles and ambitions of two young men molded, battered and befuddled by disparate ancestry and distinct parts of globe.

Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at

mzalaznick@vaildaily.com


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