Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated is very hard to describe or do justice to but at least easy enough to excerpt.
Alex is a young Ukrainian with an America fetish and a well-thumbed English thesaurus. When a young American Jew (rather too artfully named Jonathan Safran Foer) engages the tour company run by Alex’s family to help him find his ancestral village and the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis, Alex is commandeered as translator for the journey. The other members of the trip are Alex’s grandfather, who drives the car but insists he is blind, and Sammy Davis Junior, Junior, his grandfather’s “Seeing-Eye bitch” (whose parent, of course, was named Sammy Davis Junior).
The story is told in three ways. Some chapters are Alex’s attempts to write about the search in English, other chapters are Jonathan’s magical-realism-steeped descriptions of his ancestry, and still other chapters are Alex’s letters to Jonathan about both of their respective authorial endeavours. Much of the humour comes from Alex’s bad yet strangely appropriate use of English and his insecure brashness. The “magical realism” bits are rather more hit-and-miss, but there were more than a few pages where I stopped skimming in order to savour. Although it’s an inconsistent read with some sections that I found overwrought or just plain boring, there’s enough of it that’s imaginative, intelligent and bloody hilarious to make it worth reading.
This is a good taste of what the Alex bits are like:
A few days before the hero was to arrive, I inquired Father if I could go forth to America when I made to graduate from university. “No,” he said. “But I want to,” I informed him. “I do not care what you want,” he said, and that is usually the end of the conversation, but it was not this time. “Why?” I asked. “Because what you want is not important to me, Shapka.” “No,” I said, “why is it that I cannot go forth to America after I graduate?” “If you want to know why you cannot go forth to America,” he said, unclosing the refrigerator, investigating for food, “it is because Great-Grandfather was from Odessa, and Grandfather was from Odessa, and Father, me, was from Odessa, and your boys will be from Odessa. Also, you are going to toil at Heritage Touring when you are graduated. It is a necessary employment, premium enough for Grandfather, premium enough for me, and premium enough for you.” “But what if that is not what I desire?” I said. “What if I do not want to toil at Heritage Touring, but instead toil someplace where I can do something unordinary, and make very much currency instead of just a petite amount? What if I do not want my boys to grow up here, but instead to grow up someplace superior, with superior things, and more things? What if I have girls?” Father removed three pieces of ice from the refrigerator, closed the refrigerator, and punched me. “Put these on your face,” he said, giving the ice to me, “so you do not look terrible and manufacture a disaster in Lvov.” This was the end of the conversation. I should have been smarter.
And I still haven’t mentioned that Grandfather demanded to bring Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior along. That was another thing. “You are being a fool,” Father informed him. “I need her to help me see the road,” Grandfather said, pointing his finger at his eyes. “I am blind.” “You are not blind, and you are not bringing the bitch.” “I am blind, and the bitch is coming with us.” “No,” Father said. “It is not professional for the bitch to go along.” I would have uttered something on the half of Grandfather, but I did not want to be stupid again. “It is either I go with the bitch or I do not go.” Father was in a position. Not like the Latvian Home Stretch, but like amid a rock and a rigid place, which is, in truth, somewhat similar to the Latvian Home Stretch. There was fire amid them. I had seen this before, and nothing in the world frightened me more. Finally my father yielded, although it was agreed that Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior must don a special shirt that Father would have fabricated, which would say: OFFICIOUS SEEING-EYE BITCH OF HERITAGE TOURING. This was so she would appear professional.
I just liked this:
The woman has too much skin for her bones and too many wrinkles for her years, as if her face were some animal of its own, slowly descending the skull each day, until one day it would cling to her jaw, and one day fall off completely, landing in the woman’s hands for her to look at and say, This is the face I’ve worn my whole life.
A “magical realism” bit, from a book recording the history of Jonathan’s ancestral village:
THE 120 MARRIAGES OF JOSEPH AND SARAH L
The young couple first married on August 5, 1744, when Joseph was eight, and Sarah six, and first ended their marriage six days later, when Joseph refused to believe, to Sarah’s frustration, that the stars were silver nails in the sky, pinning up the black nightscape. They remarried four days later, when Joseph left a note under the door of Sarah’s parents’ house: I have considered everything you told me, and I do believe that the stars are silver nails. They ended their marriage again a year later, when Joseph was nine and Sarah seven, over a quarrel about the nature of the bottom of the Brod. A week later, they were remarried, including this time in their vows that they should love each other until death, regardless of the existence of a bottom of the Brod, the temperature of this bottom (should it exist), and the possible existence of starfish on the possibly existing riverbed. They ended their marriage thirty-seven times in the next seven years, and each time remarried with a longer list of vows. They divorced twice when Joseph was twenty-two and Sarah twenty, four times when they were twenty-five and twenty-three, respectively, and eight times, the most for one year, when they were thirty and twenty-eight. They were sixty and fifty-eight at their last marriage, only three weeks before Sarah died of heart failure and Joseph drowned himself in the bath. Their marriage contract still hangs over the door of the house they on-and-off shared – nailed to the top post and brushing against the SHALOM welcome mat:
It is with everlasting devotion that we, Joseph and Sarah L, reunite in the indestructible union of matrimony, promising love until death, with the understanding that the stars are silver nails in the sky, regardless of the existence of a bottom of the Brod, the temperature of this bottom (should it exist), and the possible existence of starfish on the possibly existing riverbed, overlooking what may or may not have been accidental grape juice spills, agreeing to forget that Joseph played sticks and balls with his friends when he promised he would help Sarah thread the needle for the quilt she was sewing, and that Sarah was supposed to give the quilt to Joseph, not his buddy, deeming irrelevant certain details about the story of Trachim’s wagon, such as whether it was Chana or Hannah who first saw the curious flotsam, ignoring the simple fact that Joseph snores like a pig, and that Sarah is no great treat to sleep with either, letting slide certain tendencies of both parties to look too long at members of the opposite sex, not making a fuss over why Joseph is such a slob, leaving his clothes wherever he feels like taking them off, expecting Sarah to pick them up, clean them, and put them in their proper place as he should have, or why Sarah has to be such a fucking pain in the ass about the smallest things, such as which way the toilet paper unrolls, or when dinner is five minutes later than she was planning, because, let’s face it, it’s Joseph who’s putting that paper on the roll and dinner on the table, disregarding whether the beet is a better vegetable than the cabbage, putting aside the problems of being fat-headed and chronically unreasonable, trying to erase the memory of a long since expired rose bush that a certain someone was supposed to remember to water when his wife was visiting family in Rovno, accepting the compromise of the way we have been, the way we are, and the way we will likely be…may we live together in unwavering love and good health, amen.