Saturday, August 9, 2008

Everything is Illuminated: Review

I was probably the last of my college class to read "Everything is Illuminated," Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel. I was, to say the least, behind my game. I have yet to see the movie with Elijah Wood, but I usually avoid watching the movie before reading the book anyway.

Let me get to the point. This book completely blew me away. "Everything is Illuminated" is, in one word, devastating. In the good way. In the it's-so-painful-but-so-well-written-I-can't-put-it-down-for-the-life-of-me good way. It was at once scattered and painfully organized. It was personal and overwhelmingly human. I cannot praise Jonathan Safran Foer enough. I honestly cannot comprehend any human being who isn't equally affected by it.

Some quotes, to prove my point:
A segment from the perspective of Yankel D., who has been awarded the baby girl Brod by lottery:
"This is a kiss. It is what happens when lips are puckered and pressed against something, sometimes other lips, sometimes a cheek, sometimes something else. It depends... This is my heart. You are touching it with your left hand, not because you are left-handed, although you might be, but because I am holding it against my heart. What you are feeling is the beating of my heart. It is what keeps me alive."
-p. 43
Sometimes the writing is hilarious, especially from the perspective of Sasha, Jonathan's (the book Jonathan, not the author, although the difference between the two is debatable) Ukrainian interpreter, and his horrible ostentatious English, and the way Sasha always refers to Jonathan as "the Jew," because I kid you not, Ukrainians refer to Jews like this to this day, like some sort of diseased animal. But what else is new?
"'Would you like to do the Electric Slide with me at a famous discotheque tonight?" I asked the waitress. "Will you bring the American?" she asked. Oh, did this piss all over me! "He is a Jew," I said, and I know that I should not have uttered that, but I was beginning to feel very awful about myself. The problem is that I felt more awful after uttering it. "Oh," she said. "I have never seen a jew before. Can I see his horns?"'
-p. 106-7
Sometimes I was amazed at the poetic way the sentences were structured, or even the images conjured by a single sentence, like this one:
"The minutes were unstrung. They feel to the floor and rolled through the house, losing themselves."
-p. 139
If I had infinite time and resources, I would want to draw this. It's an appealing image, both beautiful and sad, which is what most good art is. Beautiful. And sad.
But this is my favorite:
"Jews Have Six Senses
Touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing... memory. While Gentiles experience and process the world through the traditional senses, and use memory only as a second-order means of interpreting events, for Jews memory is no less primary than the prick of a pin, or its silver glimmer, or the taste of the blood it pulls from the finger. The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins. it is only by tracing the pinprick back to other pinpricks-- when his mother tried to fix his sleeve while his arm was still in it, when his grandfather's fingers fell asleep from stroking his great-grandfather's damp forehead, when Abraham tested the knife point to be sure Isaac would feel no pain-- that the Jew is able to know why it hurts.
When a Jew encounters a pin, he asks: What does it remember like?"
-p. 199

I understand that there is no real biological or psychological difference between ethnicities or nationalities, but something about this rings true. Why is it Jews are so focused on memory? And it's true, what he writes, about the sixth sense of memory; I just haven't realized it before. Maybe this is why many of my non-Jewish friends weren't affected by the book, while I was close to tears in many a chapter. Maybe there's something to it. Maybe "Everything Is Illuminated" could be considered a Jewish book.
Next up, the movie version, with the lead singer from Gogol Bordello playing Sasha. Exciting!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm not ashamed to admit that I still really love this book. The movie was meh, but the title song, "How It Ends," by Devotchka is a tearjerker!