Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated (2002, Penguin Australia 2008)
I read five pages of this when it was freshly published, and decided it was not for me. It’s rare for me to dismiss a book like that, so I dipped ahead reading a page here, a page there, and found absolutely nothing to change my mind. Then at the December meeting of my Book Group, a number of people were keen to put it on our agenda, and they won the day. So, eventually, I bought a cheap copy (all the libraries’ copies were out) and set to work. By the time the group met last night, I’d finished it, though I did skim the last 20 pages so I’d have time to cook the dinner. There are some very strong bits, as it turns out to be a story of a small Ukrainian village whose entire Jewish population was murdered by German soldiers, counterpointed by a ludic tale of the Jonathan Safran Foer’s forebears’ lives in that village. I can see why the book received such acclaim, but pretty much the first half is taken up with ha-ha-I’m-being-funny humour and an awful lot of the shtetl story that felt contrived, inconsistent and disrespectful, like Isaaac Bashevis Singer off the rails; the thesaurus-driven voice of the Ukrainian Alex, who narrates the modern-day quest for the village, eventually toned down as it got to the point, but by that time I had endured too much that was weary, stale, flat and unprofitable. My moment-by-moment irritation robbed the narrative of almost all momentum. In the hope that mine was a minority response, I came to the group resolved to listen and learn.
The book found no stout defenders among us. Roughly half hadn’t managed more than 20 pages or so. The man who’d liked it most – we think he was the one who proposed it – had seen and enjoyed the film, and admitted that when he read the book he skimmed the bits that weren’t in the film, which meant all the shtetl stories, all the clever literary bits (some would say these were darlings that should have been murdered), and the worst excesses of the mangled-English narration.
The reason we’d chosen this book is that we wanted to see how it went if we watched a movie of the book under discussion. So after dinner we watched Liev Schreiber’s Everything Is Illuminated. All O knew of the movie beforehand was from glimpses seen in Operation Filmmaker, the achingly funny documentary about an Iraqi intern on the shoot, in which Liev Shreiber and others came across as humane, generous and admirable people who clearly believed in their project. I don’t know that I liked the film all that much: the Elijah Wood character (‘Jonathan Safran Foer’) was too weird, and there were some awful saggy bits. It was fascinating to watch it so soon after reading the book. The ancestral story – roughly half the book – was sheared off. The second of the two revelations at the end was replaced with something much less interesting, less morally complex. A climactic action that almost made sense in the book made no sense at all in the film. And the upbeat ending was despair-inducing. Paradoxically, the film made me appreciate the book much more.
A pleasant evening was had by all, even the two dogs, who managed to bully someone into throwing a ball for them more than once. Next month, not Franny and Zooey or Arctic Dreams or The History of Knowledge or Wildlife, but Peter Temple’s Truth. We wanted a page-turner.