Today I finally had a chance to finish my book, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated. It was a great read, and well deserving of its orange Popular Penguins cover — it’s obviously been a huge hit and although the reviews I’ve read since finishing it suggest that the book is overly sentimental and somewhat pretentious, I have to say I still think it works as an entertaining and unusual piece of writing.
It was everything it promised to be — “funny, moving and gripping, and we guarantee you won’t have read anything quite like it before”. I do think however that as it sinks in, it will join those books which in my mind are a little too facile and whilst being compelling and enjoyable reads, are adored by the general public for all the wrong reasons. Two other books which fall into the same category are Life of Pi, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Hilariously when I checked I had got the titles right on Amazon, I saw they are marketed together, so obviously I’m correct and they do appeal to the same audience.
These three books have in common a narrator whose voice is “different but special”: Pi, the Indian boy cast adrift with his tiger companion; Christopher, the autistic child; and Alex, the Ukrainian whose English is “very premium”. I have always felt that books like this appeal to the middle classes because they make them feel sensitive and smart and smug. Oh look at me! I can totally empathise and assimilate the world view of characters who would otherwise be social outcasts! their quirky ideas are so adorable and so inaccessible to the great unwashed! I really am a smart cookie. No matter that I would probably never have any meaningful interaction with Indian, autistic or Ukrainian people — I feel that if I were to, I would most certainly understand them better than most. I read the book, you see.
Now don’t get me wrong — I enjoyed all three books and many others in a similar vein. I just don’t think they are such amazing and challenging works as the readers (who probably secretly enjoy Dan Brown) like to think they are.
I think what let me down about Everything is Illuminated is the attempt at ending it on a moral, philanthropic note. It works best as a humorous tale of a young Jewish man travelling back to his family roots, as told through the unconventional voice of his translator. I originally thought it was an attempt at gently and affectionately mocking his younger self through the pretence of gently and affectionately mocking the youth of these former Soviet countries of Eastern Europe. A slightly dramatised story of travel and self-discovery, where everyone comes out of it wiser and with a better understanding of the Other. Us modern kids, we’ve come out of the bad days of anti-semitism and communist dictatorships to bond and realise we’re all the same deep down inside. Somewhat cheesy perhaps but well written and extremely endearing.
When the magic realism started seeping in, it took a little while to adjust but as a general aficionado of the genre I took it on-board without really questioning the author’s purpose. But by the end of the novel, that quirkiness had been massively overtaken by the sense of dread and misery and horror of what I grew up hearing described as “la barbarie nazie”. You kind of get what Foer is trying to do, but it doesn’t really work. It’s too monumental a subject to be a sub-plot combined with a magical-realistic family history and a modern adventure through post-Soviet Ukraine.
Once again, I’ve gone through the book thinking it was the best thing I’ve read in years, only to realise the gilt kind of flakes off the moment it’s subjected to a little critical thinking. I enjoyed it, but my enjoyment has now been tempered by the realisation it wasn’t actually that good of a book. This is why I avoid reading reviews and criticisms, and even introductions and forewords, before I have finished a book — I like to read it once without prejudice, and enjoy the moment. Then I can re-read it all over again, with new eyes, and either gain new appreciation or become aware of its weaknesses.