Sunday, June 05, 2005

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

This novel has been on my to-read list for years, but now that a movie version is on the way (directed by one of my favorite actors, Liev Schreiber), I thought I better get to it. Plus I was encouraged by how much I liked Foer's second novel. One of the reasons I had hesitated was the one thing I knew about the novel was it was narrated by a foreigner who spoke funny English--and that seemed to me a lame joke. After all I can't even be funnily malapropistic in another language. But actually Foer makes Alex, who is the narrator for half of the book, fairly well-rounded and while he is overly-handy with a thesaurus, much of the humor comes from the exchanges of dialogue between Alex and the fictional-Foer character. Some of the scenes are the funniest I've read since Owen Meany played the baby Jesus. While it is hard to resist laughing at Alex (which I felt really guilty about), most of the time I was touched by him as well.

Large sections of the novel are the legend-like story of the fictional-Foer's family, from the great-great-great-great's to his grandparents. These offer a relief from the thesaurus-impaired voice of Alex's sections, but like in Foer's second novel, I found I would rather have stayed longer with the characters in the current scene. Actually my favorite sections were the letters Alex writes to the fictional-Foer commenting on the writing the two of them are doing--they contain what could be read as funny commentary on workshopping/editing.

It's clear from both of Foer's novels and the anthology he edited on the artist Joseph Cornell, that he's a fan of collage. I, too, am a fan of the collage structure, but as with alternating first person voices (a form of collage, I suppose), it's important that all the pieces feel equally strong and that they add up to a larger whole. While I'm not sure all the pieces are equally strong, the whole is definitely very large. This book is funny and moving. I worry though that when the movie comes out the elements that move the story beyond being a lame joke about funny accents will prove uncinematic. The dialogue could be translated right to the screen, but the rest seems much more interior and subtle. I look forward to seeing if they can pull it off.

No comments: