Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

A note to anyone who is about to read Everything Is Illuminated: don’t start the book at night, and under no circumstances should you read it in the same room as a friend or significant other. I promise you that once you open this book, sleep is no longer an option and getting through the first chapter is going to take a long time if you constantly stop and read some hilarious perfect prose to the poor souls within earshot. Take the opening of the book, Jonathan Safran Foer’s demented version of ”Call me Ishmael”

”My legal name is Alexander Perchov. But all of my many friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name. Mother dubs me Alexi-stop-spleening-me! because I am always spleening her. If you want to know why I am always spleening her, it is because I am always elsewhere with friends, and disseminating so much currency, and performing so many things that can spleen a mother. . . . I have many many girls, believe me, and they all have a different name for me. One dubs me Baby, not because I am a baby, but because she attends to me. Another dubs me All Night. Do you want to know why? . . . I have a miniature brother who dubs me Alli. I do not dig this name very much, but I dig him very much, so O.K., I permit him to dub me Alli. As for his name, it is Little Igor, but Father dubs him Clumsy One, because he is always promenading into things. It was only four days previous that he made his eye blue from a mismanagement with a brick wall.”

Alex is the main narrator, a young Ukrainian man fascinated by everything American, from Michael Jackson and ”the greatest of all documentary movies, ‘The Making of ”Thriller,” to the career of the porn star John Holmes to the ”many good schools for accounting.” He speaks broken English, mostly learned from a thesaurus and doesn’t understand the differences between words. Or, as Alex puts it: “I fatigued the thesaurus you presented me, as you counseled me to, when my words appeared petite, or not befitting.” To sleep is to ”manufacture Z’s,” to have sex is ”be carnal,” good is ”premium,” nearby is ”proximal,” difficult is ”rigid.” Hearing his little brother crying in his sleep, Alex tries to “counterfeit that I am reposing”.

However , Alex is ”fluid” enough to work as a translator for Heritage Touring, a travel company where his father arranges trips for mostly American Jews who want to explore the villages that their ancestors came from. Alex’s assignment is to accompany a tourist referred to, alternately, as ”the hero” and the ”spoiled Jew,” and whose real name is Jonathan Safran Foer. ”The hero” has come to Ukraine to look for a woman named Augustine, who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Alex and ”Jon-fen” set out across the ”totally awesome former Soviet republic,” together with Alex’s grandfather (who, despite a case of psychosomatic blindness, has been enlisted as their driver) and along with their “seeing eye bitch” Sammy Davis Jr. Jr., (named after the grandfather’s favorite singer until “the hero” tells him that Sammy Davis Jr. was a convert to Judaism, after which he calls the dog Dean Martin Jr.)

This is the main story in the book and is told in retrospect by Alex, who is writing chapters and sending them to Jonathan who is sending back corrections and notes. Mostly his notes center around Alex’s tenuous grasp of the English language (Alex writes ”I did not utilize the word ‘spleen’ with such habituality, because I could perceive that it made you on nerves by the sentence in your letter when you said, ‘Stop using the word ”spleen.” It’s getting on my nerves.’ ”). More important, the things Jonathan wants altered has to do with his own vanity and shaky self regard. ”As you commanded, I removed the sentence, ‘He was severely short,’ and inserted in its place, ‘Like me, he was not tall.’ ” Jonathan is also sending Alex portions of his story, not about the journey the pair took together, but about his imagined family history, sort of Jewish magic realist epic fable that covers several centuries in the life of a town called Trachimbrod. While these portions of the book are not as compelling as Alex’s narration, they are still intricate, sublime stories, made even better by Alex’s occasional questions.

Once I finished this book, I immediately flipped back to the first page of the book and read it again.  Everything is Illuminated is, in the words of Alex “definitely premium.”

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