Jonathan Safran Foer - Everything Is Illuminated: Includes an Exclusive Interview With the Author

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Nothing is Illuminated

Oct 28, 2004 (Updated Nov 7, 2004)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Decent writing.

Cons:Contrived, slick, unfunny and unsatisfying

The Bottom Line: Could have been so much less and succeeded so much more.


Everything is Illuminated tries really, really hard to do the "right" (read: marketable) things. It's got an edgy little structure to it that's supposed to keep the reader a little unsettled and therefore interested. Its laudable subject matter is the annihilation of a Ukrainian Jewish shtetl - a shtetl, if you please, not a village - by the Nazis, and the roots-searching of a young Ukrainian-American Jew. Then there's the humorous "narration" of a Ukrainian tour guide, meant to lighten the storyline of this minor sub-branch of holocaust tragedy. The only problem is that this hodge-podge of several narrative approaches and each of the three interwoven story lines are pretty lightweight to begin with, and crammed all together they add up to about two half plots. No literary gimcracks can camouflage this shortcoming.

Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated presents the reader with three approaches to an apparently fictional story. First there is the voice of Alex, a young Ukrainian guide who meets his first American and his first Jew, "Jonathan" when the latter comes to the Ukraine searching for the daughter of a family which saved his grandfather's life in a pogrom many years ago. Alex is brash and his English isn't as good as he thinks it is. The reader is meant to find his many language gaffs and his continual references to his grandfather's psychotic dog as "the bitch" amusing. I didn't, and his attitude didn't endear him to me early on. Then we have the entirely fictional, sometimes fantastical account of life in Trachimbrod, the village, ehrm, I mean, shtetl, where Jonathan's grandfather lived. Ostensibly, we are meant to understand that Jonathan traveled to the Ukraine both to find inspiration for a work of fiction and to seek out the woman who made his life possible by saving his grandfather's. Finally we also have Alex's letters written to Jonathan after the latter's return to America. These letters gradually reveal much of Alex's nature and his family life. We're meant to find some sort of redemption in Alex's story, but I don't want to say more lest I give away the "plot."

I can't help but suspect that Foer took a few half-baked ideas to a writers' workshop, where he was inexplicably encouraged to meld several disparate threads into a single work. There's nothing wrong with half-baked ideas, and there's certainly nothing wrong with writers' workshops. It just sounds as though he decided that throwing three distinct artsy approaches into a single book was superior to developing a conventional single narrative novel. I only wish that someone had encouraged Foer to exercise the discipline of writing one story, however painful the editorial cuts might have been.

What I find a little sad in all of this is that Jonathan Safran Foer is certainly capable of writing a good book, or at least decent paragraphs. My sense is that he felt relying on his own skills wouldn't be enough to "sell him." Have you ever read a book that felt like the author was constantly striking poses, or trying to conform to the flavor-of-the-moment trend in the publishing world? That's exactly how this book struck me.

Moving on to technical nitpicks, Alex's letters weren't linguistically convincing to me. His pseudo-humorous errors are not the sorts of mistakes that a speaker of Russian or Ukrainian would make, as I know from several years' correspondence with Russians and Ukrainians. Some could argue that it is Alex who is the real protagonist of the novel. As the novel progresses, it is his story which seems more interesting than the quasi-fictional Jonathan's confabulations of shtetl life. Yet if Alex is the real hero, the novel as a whole seems all that much less satisfying.

I didn't find much to recommend in Everything is Illuminated, much less any illumination. But then Jonathan Safran Foer is quite a young writer; his skills and self-confidence may improve in time. I certainly wouldn't recommend this book to a friend, yet at the same time there are far worse books out there. And it is of course possible that other readers, perhaps those with a particular interest in Ukrainian or Jewish culture, would enjoy the book far more than I did.


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