Any old writer can turn a good story into a bad book, but can a great writer turn a bad story into a good book? At face value Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, contains all the ingredients you would expect from a terrible book: a weird premise; a disdain for punctuation, grammar and sensible structure; a rambling, self-indulgent style; and a character that the author named after himself. Yet these elements are all crafted together in such a way as to produce a coherent – and even likeable – novel.
Coming up with a brief summary is next to impossible. The book consists of three main parts:
- an account of Safran Foer’s (fictional) search for his heritage in Russia – narrated in hilariously broken English by his guide and translator, Alex Perchov,
- a one-sided correspondence between Alex and Jonathan,
- and a fantastical account of his ancestors’ lives in the Jewish village of Trachimbrod that both of them are writing together.
Between them they describe the convoluted history of the characters spanning several generations.
I saw the movie version prior to reading the book and while I’ll say without hesitation that the book is the greater of the two, the writers must be commended for turning the plot into something that not only makes sense on the screen, but was also enjoyable (which is to say that I liked the movie as well). It could so easily have gone very, very wrong.
My greatest praise for this book is reserved for the manner in which Safran Foer was largely able to maintain the “voice” of Alex throughout the novel. I fancy myself an occasional wordsmith and reckon that it must have taken a great amount of discipline and no small effort to write dialogue that sounds as if the character swallowed a thesaurus and that the only cure was to regurgitate as many of the words verbally as possible. The fantasy parts were also very beautifully poetic in parts, although it frequently veered into blah blah blah ok get on with it territory.
I appreciated this novel more for the skill and innovation of the writing than the plot itself (though that could have a lot to do with my aversion to history). Buried towards the end is a tiny nugget of moral dilemma that asks “what would you do?” if confronted with a choice between betraying your friend, or death, which was anticlimactic in both its exposition and resolution but which formed the emotional core of the movie. So to the question I asked at the beginning of this post: the jury’s still out, but if you’re stuck with a crap idea for a book, maybe try turning it into a movie. (That might also go some way to explaining Hollywood :-P)