Not since Anthony Burgess's novel A Clockwork Orange has the English language been simultaneously mauled and energized with such brilliance and such brio…Alex speaks English like someone who has taught himself by painstakingly translating a really abysmal novel with the help of a badly outdated dictionary … The humor ranges from jokes that are, alas, too dirty to be quoted here to the loftiest literary allusions; Foer has so much energy that he doesn't care if we get all the jokes … A partial list of the book's concerns includes: the importance of myths and names, the frailty of memory, the necessity of remembrance, the nature of love, the dangers of secrecy, the legacy of the Holocaust, the value of friendship, what it means to be loyal and good and to practice what Jonathan has taught Alex to call ‘common decencies’ … Everything Is Illuminated is endearing, accomplished – and (to quote Alex one last time) definitely premium.
Mr. Foer incorporates himself and his family into this dazzling literary high-wire act. He places them at the center of recent history. And he writes so audaciously that no editor seems to have dared to lay a glove on him … Early in Everything Is Illuminated, Mr. Foer describes the act of remembering as a kind of prayer. That is what it becomes here, for all the book's wild flights of fancy and its irresistible humor. By the time it reaches a devastating finale, it has summoned a deep gravitas that has as much to do with Trachimbrod's obliviousness as with its fate … Everything Is Illuminated is a complex, ambitious undertaking...but the payoff is extraordinary: a fearless, acrobatic, ultimately haunting effort to combine inspired mischief with a grasp of the unthinkable.
Imagine a novel as verbally cunning as Clockwork Orange, as harrowing as Painted Bird, as exuberant and twee as Candide, and you have Everything is Illuminated … What follows is a marvelous, multilayered chronicle of three seemingly unrelated stories – a narrative of the fizzy, irrepressible life of a tiny Jewish village with all its rituals, prejudices and mythologies; the Ukrainian guide's epistolary account of his travels with Foer and a candid exposé of his own wretched family; and the intense American student's quest for the truth about his grandfather's past … By the end, we meet not one but a multitude of truths, since it is impossible to unearth places where a family once existed without unearthing a great deal more.
There are two stories wound together in this first novel, and as is often the case, one is more engaging than the other … The Alex sections of the book feel utterly alive and teeter invigoratingly between hilarity and a terrible, creeping dread. By contrast, the Trachimbrod sections only remind the reader of other works — rehashed Chagall and dime-store Garcia Marquez … Ordinarily, this caveat would make Everything is Illuminated unrecommendable, but the Alex portions of the novel are so good that in the final calculation they far outbalance the book’s weaknesses (Plus you can skim the Trachimbrod sections without missing that much) … As the novel shades inexorably into the tragic mode, and as Alex comes to be a much better writer than Jonathan, with both a finer sense of truth and a more urgent understanding of the need for happy endings, his stumbling English incandesces into eloquence.
Like so many young writers, Foer is steeped in the wink-wink orthodoxies of postmodernism; but unlike so many of them he has put his narrative prestidigitation in the service of some very serious themes … As the book proceeds, the two narratives gravitate toward each other, the first moving forward in time, the second moving backward, as Alex's grandfather starts to reveal his own memories of the war. At the quite devastating climax of the book, you realize how the two tales are related, a connection that forever sunders Alex from Jonathan … Foer's interest in doubles, in halves that must become wholes, in intertwining the fictional and the ‘real,’ is more than just a gimmick. It's a remarkably effective way of dwelling on an issue of considerable urgency in Holocaust literature: the seemingly hopeless split between history and narrative, between what happened and what can be told.
The issue of what is true and what is fiction is personified by an old woman Alex, his grandfather and Jonathan find in a house packed with labeled storage boxes. Could she be Augustine? At first, we think she is, but as she tells the story of the Nazi invasion of the village in 1942, her identity becomes more elusive. Here and elsewhere, Foer intentionally muddies the water … Everything Is Illuminated is often brilliant, occasionally a bit arty for its own good and sometimes a challenge. But there are extraordinary payoffs at the end of the book that make it all more than worthwhile. The eventual fate of the people of Trachimbrod, and the surprising revelation of Alex's family history and its complicity in the Nazi persecution of the Jews, are nothing less than shattering.
This sensitive quest is redirected as farce when Jonathan's guides in Odessa prove to be an ancient chauffeur, somewhat worryingly accompanied by a guide-dog, and the driver's grandson, Alex, a would-be translator whose ear for American is as reliable as his grandfather's eye for the road. A Jewish vegetarian, the American struggles in a country filled (as Safran Foer presents it) with meat-eating anti-semites … Safran Foer is transmitting linguistically a message that lesser writers might have conveyed editorially: the unreliability of reconstructing foreign events … As Alex might put it, any far-reaching reader will fornicate with this tract.
Jonathan Safran Foer's fictionalized account of his particular roots quest, in the boondocks of the Ukraine, for the shtetl from which his grandfather barely escaped the Nazi killing machine in 1941, uses both the folkish idiom of Scholem Aleichem and the surreal layering of Bruno Schulz to convey the comedy of return … The Alex bits rely heavily on the humor of Alex's mangled, thesaurus-enriched English...I can't help but laugh at passages like this … The coincidence that joins Jonathan's family to Alex's is disappointingly melodramatic. The emergence of a plain-speaking Alex at the end of the novel is a disappointment. But, really, this is a wonderful debut.
What would it sound like if a foreigner wrote a novel in broken English? Foer answers this question to marvelous effect in his inspired though uneven first novel … There's a whiff of kitsch in Foer's jolly cast of pompous rabbis, cuckolded usurers and sharp-tongued widows, and the tone wavers between cozy ethnic humor, heady pontification and sentimental magic-realist whimsy. Nonetheless, Foer deftly handles the intricate story-within-a-story plot, and the layers of suspense build as the shtetl hurtles toward the devastation of the 20th century while Alex and Jonathan and Grandfather close in on the object of their search. An impressive, original debut.
Comedy and pathos are braided together with extraordinary skill in a haunting debut, a tale that depicts, with riveting intensity and originality, a young Jewish American writer’s search for his family’s European roots … Foer keeps the reader both hooked and pleasingly disoriented, as the narrative careens between Jonathan’s sedulous exploration of ‘the dream that we are our fathers’ and Alex’s ingenuous accounts of their travels … The aged Augustine is (or perhaps is not) found, horrific tales of Nazi atrocities and of a bitter legacy of apostasy, betrayal, and guilt gradually unfold—and ‘illumination’—is ironically achieved, as these several stories fuse together.